"Unlocks" and the gamification of gaming



I blinked. I had just launched Battlefield 3, and for some reason there a pop-up promising me…fairness?

“Tired of fighting an uphill battle against Battlefield veterans?” it continued.  “The Ultimate Shortcut Bundle unlocks 119 weapons, gear and vehicle upgrades.” At which point it directed me to a link where I could pay Electronic Arts a mere $40 for said “shortcut.”

The marketing hit close to home. After getting a new job in November, my Battlefield 3 play tailed off. When I resumed regular play in March, I was amused to find that every Tom, Dick and Harry was some sort of general within the games’ “persistent rank” system. The surrealism of a bunch of top commanders duking it out in infantry combat was made less entertaining by the fact that I was a measly sergeant, and was thus outclassed not just in experience, but in the equipment available to me.

Like every contemporary online action game, Battlefield 3 makes use of “unlocks,” which takes the form of additional weapons, accessories, devices, and abilities for the player. Unlocks are, in theory, earned by merit: players who accomplish more earn more points, which in turn unlock more equipment and tactical options.

But six months after release, Battlefield 3’s unlock system had eaten its own tail; every gun I looted was some cutting-edge bullpup rifle tricked out with laser sights and oversized scopes, while I was running around with the assault rifle equivalent of a BB gun. And I couldn’t level the playing field except by defeating my overqualified opponents; it would have been hard enough to match such experienced foes WITHOUT them having an outright mechanical advantage. I wasn’t convinced that they were outright *better* than me, and figured that they had unlocked these guns simply because they had far more free time. I fumed. I wanted to take them down. And I all had to do was give EA some cash. Even with a ridiculous price tag, there was some part of me that was tempted.

Then I realized that this was utterly insane. EA had designed a game with a serious problem: new users, already at a disadvantage against their more experienced peers, had the deck further stacked against them through the use of unlocks. EA’s marketing for the Ultimate Unlock Pack explicitly acknowledge the problem they had created, but rather than come up with a creative attempt to solve it they seemed content to monetize it.

It was the inevitable result of a design that placed more emphasis on the unlock process than on winning the game’s fictional battles. Battlefield 3 was already awash in “high ticket” servers that extended the number of lives each side had, allowing for near-endless matches. The only reason I can think of for such servers is that many players viewed the end of a match, and the accompanying scoreboards and loading times, as an unwelcome interrupting of the points flow. It seemed as though the unlocks had become the chief focus, an additional “game layer” on top of the game that was designed to tap into player’s compulsive tendencies and drive them to play longer than they otherwise would.

But I had no one to blame but myself. I was there when unlocks first started to appear, welcomed them with open arms, and supported them every step of the way. Alongside millions of other gamers, I created a monster; a monster that could trace its lineage all the way back to the origin of RPGs.

The Origin of Unlocks
As with most things in gaming, unlocks have their roots in Dungeons & Dragons. When we talk about unlocks, what we’re really talking about is persistence; the idea that your decisions and accomplishments carry long-term weight, that you can develop and character over many play sessions. This idea was present in almost all of the early video games, from having your points and lives carry over between levels in shooters and platformers to having a dedicated inventory or set of developing abilities, as in early adventure and role-playing game. In fact, the only games that didn’t have this sort of persistence were those designed for competitive arcade play, like Street Fighter II; the matches were short to keep the quarters coming, and there was no point in having persistence because the players were constantly rotating in and out. There was also something to be said for keeping things static, so that players could develop mastery over the system rather than having to constantly learn changes; in this way fighting games were closer to sports or board games than traditional single-player video games.

It was this design that seems to have been the basis for the early online first-person shooters, namely Maze War (the 1973 originator of the genre) and 1993’s Doom, which invented the term “deathmatch” while popularizing the free-for-all shootfest. While the player could get new items during a match, there were no lasting consequences; once the level changed, everyone’s score was reset to zero and they were once again spawning with the starter weapons and racing to find a shotgun or rocket launcher.

This was the status quo for the next decade. While some games – namely the Team Fortress mods and the Tribes series – allowed increasing character customization through character classes or a customizable inventory system, there was no real persistence in online gaming. At least, not in shooters.

