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Should All Video Games Have Every Level Unlocked from the Start? [roundtable]

The developers behind Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 recently revealed that all of the game's campaign missions will be available from the start without having to play them in the intended order. They called the traditional system of the next mission unlocking after you beat the previous one "archaic":

Jason Blundell said:
“The unlocking level system is an archaic mentality we’ve had since we did bedroom development back in the day—you do this, then go on to the next one. Consumers and game players in general are far more mature these days. There are so many things vying for our interests today. It’s about, how do they want to consume it? Maybe they put it down on level two, and then they’re in work the next day, and some guy says, ‘dude, you’ve got to check out level four!’ And he’s like, ‘okay, I’ll have a quick look.’ That’s totally fine. I think it’s their choice.”

This has led some Kotaku guy to argue that all games should be this way. Echoing the comedy bit above (which I took from the post), he points out that no other media gates off content the way that video games have always done. He makes some other points as well that you can read if you'd like.

What do you guys think? Does it go against everything video games stand for, is it a no brainer in the modern age of games, or somewhere in between?

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Posted: 10/17/15, 03:07:30
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I don't think it should be a rule for all video games, but I encourage the challenge of assumptions about what is right in this regard.

If I want to skim a book, a movie or an album, no one gets sniffy about how I haven't earned the later chapters or scenes. It's only in gaming where this sort of moral argument gets made. But, really, it's only that way because of tradition.

I'd hate to see progression in games become considered passé, but I do think it's unnecessary in a good many games. I never understood why I had to master certain songs in Guitar Hero, for instance, before getting to play the ones I wanted.
Posted: 10/17/15, 03:55:29
I think in a lot of games, starting by playing a level that's two-thirds of the way through game would be more akin to skipping the first two minutes of a song than it would be to choosing a particular song from an album.

For Black Ops 3, maybe skipping to Chapter 4 is more like skipping to Episode 4 of a TV show. I suppose the option is nice. At the same time, if authors or movie directors had the power to prevent their audiences from seeing a later part of their story before they've seen the beginning, would they do it? Locking away content in games might be an arbitrary aspect of the medium, but not locking away content in books might be a limitation of that medium too.


Question: do you ever skim books/movies/albums that you enjoy, or do you only do it when you're on the fence about them? I'm super uptight about making sure I experience a work of art as closely as possible to how the creator intended, haha.
Posted: 10/17/15, 07:25:10
This might be good for certain types of games, but I think it could have a negative impact on others. The act of unlocking levels and making progress has benefits like building up a story, world, or characters in a meaningful way. Skipping levels could lessen the impact of a key moment in the story or just make things confusing. It could also throw off a game's learning curve or sense of adventure. Traveling from one island to the next in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze creates a rewarding sense of momentum. Jumping to the last island right at the beginning of the game would detract from its well-designed level-to-level moments.

That said, there are examples of games that deviate from the traditional unlocking routine that are done right. Games like Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario 64, and Banjo-Kazooie strike a good balance between having to unlock levels and having the freedom to jump from level to level. Mega Man makes a solid case for having all of the levels available to you right at the start. Sure, you need to beat all of the robot masters to unlock the final levels, but the open-ended progression is part of a Mega Man game's appeal.

This amount of accessibility can implemented into games in sensible, useful ways, but not every game needs it.
Posted: 10/17/15, 07:50:39
This kind of hearkens back to the debate last year about people wanting all the SSB characters unlocked from the start.

I think I mainly agree with Octorockin here. Arcade-style games or fighters benefit from giving players access to a wide variety of things from the get-go, but I see little reason why more story-driven things should. RPGs, for instance, would be bizarre if you could select various scenes from late in the game: "Oh man! I can't believe Maydia betrayed us! ...So who's Maydia again?"

It works for Mega Man, but there's still a sense of balance in terms of freedom vs. linearity there. You gradually get upgrades as you play through the initial 8 stages, then every game finishes with a final set of challenges.

And heck, with the COD guys' argument that unlocking stuff is archaic, couldn't you then argue "Why play through a stage in a linear fashion at all?" Why not just pick the boss of the stage? Or the bonus room? Shouldn't it ALL be accessible since players bought the product? Why is having all stages' beginnings available at the start acceptable, but not their endings or middles?

Hm, the more I think about it, the less I like it. There's a natural progression to one-player games and like Secret_Tunnel, I want to experience art in the manner intended. It's why absolutely no one ever reads books in reverse order, even though they technically can.

