Not long ago, video games were full of special unlockable characters, skins, maps, and other goodies. Players who accomplished certain goals would gain access to these unlockables, which served as a reward for progress and bragging rights for players who had mastered a game. Over the past few years, players have noticed that more and more of these vanity items and extras are no longer found in-game, but are instead being sold separately as downloadable content (DLC). This move is generally criticized by gamers, yet the trend seems to be growing.
How did the DLC trend for unlockables start? Most likely in the realm of MMORPGs, where free-to-play games began making their primary revenue by selling vanity items such as hairstyles, costumes, and special mounts. Traditional game companies looked at the success of free-to-play MMOs and began putting out their own small content packs rather than simply selling a main game and perhaps an expansion or two. The addition of digital marketplaces on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 spread the DLC trend through the entire gaming industry. DLC provides a small but steady stream of extra income for a fairly small amount of effort, so it's not surprising that many formerly free unlockables have been converted to paid DLC instead.
Gamers themselves are partially responsible for the shift from in-game unlockables to DLC. Some gamers dislike having content out of their reach simply because they didn't complete particular in-game goals. Others justifiably dislike having multiplayer content locked behind single-player campaign progress. It's never fun to take a game over to a friend's house, only to realize that the multiplayer parts are out of reach because they aren't unlocked on that friend's console. It's not hard to see how complaints about these kinds of unlockables helped fuel the decision to take them out of the main game and make them purchasable for everyone.
Of course, putting unlockables up as DLC removes the "bragging rights" function they used to have. Achievements and Trophies have replaced that function in the current console generation. Whether this is good or bad depends on one's personal point of view. Gamers who are heavily motivated by being rewarded for skilled play probably miss getting special in-game rewards for their accomplishments. Making unlockables available for cash instead of skill cheapens their value, these gamers argue. Others, perhaps those with more disposable income, like the ability to be able to purchase extras without investing lots of time and effort in an individual game.
A good compromise between these two kinds of gamers is to keep in-game unlockables, while also making them available for purchase as DLC. Guild Wars has done something like this with unlockable skills: players can either unlock the skills from a Guild Wars campaign the normal way in-game, or can buy a DLC pack that automatically unlocks them. Of course, this kind of compromise can inspire companies to make in-game unlockables particularly difficult or arduous to unlock in order to promote DLC sales, much to players' dismay.
Free unlockables haven't completely gone away. For instance, multiplayer de Blob 2 minigames are included on the game disc and are unlocked via progress in the single-player campaign. Nintendo in particular has plenty of recent games with unlockables, notably Mario Kart and Super Mario 3D Land, the completion of which unlocks a second playable character and enough bonus challenge levels to account for almost an entire second game. Still, even Nintendo will be giving in to industry trends and allowing DLC on its newer consoles beginning this spring. Will the next Mario Kart ask players to pay separately for extra characters and tracks? This seems contrary to Nintendo's current philosophy, but stranger things have happened.
The trend of selling extra content as DLC instead of having it unlockable in-game isn't going anywhere, but there's a simple solution for gamers who feel strongly about the trend and want to see unlockables back in games. Don't buy DLC packs and convince your friends not to buy them either. DLC is so prevalent today because enough people buy it to make it worth developers' time. If gamers tire of purchasing this kind of DLC, developers will stop making it, and perhaps we'll see fun unlockable content return to our games.
Date: January 27, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*