RPG designers couldn’t ignore the fact that internet gaming was growing exponentially more popular with each passing year, and a a few years after Doom started developing online games in the RPG mold.  While there had always been multi-user dungeons, or “MUDs” for decades  (text-based online worlds that players navigated with a text parser) it wasn’t until the 1997 release of Ultima Online that an online role-playing game achieved mass success. Ultima Online allowed the player to develop a character, learn new skills, participate in a player-driven economy, and even own a home. In short, all the things you couldn’t do in online first person shooters. The massive success of Everquest two years later only further demonstrated the demand for these features.

The two genres would merge for the first time in 2003’s Planetside, which featured three factions waging a massive combined-arms war across ten continents. Apart from a persistent world where different factions could capture and hold bases and, eventually, entire continents, Planetside also featured “Battle Ranks,” the equivalent of levels. As a pure FPS, the game had no player attributes to change; instead, additional battle ranks allowed the player to complete additional “certifications,” which were needed to operate the game’s vehicles and wield a variety of specialized weaponry. It was here that unlocks, in their modern form, were born.

While the game’s massive battles and sophisticated squad system led to some truly novel movements – perhaps best exemplified by Quintin Smith’s “Planetside: The 1%” –  it was the persistent elements that kept me playing. Networking technology was simply not ready for Planetside’s ambitious design, and as a result the gunplay was mediocre at best, with barely-there physics and rectangular hitboxes making it feel like an FPS stripped down to its base elements. But the constant possibility of new things on the horizon kept me playing. I saw a gunship, and I wanted to fly it. I was killed by the gunship, and I wanted to train in anti-air capabilities.

But the Planetside developers made the conscious decision to not lock the player into their certifications. When a player leveled up, she would get a “certification point” that could be used towards a new certification. But this was not a binding decision; there was a 24 hour cooldown timer on my decision, after which I could swap any chosen certification for one other certification; say, abandon my rocket-launcher training to learn how to use sniper rifles. The cooldown prevented players from constantly juggling roles and made gaining additional certification points actually meaningful, but the choice to swap allowed the player to sample all the game had to offer and not feel “locked out” of any aspect of the game. I eventually tried every certification, and lacking a dedicated clan and being continually underwhelmed by the actual combat, I left; there was nothing more for me to see.

Unlocks would see their first release in a traditional, match-based FPS with 2005’s Battlefield 2, the first true sequel to my favorite online game. As with its predecessor, Battlefield 2 featured a number of different character classes; but it also had an array of stat-tracking features, and even awarded player’s medals and ribbons for continuing accomplishments. After enough progress, the player would be allowed to unlock the “special weapon” for one of the game’s seven character classes; and, unlike in Planetside, the decision was binding.

In 2012, it must seem quaint to imagine a game where each class had only a single unlock, but at the time it was positively exciting. It didn’t even matter what the gun was; just the idea that I was making progress even in games I was losing badly really enhanced the experience. I wanted my decisions to matter; and while I didn’t enjoy the base game quite as much as I had Battlefield 1942, I became hooked on this constant sense of growth, and looked forward to it appearing in more games.

Just over a year later, EA and DICE released Battlefield 2142, and other than the sci-fi setting the biggest change was the massive expansion of unlocks. Battlefield 2’s seven classes were cut down to four, but this was more than made up for by having complex skill trees for weapons and abilities within each class that not only allowed for greater powers but a fair amount of tailoring; the Recon Class could fill more of a “sniper” or “commando” role, depending on how the player upgraded it.

In theory, it was a brave new front in online gaming, and was in some ways even closer to a true RPG progression system than Planetside’s certifications. But there was a dark side to these unlocks. What had once been basic abilities in each class now had to be unlocked in play; and until a player did, they would be at a real disadvantage against the more experienced players. Graham Swann’s review of the game at Eurogamer offered one of the first critiques of this model. “It’s bad enough in a multiplayer shooter when you find yourself being outplayed,” he wrote, “[but] introducing a mechanic where someone else is just better in absolute terms seems like a betrayal of the genre, which is based around competition of skill not persistence. Just because World of Warcraft has seven million people playing it doesn’t mean that every game should become World of Warcraft.”

But such concerns were not enough to stop Infinity Ward from doing the same thing (minus the class system) in a little game called Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. After its smash success, and the record-breaking sales of its successors, there was no turning back.

