Gating On My Nerves

It’s not until we play with those less familiar with our hobby that the cracks begin to show. Shooting your 84th bad dude never seemed as repetitive until you’ve sat beside someone not as well versed.

My four-year-old and I have been playing games together over the past couple of years. The time we spend is great, and whether she knows it or not, it can be enlightening. In our time together in Super Mario 3D World, she’s made me think about content gating. Throughout the game, certain stages require a particular amount of Green Stars to unlock, and therefore, play. The process even goes so far as to have an early world’s final level be unlockable, which means you can’t make progress unless you have the required Green Stars. It’s not a sizable amount, but the decision seems at odds with Nintendo’s effort to wrangle in new and lapsed gamers. When I play with my daughter, it’s her show; I don’t tell her what to do or where to go. I just want her to ave fun. As such,, content has been locked off, and progress is halted by not collecting what appears to be an optional collectible.

So has Nintendo and other developers unfairly limited what these players experience? Am I just a huge whiner?

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Despite my history with video games, I’d argue that this practice isn’t fair. There’s this want of reward from games, a feeling that gave birth to Achievements and the like. This provides us with a badge of honour, a way to show our acts of grandeur. I believe we’ve lost sight of the experience as the reward. Level by level progress is just that, an accomplishment of what we’ve done. But by asking players to scour the land for various MacGuffins or hit thresholds for progress, I worry we may be putting people off from the joys of gaming.

Of course, there has be a logic behind all this. Just why do developers put content behind walls?

I spoke with Jools Watsham of Renegade Kid on the matter. As the developer of Mutant Mudds, I felt his input was needed. Mudds strikes an interesting middle ground, but still leans heavily in the direction of gating content. Of the game’s initial 16 initial levels, all are unlocked by simple progression alone. The game’s Grannie Stages, however, require players to obtain all the diamonds within a particular level, including those in the hidden G-Land and V-Land areas.

“The secret levels are gated in Mutant Mudds to give players something to strive for and work towards,” Watsham tells me. “I believe the sense of accomplishment you get from achieving something difficult is great, and an important reflection of real life.”

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Watsham makes a strong point. For as much as I protest the decision, far be it from me to say my preferred experience should be standard. Maybe what’s important is there being a fair amount of content that everyone can enjoy, with the optional material set aside for the more experienced.

“Many players will only experience the first 16 levels, and be OK with that as they do not feel the need to complete every game they own. I am OK with that,” Watsham says. “They may stumble across the secret V-Land and G-Land levels in level 1-1 and 1-2, which may encourage some to seek out all of the secret levels. But, some players will be turned off by the extra difficulty presented in those levels and avoid them at all costs. Bwahaha.”

Watsham’s laughter reveals an excitement in challenging players. While I put forward the notion that developers want every ounce of their product exhumed, it’s clear that’s not universal. Afterall, many of the folks behind this software are gamers. Knowing players are struggling to overcome an obstacle, yet still having fun, must be quite the thrill.

“It can be exciting to explore beyond the scope of your initial impression of a game,”Watsham continues, “which was a conscious decision with the design of Mutant Mudds. The moment you realize the game is much larger than the 20 doors presented to you on the level select HUB is very special. In some, this may give you a sense of relief that there’s more content to enjoy while also perhaps giving you a sense of dread for the challenge that lies ahead.

I am OK with the fact that some players will not see all of the levels. Perhaps one day down the road they’ll come back to the game and give it another shot. Maybe they’ve got their fill from the first four worlds, and that’s cool with me too.”

While Watsham’s feelings are generally opposite my own, he’s not afraid to let everyone in on a little more joy. With the Ghost levels introduced in Mutant Mudds Deluxe (available now on the Wii U, PS3, and Vita), Renegade Kid allowed them to be unlocked through progression, similar to that initial batch of 16 levels.

In posing the same question of gating content to DrinkBox Studios, I discovered that despite a game like Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack tackling the subject in a manner I’m inclined to agree with, it doesn’t mean our reasons are the same.

“There is a bunch of factors with regards to gating,” DrinkBox’s Chris McQuinn tells me. “One of them really is logistics. For Mutant Blobs Attack, there was no unlockable content, true, and I think this was just how we saw the game should be. ie. a platformer, completely all the way through, first time, all players can see all content. It was really the feeling we had for what MBA was all about. I think another factor is that unlockable content just costs more development time, which we often don’t have. We’re small, and usually need to get our games out to recoup our costs.”

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But just as the role of collectibles can change depending on a game’s budget and schedule, the game’s genre affects the decision as well.

“With Guacamelee, we had a bit more flexibility on development time and the feeling of the game was different,” McQuinn states. “By nature we wanted Guac to be exploratory, which means it wasn’t going to be linear (unlike MBA), so we prioritized gated areas/optional side areas.”

I’m left wondering if a game intends to foster a better player, is that a bad thing? Taking what Watsham and McQuinn had to say on the issue, I’d have to say no. I’d love for my daughter to best me in the future, with me resorting to her game file so I can play those stages I’m locked away from. I maintain that I don’t see any fault in letting players experience everything a game has to offer, and letting the difficulty of the level itself be the determining factor of whether the player continues or not. But there isn’t any sort of ruling body for gaming, which thankfully means I’m not the head of it. There’s plenty of options out there, for every type of gamer, an that diversity is why I love this hobby so much.

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