EDIT: You know what else? I like unlocking stuff in games. It gives me things to look forward to, and forces me to challenge myself in ways out of the ordinary, often leading to a deeper appreciation of the game. It gives the game far greater narrative focus and allows the dev to map the game out in a way that would lead to maximum enjoyment for the player. This topic just sounds like they want even more Super Guide in games (a feature I've never been wild about). So yeah, the way we do things is fine now.

EDIT 2: You know what else else? I'm getting a little tired of people comparing video games to books and movies. That comedian in the initial video was funny, but I really don't think he was trying to make a paradigm shift. Video games do things way differently than books which do things way differently than movies. To try to homogenize media for no apparent reason takes away what makes their differences appealing in the first place.

EDIT 3: Grab a cup of joe, I'm posting again! You know what ellllse? The Kotaku guy makes the argument that he played a game a decade ago on the Xbox then wanted to beat that same file when he rebought the game recently.

Hypothetical situation: you pick up a game you've owned for a long time, but haven't played in years and never beat, because you have the itch to play it again and finish it this time. Upon loading up the game, you find your ten-year-old save file still intact! And its only a few hours from the end! Now, do you 1) play this save file and beat the game in a few hours, or 2) start a new file to get the full experience again?

I've faced this situation dozens and dozens of times in my life, and every single time, I pick 2. Where's the reward in jumping back into a near-finished game when I don't really recall the characters, plot, gameplay nuances or natural buildup/momentum throughout the game? It's why so many RPGs go half-finished. Most people don't WANT to just jump to the end with hazy (or no) details of the game itself. The point of playing a game is not to beat it!
Posted: 10/17/15, 08:10:45  - Edited by 
 on: 10/17/15, 08:26:21
I like progression. I like earning my way through the game. I like unlocking stuff myself. So, no.
Posted: 10/17/15, 08:46:14
Definitely not all.

Some, sure, though I'd still say no because why cater the further dumbing down of game progression and design?
Posted: 10/17/15, 09:04:41

I agree with a lot of what you said. I like unlocking stuff too. The feeling of progression is one of the main reasons I enjoy playing games. I basically stopped playing Super Mario Maker once I unlocked all the building sets. But I agree the straight path of some games isn't good. If we were to use Guitar Hero for example. Most people would probably want all songs available right away, but I would like something to work towards. Maybe instead of a linear path you could have options. Beat song 1 and choose what your song 2 will be and so on. You could always have a free play mode too. But I wouldn't want to lose the 'gamey' part.

And I'm also tired of the comparison of games to other media. It's not like movies get progressively harder to watch as it goes. And you need to use the skills you learned from watching earlier parts of the movie to watch the end of the movie better. And honestly, I can't think of any instance where I've skipped ahead in a book or movie I haven't already read/watched.

If every game had every level available to play right away I worry the developers, or publishers more likely, would feel the need to make every level approachable to a first time player. It's like how every Picross e game starts with super simple puzzles.

All that being said, I don't think this option is aimed at someone like me. I very much like to enjoy media fully and a lot of times linearly. I literally would not watch Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey! until I saw the first movie. And now that I've seen the first movie, the second one is no longer on Netflix Instant. The third movie is, but I'll have to wait until after I see #2.

But I know there are a lot of people who just want to play games however and will put them down if they get stuck. So I can see why people would like it.
Posted: 10/17/15, 09:20:29
I guess it could work for some story-driven games, if it were to be elegantly executed and in a way players feel inclined to desire the full experience from the start, as you would have a more fulfilling journey that way, in the majority of cases. You shouldn't have extra collectibles in adventure games from the get-go, since that would make it harder to keep track of what you can and can't do at that time, especially if you have never played the game before. Sure there would be backtracking, but at least you have a track of things. That choice would have the players still look around to find and earn stuff, but in whatever part of the game they wanted to start on. I like that.
I think people already imported save files from the internet since the 90's with the Playstation's memory card, though, and having a more practical way to skim through things would be nice for them.

I can see the harm with games that have more information to learn, more conflicts to understand and atributes and etc. Still should be an option for simpler games, though. Should be there in the options, discrete and humble, but it should be there.
Posted: 10/17/15, 16:30:49
I definitely don't want this to become standard. It may work for certain types of games, but I also think it could screw things up in terms of gameplay pacing and plot development in many others. Also, I personally like having a sense of progression and sometimes dislike games that insist on spoon feeding players with content without asking for any effort in return.
Posted: 10/17/15, 16:42:28
After thinking this over, I'm going to go ahead and say I think it should be the standard. Not because I want to skip ahead in games, I don't. But I can't see any way at all that this would affect the way I play games. The only instance would be in the rare scenario where my save data got corrupted or something and I wouldn't have to find something online or start over. That would be quite nice, actually. Otherwise, it would be business as usual for me. I'd start at the first chapter and wouldn't even be tempted to skip ahead. I know this because some games, like Pushmo, do allow you to skip ahead and I never do.

