Buy Unlock All Levels?
October 29, 2008
Could game developers sell the option to unlock everything in a game for a small fee? The ever widening gulf between the centre and fringes of the market (between hardcore and casual players) makes balancing games harder than ever, so why not allow players to pay to overcome their skill gap?
What objections might be raised?
Is it fair to charge mass market players extra? We already do - they are the principle purchasers of strategy guides. (Game literate players prefer Gamefaqs). Would the challenge of ultimate completion be undercut? Well if you want this challenge why would you pay to bypass it?
I think this is worth considering, especially for downloadable games that already utilise micro-transactions.
I think it's a great idea.
For me the challenge in games (take GTA for example) is often exploring and finding new things (okay new things to blow up, but I don't think that invalidates my point).
Very often the puzzles involved in those challenges is not interesting to me and as the puzzle difficulty increases I lose interest because some part of me know that secret area probably isn't all that great anyway.
I would also have paid serious money to avoid the mad button smashing sections of RE4 for example.
Smart games companies might see this as an opportunity. I can easily imagine:
"Hit A and B now OR authorize this $0.05 transaction!"
I can't wait.
Posted by: Matt Mower | October 29, 2008 at 09:48 AM
Would designers make games even more difficult so they could make more money, then?
Plus, too much in life is already won or lost depending on money. If, in a way, we play to escape ordinary real-life rules, it would be a little bit sad if players started to spend money to subvert their play like this.
But then again, all this MMOGS-ebay thing proves me wrong anyway... This could be a commercial success.
Posted by: chico | October 29, 2008 at 12:03 PM
dj i/o here
I think it sounds like a complete waste of money. Not only that, but a disservice to the customer. Oh, you're not good enough to play our game? Here, we'll screw you so you can see the rest of the game.
I think it should be available by default in all games, although perhaps via some kind of secret unlock code which can be released several weeks after the game comes out. (Hey, at least make them try ...)
It just seems like another thing people would pirate.
Posted by: dj i/o | October 29, 2008 at 02:57 PM
EA has already done this, IIRC The Godfather for 360 was the most obvious iteration of this trial where real money could be converted into ingame funds - something you'd normally expect to see done via a "cheat code".
Posted by: Edward Pollard | October 29, 2008 at 07:31 PM
Interesting perspectives here.
Matt: knowing what I know about your play, I can see that this would appeal to you! I think when you're used to giving up on games after a while, even on games you are enjoying, any alternative option can seem appealing!
Chico: "Would designers make games even more difficult so they could make more money, then?"
Interesting challenge, but please don't forget that the "cashflow from incompetence" I'm talking about here is already a major part of games industry revenue - the strategy guide racket is precisely this, but it doesn't help most players because if you lack the reaction skills no strategy guide is going to bail you out.
Game designers have never made a game more difficult in order to sell more strategy guides. They *have* made games more difficult in order to enforce their notions of fun (i.e. Hard Fun, fiero) upon players - I'm talking to you Retro Studios, and everyone who thinks like you. Offering players a way to escape the madness of King Fiero seems reasonable to me.
dj i/o: "Oh, you're not good enough to play our game? Here, we'll screw you so you can see the rest of the game."
How is this any worse than the current situation, which is "Oh you're not good enough to play our game? Well you're just screwed then. You can spend your money on a strategy guide and still lack the skills to continue, or you can **** off!"
Seriously, the situation is already far worse than you imagine for players at the casual end of the spectrum.
"I think it should be available by default in all games, although perhaps via some kind of secret unlock code which can be released several weeks after the game comes out. (Hey, at least make them try ...)"
Secret unlock code... uh huh. So you think that this should be available in every game but only for the game literate players? >:) The whole point of this proposal is to help those players who are *not* game literate, but in a way that won't undercut the challenge-seeking desires of certain hardcore players (who largely will not pay as it will "offend their honour" to do so).
Secret codes are only found by hardcore players. What I'm suggesting here must be part of the game itself, or it serves no purpose.
And I don't think we can give every player the freedom to pass any challenge "for free" simply because the fiero-motivated players would risk losing what makes the play of the game fun for them - striving to overcome. My proposal attempts to balance two very different aspects of the play spectrum against each other... I think it's more reasonable that you give credit.
