Sometimes people play games for a fantastic one-time experience; to play through a story and become immersed in a world. Examples of this would be games like Half-Life 2, Bioshock: Infinite and The Last of Us. The other reason people play games is to have a fun way to spend their time. This second category includes most multiplayer, and creative games like Battlefield, Kerbal Space Program and Minecraft. A game from this second category needs a way of keeping the player interested. One of the most commonly used (and effective) methods of doing this is to implement an unlock system where the player is forced to complete certain tasks (or simply keep playing the game) to unlock more powerful weapons , equipment, characters, etc. This aspect of games is sometimes referred to as “the grind”. Though this term has negative connotations attached to it, here it is used to mean the process of playing to unlock something. How hard a player has to work for their unlockables can be difficult to balance as a developer. If one makes the grind too easy, it loses effectiveness because players unlock everything too quickly. On the other hand, if the grind is too hard, players will inevitably realise that whatever item they’re going to get is not worth the time investment. How high a developer can set this benchmark also relies on how fun their game is to begin with.
For example, I played a lot of Battlefield 3’s multiplayer mode when it was released. I enjoyed playing the game itself, of course, but I also really enjoyed unlocking more weapons and equipment pieces. It changed up the gameplay and allowed me to keep coming back to the game for far longer than if all the weapons had been available by default. This sounds very basic and indeed it is, even being used in literally thousands of games to some degree. In fact, the grind is the foundation on which most RPGs are based.
On the 9th of January 2015, Turtle Rock Studios posted an announcement on the blog page for their upcoming title Evolve. This announcement basically stated that by pre-purchasing the game on Xbox One before a certain date, a player would receive the game with the third monster and four human characters already unlocked, whereas they would usually have to be unlocked by playing. Obviously this is nothing new; offering advantages to players who pay early (and sometimes even more), but it still begs the question: if the grind of unlocking these aspects of the game is what keeps us coming back, are we paying the developers more money for less game? Or alternatively, if the grind is something the developers consider an unpleasant experience for players – so skipping it is a reward for pre-purchasing – why have the developers put the unlock system in the game in the first place?
I should stress that I am by no means solely blaming Evolve. This idea of paying more money for less game has been growing over the last half decade or more. It has also combined smoothly with pre-order and pre-purchasing bonuses, which are an interesting concept in themselves. In a similar incident, I recently came across the ”Ultimate Shortcut Bundle”, a Battlefield 4 DLC, which costs as much as the base game. So in summing up, you can pay double the cost of a base game to receive said game without a feature which was deliberately included by the developers in the first place, which was presumably included to make the game more fun.
So why do we go along with it? Why does it seem like a good deal for us to pay money, to essentially get less value per dollar from the games we buy? I don’t know. Maybe it’s our competitive nature. Evolve is a multiplayer game and so starting off with better characters does give you a better chance at succeeding. Or maybe it’s our short-term reward brains thinking of all that time that could be skipped if we didn’t need to unlock those characters. But really – if you’re willing to pay money to spend less time playing a game, a recreational activity meant for fun, should you really be playing it at all?