The Game Layer on Top of the Game
In 2010, social game designer Seth Priesbatch gave a TED talk titled “The game layer on top of the world.” Much as designer Jesse Schell had done two months earlier, Priesbatch described a future in which game mechanics would expand well beyond traditional games and into every facet of society, a technique known as gamification. “We like to joke that with seven [types] of game dynamics, you can get anyone to do anything,” explained Priesbatch, before explaining a few in detail. For instance, the “appointment dynamic” – in which, to succeed, “a player has to return at a predefined time to take a predetermined action” – has long been around in the form of bar’s “happy hours.”

But while Priesbatch talks about the ways these mechanics can be applied to the larger world in order to (hopefully) drive individual to do good and have fun, his breakdown also gives us insight into the ways game developers seek to provide motivation for play. These dynamics form the basis of the emerging “games as a service” model, which seeks to shift games from self-contained “box products” to ongoing gaming experiences hosted on the internet and funded through subscriptions or continued microtransactions from the player; in essence, the video game equivalent of “cloud computing.”

For instance, the “appointment dynamic” is used as the basis for the enormously successful Farmville, in which players have limited windows in which to water and harvest crops, and has been introduced to FPS games in the form of “double experience weekends.” Speaking of Farmville, Priesbatch explained the dynamic’s incredible power. “When [developer Zynga] tweak their stats, when they say your crops wilt after six hours or after eight hours or after 24 hours, it changes the life cycle of some 70 million people during the day. They will return, like clockwork, at different times.”

Unlocks combine numerous game dynamics to achieve their effect. The rank systems of Battlefield and Modern Warfare use the “influence and status” dynamic – the desire to achieve equity with and even exceed one’s peers in social standing – to drive players to constantly play the game, lest they “fall behind.” But even more integral is the “progression dynamic” – the visceral feeling of pleasure and accomplishment players feel when “success is granuarly displayed and measured through the process of completing itemized tasks.” Sound familiar?

The problem comes when these dynamics are applied, not as an integral part of the game design, but as a ancillary layer whose sole point is provide added motivation for continued play – and nothing else. The point of unlocks in Battlefield 3 isn’t to increase the fun I’m having; it’s to encourage me to play more than I would otherwise. Take away the unlocks and the typical play experience remains unchanged. The only thing that would be lost would be the ability to customize my character, but even that isn’t inherently tied to the progression system. The developers could have all of the additional weapons and abilities available to the player from day one, or – if that was too overwhelming – unlock them in significant chunks after just a few hours of gameplay.

No, unlocks are merely here to keep me playing Battlefield 3 eternally. And it seems to be working; based on how quickly many players achieved top rank combined with the fact that it takes hundreds of hours of play to do so, we can only assume that either they’re playing few games other than Battlefield 3 or have an unusual abundance of free time with which to play it. Which is exactly how EA wants it. And if they can get some of the less-devoted players to give them $40 to “level the playing field,” then all the better. I fear a world in which the likes of the satirical Progress Quest – an RPG that plays itself, and merely consists of various bars and stats tracking your progress towards wealth and power – will actually be a serious commercial product.

In just a few short years the unlock-free online FPS has been entirely wiped out. I’m to blame as much as anyone; I vote with my dollar, and I bought Battlefield 3 when it came out, knowing full well the unlocks it contained. And at first, I even enjoyed them. But the more I played, the more frustrated I was at the artificial constraints placed on my success, and the artificial goals that were dictated to me by the developers.

Fortunately, EA and Activision don’t have a monopoly on game development. The recent wave of “outdated” game designs being funded on Kickstarter has shown that there is an audience for the games of the ‘90s, and I won’t be surprised if someone ends up making  a new online FPS that has more in common with Quake than Call of Duty. But I’m not ready to be an old fogey yet; the past was not perfect, and the excitement I felt at developing my Planetside character over many battles was very real. The developers of Planetside 2 are promising that all unlocks will be “sidegrades” that merely give additional tactical options rather than outright advantages; and while it’s a difficult act to pull off, I have faith in their good intentions. Other games are focusing solely on the “status” aspect, rewarding cosmetic and social enhancements that do not directly affect power in the world. And there are other, untried solutions. There could be an FPS with a “multi-directional” unlock model that gave new players certain abilities that they lose as they gain experience, giving them a fighting chance against the more experienced players. As the “unlock” model continues to spread hand-in-hand with free-to-play and games as a service, more and more developers will take a stab at fixing the inherent balance problems while keeping the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that I value. I can only hope that, eventually, someone will get it right.