Edward: thanks for this - I had no idea! I'm not against this ability to raise in game funds using real money (we already have this in effect in virtual worlds for MMOs after all), but it's less than what I'm saying here.
What I'm suggesting is: when the player gets stuck, they *could* face a choice: rise to the challenge, or pay to skip it. I think this is an equitable transaction, as long as we're talking a few pence/cents for each unlock.
Thanks for your comments everyone! Any other perspectives on this issue?
Posted by: Chris | October 30, 2008 at 09:01 AM
I think the answer to "will companies make games harder to screw more money out of you" is yes & no.
Yes some companies will. At this point difficulty will become part of the market equation and price competition for "avoiding difficulty" will come into play.
If everyone knows that company A's games are arbitrarily hard and the "cheats" more expensive than company B this will begin to have an impact on their sales.
Competition, in difficulty as in other things, should begin to level things out.
I for one stand by my position. I would have paid another £5-£10 for a version of Resident Evil 4 that had no "press A and B" now sections to it.
Posted by: Matt Mower | October 30, 2008 at 10:29 AM
No, I wouldn't pay to unlock all levels, but for a slightly different reason than has been mentioned so far. In order to want to pay to get past a challenge, the challenge has beaten me. I know that the next level will be harder - so that is *more* likely to beat me than this level. So I've probably reached my skill ceiling on this game, so I should stop. I might replay the lower levels, but I have no interest in paying to unlock levels that I can never complete.
Posted by: Peter Crowther | October 30, 2008 at 11:50 AM
Oh - a follow-on to the previous point. I *would* potentially pay for something that made the game easier. Strategy guides do this. Unlock codes don't. Fundamental difference.
Posted by: Peter Crowther | October 30, 2008 at 11:52 AM
Matt: the interesting thing about your position here is that it has nothing to do with the difficulty of the core gameplay - it's about inserting another kind of gameplay that you don't enjoy inside one that you do. I'm going to be ranting about this particular issue (QTE's - quick time events - i.e. press A button now) in the near future...
Peter: I can see where your issue with unlocking comes from, but there are plenty of situations where you can get stuck by something other than escalating difficulty. The two most common are perhaps (1) obscure puzzle inserted into a game which is pursuing action gameplay (2) quick reaction challenge (e.g. QTE) inserted into a game otherwise offering multiple options for play.
I do take your point here regarding the difficulty, but it's based on a somewhat "old fashioned" view of games... Take GTA, for instance. Unlocking all content would mean the player could go anywhere in the world. It wouldn't necessarily mean unlocking harder challenges (or rather, unlocking harder challenges would be a side effect of unlocking the content).
The linear sequence of escalating difficulty, while still a major structure in use in games, is beginning to lose its lustre (I'm pleased to say!)
And on the subject of "making the game easier" - a key problem in games is the "challenge-reward" assumption. The player should not receive rewards without overcoming challenges. Why is this a problem? Because the game designers give out rewards that power up the player for overcoming challenges. Net result: if you can beat the challenges, the challenges become easier, and if you can't the game becomes harder (relative to the player who was on top of it).
I see this too often. Certain games - cRPGs in particular - avoid this by having near-continuous progression mechanics. But discrete action games often manage to price the weaker players out of the game altogether.
Thanks for the comments!
Posted by: Chris | October 31, 2008 at 07:14 AM
I didn't see my position as having *nothing* to do with core game play difficulty, I just cited that as a particularly vexing situation I would have been happy to buy my way out of. Riffing on your general point of "buy to unlock" rather than the specifics of "all levels".
I'd go with the GTA example as well. There's one mission in IV where you have to follow a moving train and shoot some guys at the end. I followed the Walk Thru (even trying the 'steal a helicopter first' variant) but even then it took me many, increasingly frustrated, goes. And what was the payoff? That I complete the mission.
I'd be quite happy for an option at the end of any mission you failed (say 3 times) that said "Okay you don't seem to like this mission. Do you care? If not press 'A' and we'll pretend you succeeded."
In my recollection of my experience there are missions I fail that I enjoyed the challenge and will do over and over, and there are missions that I fail that I hate and end up shouting at the TV briefly before going to do something else instead.
I'm not sure what the criteria is for column A and column B but I'd sure like games companies to offer me a way to ditch column B.