So it would have no affect on me, but I know for sure that there are people who would welcome this. One thing I think a lot of really enthusiastic players like us don't realize is how many people never beat their games. Nintendo has been talking about this for a long time, trying to encourage people to see things through. If a Cliffs Notes versions where they can skip a level they're not feeling makes them more likely to see the game to its conclusion, I think that's a better result for them and for the people who made the game than for them to just put the game down never to return. And if people want to just to skip to the end just because they're weird (and I know people who do that with books), well that's fine too.

I don't see this making any dent on traditional linear story telling. I mean Black Ops 3 is still going to have a linear campaign, it just will let you skip ahead. If you don't click the "Next Mission" button or whatever, you probably won't even notice the difference. And to the extent it does cause some developers to rethink how they tell stories, that could lead to some interesting ideas. But I don't think it would stop Mario from starting at 1-1. If anything, it would stop players from having to go through the motions of Super Guide.

So yea, I see a positive to this for some people and no negatives for others, so I'm on board.
Posted: 10/17/15, 17:01:40

That's pretty much perfectly stated and I more or less agree, to the letter.

But let me advocate for the other side for a second. There are certainly games like Castlevania or Ninja Gaiden where a part of the appeal is trying to "beat" the game. Being able to skip straight to Dracula on day one and get a feel for the boss fight does take something away from the appeal of that game. Having the option to do that would be quite tempting, too.

That said, a lot of modern games aren't mysterious like that. And it really would be nice to not have to start from scratch on a game that I no longer have my previous save game (Final Fantasy IX, for instance). Just having the option would be great.

I also want to add that I've always hated collecting in games. It seems like a bad habit that started in the N64 generation - maybe because it was possible for the first time - and became the norm. It makes sense that some games will have collectables, but the tendency to lock key features behind hours and hours of busy work... man, I'm not going to defend that under some banner of "it's the designer's intention" or whatever.

Oh, and of course I skip around albums. Sometimes I'll reread just certain chapters of certain books, sure. And I've never ever sat down and read the Bible from cover to cover. Skipping around is not some sin, guys. Sometimes there are bad songs and I don't care if David Bowie would be mad if I skipped them. I'm going to skip them. YOU HEAR ME JARVIS COCKER? I'M GONNA SKIP 'SEDUCTIVE BARRY' SOMETIMES! THAT'S WHY YOU DON'T PUT AN 8 MINUTE MOODY, SLOW SONG IN THE DEAD CENTER OF YOUR ALBUM! WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? BRITPOP IS DEAD AND IT'S ALL YOUR FAULT!


Can we all at least agree that linear games that don't let you go back and easily replay areas you've already beaten can fuck right off? If I've played the game and I want to go back and see that one section, I don't want to have to start back at the beginning and play for several hours. That's going to be the choice between playing it and never playing it.
Posted: 10/17/15, 17:41:10
As long as it doesn't affect the way games are designed, then I really don't care. If they suddenly decide to dumb down the entire experience for players who might skip ahead and still be able to enjoy the experience without having built up their gameplay skills, then that's just awful. Many games already feel like they treat players to be dumb with extended tutorials and just killing that sense of discovering things on your own.

But then again... why do video games have to be compared to other media? Video games are video games. They're an interactive form of entertainment that obviously require skill from the player to achieve goals and progress through. To reduce that to players simply being able to skip ahead if something is too hard... eh, I don't know. It has its ups and downs. Certain games would obviously benefit more than others from the design choice.
Posted: 10/17/15, 18:13:53

I don't really understand the big draw in seeing a game's ending. Like I alluded to earlier, the point of playing a game shouldn't be to simply "beat" it. I mean, that's the end goal from a gameplay perspective, but it's hardly the point of gaming. Why is it so important that a player beats the game? On a related note, why is it more valid if a player plays through only the first and last levels than someone playing through the first twenty levels then stopping? The "ending" of a game is not that important.

I'd also severely worry about changes in game design if this became a normal thing. Homogenized stage difficulty, flattening out narratives to make them still "work" from different styles of playthrough, having the number and types of stages spoiled, those sorts of things. I love when games surprise me with a hidden world or something, and a big part of that appeal would be lost.