  1. SinclairVox

    The growing prevalence of “gamification” is as worrisome as it is exciting… but within the context of a multiplayer community, there are games that manage the balance relatively well.
    Take the progression system in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, for instance: on the one hand, abilities and ability sets (the things which confer an actual mechanical advantage to the players) are all unlocked within relatively few hours of playing the multiplayer (and here I’m talking 15-20 hours… certainly nothing approaching the commitment asked by shooters like Battlefield, Call of Duty, or even Gears of War).
    However, layered on top of these abilities are a whole host of cosmetic options, which must be purchased by “Abstergo credits,” a reward offered partly on participation and partly on performance… you may also purchase modifications to your abilities–a slightly wider range for your smoke bomb, perhaps, or a slightly quicker cooldown on your throwing knives.
    This bifurcation of the unlock tree means that newbies (or infrequent players) have very little mechanical disadvantage, or at least they don’t for very long. The upshot is that frequent players are continually unlocking new content, and are continually able to tweak and re-tweak their abilities as their play style changes. 
    OH! And, on top of all this, there are also the challenges–specific, achievement-like gameplay goals that confer additional experience upon their completion but offer no real “unlocks” beyond the bragging rights they confer. 
    My participation in this multiplayer community is fairly infrequent, but I always feel as though the matches are fair–and I’m always excited at the prospect of unlocking new material or completing new challenges. 

  2. Christer van der Meeren

    The multiplayer mode of Mass Effect 3 has some of the same. You play to earn (virtual) money, e.g. 30k for a round of approx. 20 minutes. You buy one of three equipment packs, costing 5k, 20k or 60k, containing increasingly rare and random items. Each weapon have 10 levels, and each of the four rarities has 5-15 weapons, which makes for 50-150 possible weapon unlocks for each rarity (not to mention many equipment unlocks too). To get your chosen weapon to level 10 – especially the rare (good) ones, effectively requiring you to purchase the 60k pack – would require gold farming like nothing else, and a bit of luck on top of it.
    So the thing is, new weapons does not really alter the way you play. New classes might, and those have to be unlocked too, requiring an equal amount of luck and credits. But the unlocks exist primarily to keep you playing, not to enhance the fun.
    And the “appointment dynamic” is here too. Every other weekend, special weekend challenges are presented to the community: Survive a Gold match to get some new equipment for yourself, kill 100k [annoying and powerful enemy here] across the community for each player to get another reward, etc.
    Oh, and you can of course use Bioware Points to purchase the equipment packs. Just below $2 for the most expensive pack, and to unlock every Gold equipment, you’d need more than 150 of these packs. So, in excess of $300 for full Gold unlocks, yeah.

  3. Shane O Reilly

    “But six months after release, Battlefield 3’s unlock system had eaten its own tail; every gun I looted was some cutting-edge bullpup rifle tricked out with laser sights and oversized scopes, while I was running around with the assault rifle equivalent of a BB gun”
    Wrong. The default stock US assault and engineer weapons, M16A3 and M4A1, are widely considered to be the most versatile weapons in their classes in the game. You just have to look at competitive play to see how much they are used. There is no “best gun” in the BF3 unlock system, just guns that excel in different situations, CQ like AEK and Famas, long range such as AK 74M (post-patch or L85A2 so complaining that
    “it would have been hard enough to match such experienced foes WITHOUT them having an outright mechanical advantage. I wasn’t convinced that they were outright *better* than me, and figured that they had unlocked these guns simply because they had far more free time. I fumed. ”
    is completely inaccurate, which proves to highlight a fundamental ignorance into how the weapons system  in BF3 is balanced or allows the author to forgo journalistic integrity in favour of jumping on the bandwagon by slating EA. 
    Don’t get me wrong I’m not a fan of these new “shortcuts” either but it would be nice to see the facts portrayed in this article. 

    • andre.boillot

       @Shane O Reilly To be fair, plenty of new/casual players have a “fundamental ignorance” when it comes to many of BF3s systems – much of which isn’t explained well in-game.  That you have to wait until you’re in-game and in-round to view your setups and the descriptions of what the weapon attachments do is a real problem.  Sure, players willing to do research into the best setups will find plenty of user-created resources…but again, not something that the new/casual player have access to from the get-go. 