Posted by: Matt Mower | October 31, 2008 at 10:14 AM
Matt: I have tried to implement games using a fail-continue structure, in which it is the player's choice whether or not they must complete a mission. (They can choose to continue even if they failed). I've met gigantic resistance from publishers, who just don't understand why this would be a useful mechanic in the mass market, nor do they appreciate why challenge-oriented players would in general not use such a feature were it present.
It all goes back to my usual complaint that as an industry we're woefully immature.
Posted by: Chris | November 02, 2008 at 01:10 PM
I'd be afraid that this might give developers or publishers the tendency to make their games like Bang! Howdy, PoxNora, or Gunbound. In these games (for those of you not familiar with them) you can "play for free", but if you pay money, you get acces to special units or perks only by paying money for them. I want full access to a game right from the start. I don't mind playing to unlock more things; that's the basis of a lot of games. What I don't like is making my initial investment (or not, if it's free) in a game and then having to make one or more later down the road just so I can get the full experience of the game. I don't want to pay $1 to get the alternate firing mode for a gun I just found. It makes me feel cheated.
So anyway, like I said, I'd be afraid that what you're proposing might branch off into different types of micro-transactions, perhaps undesirable ones.
I think this could also lead developers to become less meticulous in balancing their games. If you can just let people skip a part that's too hard by paying a small sum, why should you bother to make sure it's absolutely perfect?
Posted by: Adam R | November 02, 2008 at 10:13 PM
I think it's an idea doomed to failure - not that, like someone mentioned, it hasn't been tried.
There is a major difference between a guide and a cheat/level skip function. The former allows the user to still experience the game, the latter doesn't.
If there is the functionality there to skip levels anyway, making it a cheat rather then making people pay for access to the game they already own is a better idea. Many games have done this before.
Making people pay for cheats and existing game content (on the disk) is downright horrible, I really dislike the practice. Doing this would just escalate it.
Posted by: Andrew | November 03, 2008 at 02:36 AM
I think I started from a similar position to Peter - in a hypothetical game with a constantly increasing difficulty and constant type of challenge, unlocking a level more difficult than the one that beat me is useless - if I can't beat one level, beaing able to fail at the next would give little joy!
Having said that,
1. no difficulty curve can be perfectly smooth if there's any variation at all (as there is in nearly any game past Space Invaders - hey, some may react differently to the different enemies in Robotron)
2. Many games have a ridiculous difficulty spikes
3. The original standpoint only applies to fiero-seekers. The other type of players (fun-seekers or something - can't remember what we decided to call them) can find pleasure even when failing at a task.
For reference, I cite nearly any rhythm-based game. Though I may fail a song, I take great pleasure from flailing my limbs around and experiencing the momentary pleasure to TRYING to keep up with the beats. If I were forced to replay one song over and over, I would abandon these games long before I do with the current 'free selection'.
I think the solutions should be found within the game though - I love the idea of a fail-continue system, allowing fun-seekers to enjoy more types of games.
Yet, if those who aren't hardcore fiero-seekers are to be catered for, maybe the real answer is to simplify the tasks slightly, provide a few more clues and eliminate spikes.
And perhaps just allow a fail-continue option.
A system that requires money and an internet connection, due to the whims of the designer, would irk me, considering it could be added for free.
Posted by: Behrooz 'Bezman' Shahriari | November 03, 2008 at 11:47 PM
Adam R: the microtransaction model is something we will see more and more of, but only in games which function in or with the online space. There's more profit from this than the "one price" model, and in business profit always wins out.
As for your concern about balance, I don't think this would be a consequence... The game still has to be fun for the challenge-seekers, as these are the likely evangelists for the games. The option to skip wouldn't remove the need for balance is my instinct.
Andrew: "There is a major difference between a guide and a cheat/level skip function. The former allows the user to still experience the game, the latter doesn't."
There's a strange kind of assumption here - that beating the challenge is experiencing the game. Isn't undertaking the challenge experiencing the game as well?
And honestly, cheat codes are not sufficient here! The players who need to skip challenges are precisely the players who will not find out about cheat codes, so this isn't a solution to this particular problem.
However, constraining the fail-continue functionality to a different (easier) game mode might be another approach to the same problem.
Bezman: I like your take here, although I have to say, I cannot enjoy rhythm-action games for precisely the opposite reasons to those you cite here - when it goes wrong I am overwhelmed with frustration. Like Peter, I am a natural fiero-seeker who has pushed passed this for sanity. Rhythm-action games press all my "fear of failure" buttons, and thus I can only watch them. (My wife is rather good at them, so I enjoy this rather than playing myself!)