You can make the case that a few games could be more interesting with this design (Mega Man is a great example), but there's nothing stopping those games from already doing that! For the vast majority of single-player games, it doesn't sound like a good idea to me.
Posted: 10/17/15, 18:38:11  - Edited by 
 on: 10/17/15, 18:39:19

If "beating" a game doesn't matter, then it seems even less important to make a player experience a game in a linear way. And I don't think someone who plays only the first and last levels has "beat" a game, any more than me playing someone else's save game on King's Quest means I've beat a game.

I don't think you'll get much argument that the game itself should be the appeal. This is a forum of Mario lovers, after all. We know that inherently.

But there are tons of reasons why people would want to pick up a game from somewhere other than the beginning. Maybe they got to a tough level they couldn't beat but were invested in the story and wanted to see what happened later in the narrative. Maybe they played earlier games and are now playing a sequel that has a long tutorial they'd rather not play through. Maybe they love the On Rails shooter parts of Star Fox: Assault and want to skip the boring ground missions. Maybe they hate the game but have been told there's a really great part later in the game that they want to check out without investing more hours into a game they hate.

I think those are all reasonable. Why not? I mean, really, why not? Tell me what is so wrong with offering these players a chance to skip ahead?
Posted: 10/17/15, 18:48:52

I already gave several reasons:

-The number of stages and potentially stage layouts can be spoiled for players. Examples would include knowing about SM3DW's final world and post-game content in advance, Wind Waker's Old Hyrule, FF3's World of Ruin, etc. This is a little similar to those giant PSX RPGs that have a "fake" ending at the end of Disc 1, so you're never really tricked.

-Developer balance. Most Mega Man games' levels are roughly the same difficulty with each other, since the player could potentially start anywhere. Developers may feel the need to cater to the style of players who like to jump around, which means less-linear storytelling and a warped difficulty curve.

-Regarding players skipping levels they don't like--linear progression forces devs to make each stage as good as possible so players don't quit. There shouldn't BE boring stages in the first place. If a dev thinks "Eh, this level's pretty hard but they can just skip it," I think the quality of the game as a whole will go down.

-I'll hearken back to the old anti-Super Guide chestnut: if players can't develop the skills to beat stage 5, how are they going to stand a chance in stage 8?

Maybe it's me growing up with Nintendo games, but I think most games introduce elements gradually for a reason--to prep players for later, more difficult obstacles. I'm also of the opinion that good developers know better than the consumers. They know their game inside and out, are aware of what the most enjoyable path through the game is, and create the game with that path in mind. And on a broader level, I think the artist should have a level of control over how his/her art is experienced. If they designed the game to be open-ended or pseudo-linear like Mega Man, sure. But I don't think adjusting artistic expression based on our culture's growing "gotta have it now" mentality is healthy for games.

Ultimately, I don't think all video games should adhere to any particular "industry standard."

(Interestingly, there was an old Nintendo Power letter that addressed this very thing. I'll see if I can find it)

EDIT: I found it! Went through like 30 old magazines, but here it is, in issue 106.

"Stop Limiting My Fun!"

I thought that if you buy something, you own it and all that it contains. Obviously, you do not think so. I don't know what reasons you have for limiting my fun, but they better be good. I own GoldenEye 007, so I should be able to play any level and be any character I want, regardless of how "far" I've gotten in the game. There should be an option for this; none of this "you have to beat certain things and go in order" stuff. I own the game. I discussed this with many of my friends, and some side with you, saying that it makes the game more fun. -Jason Krpan

NP's reply: You can't just skip to the good parts, Jason--that's like reading the last page of a book or sitting through the finale of a movie before you've found out the rest of the story. [whoa, eerily similar comparisons] Gaming is meant to be an experience that builds upon itself, and, like anything in life, you learn as you go so you can apply your knowledge to move further. If GoldenEye allowed you to skip straight to the Cradle, Egyptian or Aztec levels, you wouldn't have the spying finesse and know-how that you would have developed had you played through the game in order (and instantly getting blasted into Swiss cheese because you don't know how to defend yourself doesn't sound very fun to us, Jason). In many games, you could score up to 999,999 points, but just because there's that chance, doesn't mean that the game should hand it to you on a platter. You own the game, and, while you may not be able to access the extras yet, you own the bonus options nonetheless. And we're confident you also own the ability to work your way up to them.
Posted: 10/17/15, 19:12:16  - Edited by 
 on: 10/17/15, 19:34:14

I don't think any of those things you are saying will actually follow from this.

