Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Exclusive Unlockables -- or, Get a Free Gun to Shoot Yourself in the Foot

I purchased Splinter Cell: Conviction recently, and played it to completion in about three days. I haven't played with the side modes or the co-op campaign yet, so I can't pass judgment on them yet, but the main campaign plays very well. It's not the old Splinter Cell you remember, but as a stealth/action hybrid, it accomplishes its goal with gusto.

But I didn't post to discuss this game. On the contrary, I saw a few exclusive features attached to it that I'd like to discuss. It seems like a few developers make deals with electronics and game stores, particularly GameStop, to bundle extras into the game if it's purchased or reserved at that particular store. It's actually a very sound marketing tactic, isn't it? Come get the game at our store and get early access to the F2000 rifle, one of the best in the game!

I say, the developers are very, very carefully shooting themselves in the foot with tactics like these.

Balance is a very strange concept in gaming. It's almost Zen-like in its steadfast refusal to be described in terms that aren't vague or nebulous. Balancing weapons, as I've discussed in posts before, is a very challenging task; we discussed the "no duplicate function" method, the "quantity over quality" method, but games like Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter subscribe to a third process. Since you can only carry one primary weapon in either of these games, they make things interesting by allowing you to select better and better devices as the game goes on; we'll call it "quality ramping".

On level one, you might be stuck with a couple of basic pistols, gain a shotgun or SMG on level two, a mediocre assault rifle on three, and eventually find better examples of all of these as you progress. The pace of weapon unlocks is often tied to the difficulty curve, keeping your equipment level generally on par with that of the enemy; depending on theme, you may be consistently behind, and trying to make up the difference with your skill; be a bit ahead, representing your funding and support level; or, if pace is tied to a currency like money or some performance metric, in a constant arms race to stay one step ahead of your foes.

The GameStop exclusive pre-order for SC:C gave you instant access to the MP5-SD suppressed SMG, the SC3000 assault rifle, SR-2M machine pistol, and SPAS-12 automatic shotgun (which is also freaking suppressed). All of these are very strong weapons; the MP5 doesn't come along until about halfway through the game, and the SC3000 comes in level ten of thirteen. The SPAS-12 isn't normally available at all.

Do you see the problem yet? By introducing these weapons early, the player's arsenal quality is well above that of his enemies. This effectively blunts two of SC:C's best design qualities: first, the constant tension produced by keeping pace with the enemies' equipment level; second, and more importantly, the old "progress bar" reward system where the player is eagerly waiting for the next piece he can try. If he already has all the good weapons, who cares? The fleshed-out, interesting selection becomes little more than picking the best gun in the game from minute one and then forgetting the selection menu is even there.

Pardon the extrapolation, but imagine playing Super Mario Bros. -- the first one, before the formula expanded into world maps, inventories, and so forth. Can you imagine an exclusive version that enabled you to start each level Super, with one additional hit-point? It'd break the game's difficulty entirely. Marketing probably wants some kind of nifty new exclusives, but they don't realize they're trying to do the developers' job for them -- and failing. You're asking your players to plunk down five or ten extra bucks, or go to your preferred outlet, for the privilege of playing a game that's less fun.

I'm sure there's a wide swath of gamers who love this concept; next to cheat codes, it's a great way to get that elusive "edge against the game" that has sold millions of Game Genies and strategy guides. (Or maybe it's just elitism: "I have the SPAS-12 and you don't.") Companies who throw in these extras make a killing extracting a tax from their players; this fact is slightly less true now that the online era has brought about the advent of GameFAQs and CheatCC, so it doesn't terribly surprise me that the next step is this bundling process, alongside releasing six collector's editions of every game that's come out in the last ten years. If I sound bitter, I apologize; I just can't quite wrap my head around the mindset of these people. I generally avoid Collector's Editions, particularly the ones with these downloadable unlocks, mainly because I have a preference for playing the game as it's intended. It's not quite Horse Armor (though the avalanche of DLC for games these days is another post), but it does bug me.