Obviously I believe in the fail-continue structure - I've been pushing it for years - but I can't get the publishers to understand the value. Your comment encourages me to keep pushing for this solution rather than trying to bribe publishers with the possibility of new revenue streams. :)
Thanks for the input everyone!
Posted by: Chris | November 04, 2008 at 07:28 AM
Any game with linear levels with preset challenges which would allow this system to even exist in the first place would allow a cheat code to do exactly the same thing. Why make a player pay to play the game he already owns? Put an "early boss" or "unsolvable puzzle" or something which is unbeatable and you've got instant paydirt! ...except no game has successfully pulled this off, and no doubt the backlash won't be nice if they ever try, because we've used cheat codes throughout our time in having games developed to get over these challenges.
And, so, a game which leaves such cheat options out generally is not coded for this kind of microtransaction thing anyway (or if it can be, then it could have cheat codes instead of that).
Call it cheat codes, call it "Bring up popup box to skip part of the game if the player failed 5 times", it's trivially easy to program it in for free like it has been for 30 years, that paying for it is like paying for the game content already on the disk you own.
Although that already happens.
Bah. I'm just pretty cynical today :/
Posted by: Andrew | November 04, 2008 at 08:50 AM
Chris, have you played Samba de Amigo? I still haven't played the Wii version, but both Dreamcast versions had a system whereby you would continue - even when failing.
A player begins at 'C' grade - a bare pass. Correct timing and positioning fills up the meter, whilst an incorrect one empties the meter slightly (each letter 'grade' needing an entire meter to be filled before your rank improves - all whilst the song continues). So far, so familiar.
The element I love, though, is that not only can you fall BELOW C - as far as F - but the amount the bar is filled/emptied based on correct shakes/misses varies depending on rank. So at A, a correct shake fills maybe 1/20th of the meter, whilst a mistake empties over half of it! At F, a mistake may empty 1/20th whilst a hit fills 1/4.
Using this system - almost a 'self-adjusting-difficulty', even you could probably at least complete these songs.
Posted by: Behrooz 'Bezman' Shahriari | November 04, 2008 at 10:38 AM
Andrew: "Why make a player pay to play the game he already owns?"
I think this is the fair question to ask in regard of my proposal. Of course, when the game is given away free in the first place, that is the real invitation for micro-transactions... :)
Bezman: Ah, Samba de Amigo... I so very nearly owned this game for the Dreamcast. I saw a copy in Akihabara in Tokyo and very nearly picked it up, but felt sure I would have another chance - but I never saw it again.
These kind of self-adjusting difficulty curves are a fairly common feature - but I must say, your account of the balancing of the one in Samba de Amigo makes it sound exceptionally generous!
I also feel that I would be better at a game involving maracas than I would at most rhythm-action games, since I used to be a drummer. But then, part of my problem with these games is the lag between when I think the beat is and when the game thinks it is. :) Still, I did fine in the Samba de Amigo minigame in Sega Superstars for the EyeToy. :D
The real problem for me is that success for me in these games is a perfect combo - so when I break the combo I become dejected, perform worse and fail. If I was just able to accept the pass mark, I would be a perfectly reasonable Dance Dance Revolution player - although nowhere near in the same class as my lovely wife!
Posted by: Chris | November 05, 2008 at 07:16 AM
I'm against this because it doesn't benefit me at all and I don't care about other people. They don't want to put in the effort needed to play the game? Too bad. They don't want to put in the effort to pull up a faq? Too bad. Why'd they even buy the game in the first place?
And really, you gotta be some sort of caveman to not know you can find videogame guides on the internet. You can find just about anything on the internet and everyone knows that.
Now, putting aside the fact that it doesn't benefit me, I wouldn't mind games having the option to unlock everything, but I don't think charging people for it is the way to go. Obviously there has to be some kind of punishment for people who decide to be losers. Just, not actual money. Now that we're on the online generation, what with xbox live and PSN achievements, I think something more appropriate would be to give someone "negative achievements" for using this option. Something that would put a black mark on your record for all to see, saying "Hey, look here! I'm a loser!"