- Anything about a video game can be spoiled already. It's already up to people who don't want to know things not to look on the internet, watch Let's Plays, etc. In this case, it would just be up to the player not to go into the part of the menu that lets you pick your level. If Nintendo was making a traditional Mario game and added this feature, there is no way they would just give all the info up front.

- Plenty of modern games, including Nintendo games, already lack anything resembling a difficulty curve. Lots of classic Nintendo games have an inverse difficulty curve. But anyway, there's no reason that a developer who wants a difficulty curve couldn't still have one. In fact, I'd be quite surprised if Black Ops 3 doesn't have a difficult curve.

- I find it very silly to think that developers would just stop trying as hard to make good levels because they know that people might skip around.

- Maybe they won't stand a chance, maybe they will. What does it matter to you? Also, I'm sure we've all gotten stuck at a hard part before that wasn't right at the end and once we finally beat it, the rest of the game felt like a breeze in comparison. The falling blocks part of Castlevania 3 comes to mind (which I didn't actually beat, I just started over and took another path).

As I'm sure you know many classic games that have difficulty curves, are 100% linear, and are what most would consider "purist" games, have Level Select codes. All the Sonics, for example. The old school Marios have something Level Select with warp pipes and whistles. That stuff didn't sully those games, I don't see why having it as an easily accessible option instead of being hidden behind a code or easily obtainable secret would.

Edit: The Nintendo Power guy is basically saying "The way I like to experience games is the right way and you shouldn't be allowed to do it another way." I don't get that attitude. Like I said, some people DO like to read the end of a book first. I don't get it, but I'm not going to tell them not to do it, let alone stop them from doing it.
Posted: 10/17/15, 19:38:48  - Edited by 
 on: 10/17/15, 19:43:04

I totally support the letter writer. Nintendo Power's counter-arguments are beyond weak, and basically break down to a parental "Because We Said So" and some nonsense about looking out for the player.
Posted: 10/17/15, 19:43:04

Ugh, so many things about the way people experience games through YouTube now just bugs the heck out of me. I honestly think it's one of the worst things about modern gaming, but I guess it has an audience.

At least there was a sense of accomplishment with finding a warp zone; a player would naturally be rewarded for thinking outside of the box (or over the level). I honestly never really liked cheat codes otherwise (unless they were unlockables, or did silly non-invincible type things).


Don't you guys believe that an artist has the right to have their work be experienced in the way they want? I feel that outweighs the consumer's right to selectively choose how to experience someone else's work against their wishes. And like I said before, I think the developer pretty frequently knows better than the player about how best to experience their game. Freedom of choice isn't an inherently good thing in every situation.

For the record, I strongly disagreed with the letter-writer then, and now.
Posted: 10/17/15, 19:53:02

No, I really don't, not in a situation where they're selling the person a copy of their work. I mean, once I own the game, I have every right to modify it for my own use, so if I was a good enough programmer I could just do it on my own. Why not get rid of those barriers so everyone who wants to can, like they can with other media? I'm sure many writers, musicians, and film directors want people to experience their work in a certain way and they just have to deal with it that some people don't.

I'm not arguing that developers should be required by law to do this but they should be encouraged, in games where it makes sense as a concept (obviously some games just don't have levels or missions or anything similar). And I imagine quite a few video game developers have just never thought about it before. If they adopt this standard not because of some industry trend pushed by the money men, but because they think it's a good idea, would you still have a problem with it?
Posted: 10/17/15, 20:10:54  - Edited by 
 on: 10/17/15, 20:12:16

Looks like we've found the point where we disagree, then. I strongly feel that the developer should be allowed to make his game in any way he wants to, and if the consumer doesn't like enough of those decisions, they can refuse to buy it.

About your last question, I'd have less of a problem with it but I wouldn't be thrilled about it. While I can accept that people approach games differently, from a personal standpoint, just having everything there from the beginning takes away from the experience for me. A weird example: Wrecking Crew. I really like this game, but I've never actually completed it. And a big reason why is a strange one: all the levels are there from the beginning. I'm having fun playing the game, but there's this weird feeling of not actually accomplishing anything when I go through the stages, reach a high level, and realize that I could've just chosen that level from the get-go.

It's like eating a delicious meal when you aren't hungry--there's a key element missing. It's also why so many players love to go for 100% even when it starts feeling tedious. There's an element there that people love to overcome, which I feel is integral to a huge number of games. In that way, I think having everything (or most things?) unlocked from the get-go actually would lower my enjoyment of the title.
Posted: 10/17/15, 20:18:49
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