Sure, it's not perfect. The Wii doesn't have its own version of xbox live. And you can still play games without connecting to the internet and thus not get achievements. But at least it'd be better than paying, which I don't think benefits anyone other than greedy game companies. I mean, I wouldn't feel better knowing that so and so had to pay 10 dollars to see the content and I didn't.
Posted by: Sirc | November 05, 2008 at 08:50 PM
Sirc: I was thinking more like 50 cents, than ten bucks, but never mind. :)
"I'm against this because it doesn't benefit me at all and I don't care about other people."
Brutally honest. :)
"They don't want to put in the effort to pull up a faq? Too bad... And really, you gotta be some sort of caveman to not know you can find videogame guides on the internet."
Or, you know, a normal person with a life and not a videogame geek. :) You vastly misjudge the knowledge of other people when you suggest that only a caveman doesn't know that you can find videogame guides online (or, for that matter, to assume that every game is adequately FAQed).
Not to mention, in the case of (say) GameFAQS, finding the guides is only the beginning of the horror - getting useful information out of these can be like getting blood from a stone! I'd pay 50 cents just to bypass this step, personally!
Thanks for your oh-so-neutral comment! :)
Posted by: Chris | November 06, 2008 at 08:45 AM
I guess what we'd be missing out here is the opposition between the casual of which we speek and the Hard Core gamer. See the hard core is way better than the casual, and if he is way better, it is because he plays more. And the hardcore gamers are, to a certain degree very proud of their accomplishments.
So if you tell the hC gamers "well, you're good, but anyone can be as good as you for as low as 5$" you will make 'em run, that is the Blizzard's way, make a game well made enough to be playable from top to bottom, and don't allow cheats online, no selling no hiring of other people to do your job...
I think they have the right position here, if you make such a system, you will eventually scare the hard-core gamers away.
Posted by: OsK | November 10, 2008 at 12:29 AM
I think this system (sorry, double post ;) would just make the game a non-game... Anyone that is a bit richer than the average would jump on it and unlock the whole game... And as it was said earlier: developers would surely, somewhere near the end of the game insert some major difficult screwup to make people go for it...
But you couldn't really establish a top scores panel because the top players would be payers, and if you specify which and which has "cheated" then you lose the fun of it, and people wouldn't bother buying a service that labels them as cheaters.
I don't know if you played Warcraft 2, but there was an achievement level at the end of every mission, and if once in the game you used a cheat code, you wouldn't be no private or general or knight anymore, "Cheater" would be your label. I was so ashamed of it that having used a cheat code near the end because the mission were so hard, and it made me start the whole thing all over again on another save to avoid this...
Posted by: OsK | November 10, 2008 at 12:37 AM
Osk: clearly coming down on the side of the hardcore gamer, here - don't allow players to buy their progress because it destroys the satisfaction in achievement beloved by the hardcore player. When I read this, it comes out in my head something like this: "videogames must service the minority of players, because they are more dedicated to the hobby". I'm afraid I find this kind of argument hard to stomach!
If you are afraid of polluted achievements, then by all means tag the person who has unlocked the game with "Paid to Unlock" or something similar (but not 'cheat', since they wouldn't be cheating). The casual player, who otherwise gets screwed by paying a lot of money for a game they only get to see a tiny amount of, simply will not care about this, so if this is what is required to satiate the honour of the hardcore player I say "small price to pay!"
Which is also what I suspect the casual players would say about paying an extra dollar to unlock all content. :)
Thanks for sharing your perspective!
Posted by: Chris | November 10, 2008 at 07:55 AM
If you could pay to unlock everything then there is no point in them making the game that way and for a lot of people it would become boring very quickly
Posted by: Luke Johnston | February 24, 2009 at 05:52 AM
Luke: I'm not sure this claim is valid. For players who want to overcome the challenge of the game, why would they pay to unlock everything? And for those that don't want to struggle to beat it, why shouldn't they have an "out"?
An interesting test case is the most recent Alone in the Dark, which allows the player to skip ahead to later sequences without finishing the current challenge. Although the game has its flaws, this feature is especially interesting, and doesn't seem to destroy the challenge of the game at all (you still have to beat the challenges to feel you have *beaten* the game - but you don't need to beat the challenges to *see* all the game).
Thanks for sharing your viewpoint!
Posted by: Chris | February 25, 2009 at 07:13 AM