    • Dylan Holmes

       @Shane O Reilly  Hey Shane,
      Thanks for the feedback. I’ll take your word for the relative balance of BF3’s unlocks, and this did actually present me with an interesting journalistic quandary when writing this piece. On one hand, the fancier guns often *seemed* more powerful, but I realized this may have just been psychological trickey, the confidence gained when I looted a weapon I had yet to unlock and just assumed it was better. As noted in the article, I’m a casual BF3 player and am not familiar with the tournament scene.I did a quick search, and the few guides I looked at initially were almost as useless as the in-game resources; GameFAQs, too, had nothing decent. This is not in itself an excuse for mistakes, but one thing I was trying to do with this piece was present the view of a more typical player. The assumptions I make about the unlocks are the assumptions that most any player will make; as Andre notes below, few will go digging through dedicated forums to find the general consensus on “most verstatile weapons,” and the fact that I never loot M16A3s or M4A1s on public servers is testament to the fact that most other players aren’t aware of it.
      The question then becomes: Did EA/DICE intentionally obfuscate the abilities of the guns by leaving out detailed information/stats from Battlelog? Or were they just lazy/incompetent? Frankly, I’m guessing the former, given that they were hardly lazy or incompetent in other areas of the game’s design. If so, then that’s really all that matters; the *perception* that these unlocks are better is all that is needed for the dynamics to take effect and my points to be valid.
      In short: while I certainly understand your frustration with my incorrect perceptions, I’d stand by including them in the article. The history section is supposed to be objective, and I’m going to be embarassed if anyone digs up glaring errors in that. But the intro is my subjective experience of the game; and the actual competitive balance of the guns doesn’t really factor into it. 

      • Shane O Reilly

         @Dylan Holmes HI Dylan, I appreciate you taking time to respond to me. On the whole I’d tend to agree with a lot of what you said, both here and in the original article (even if it didn’t seem that way) but I mainly feel that blaming the unlock system was the wrong way to highlight EA/DICE’s shortcomings, of which there are many in fairness. While I understand that you say the intro was your own subjective experience I felt it came across as if you were making incorrect assertions about the weapon balance and unlock system.
        At 166 hours of multiplayer since launch I’m probably much more than a casual player and not who this article was aimed at but after a few mintues of searching from very early on in the games life I found
        (with an all encompassing noob resource guide linked directly at the top of the page) to be extremely helpful as well as
        for every Battlefield statistic you could ever want. 
        But back to the article at hand, from reading the forums and developer posts I think it’s somewhat implied that they dont add specific weapon/attachments statistics as they want you to play through different set ups in order to get a feel for each load-out. 
        As for the EA ads stating “playing field wasn’t level” It is an extremely dishonest marketing ploy that only adds to the confusion surrounding the weapons strengths and weaknesses for new players. The only in game scenario in which these unlocks actually make a “level the playing field” difference is when airborne in jets/helis. 

        • Dylan Holmes

           @Shane O Reilly I get what you’re saying there. Honestly, I’m tempted to add in a correction, but I hate anything that seems like revisionism; these comments should be enough! And yeah, I really should have focused on the jets/helis more here; in my review I wrote about my frustration that you had to “unlock” IR flares, making new players a sitting dick in aircraft.It’s a little weird. I’m making incorrect assumptions, but they’re assumptions that the game implicitly supports (even aside from EA’s marketing). And it may just be they way we think about unlocks; we always assume they’re better, and the early going (in which some “basic” abilities are locked, like the assault’s revive paddles) supports that impression. Of course, part of the problem is that by dealing with “real world” weapons and a pseudo-realistic combat system, the differences can be subtle even if the perceptions of their power are not. It will be interesting to see how Planetside 2 and Mechwarrior Online, with their sci-fi settings, can further differentiate the weapons and make the differences/strengths more apparent.I appreciate the reddit links! I’ll definitely check them out.

    • Dylan Holmes

       @Shane O Reilly It’s also worth nothing that the mentioned EA ads were explicitly stating that the “playing field wasn’t level” if you hadn’t unlocked the later weapons!

  4. andre.boillot

    I have to disagree with how you represent the starting weapons available to you in BF3.  While some of the unlock-able guns/attachments perform better in certain situations, the starting weapons are almost all very well balanced.  While some of the attachments do look impressive, usually there’s a clear trade-off to weigh, and whatever situational advantages are gained come at the cost of versatility.  Also, the most beneficial attachments – usually an upgrade to a scope – are unlocked quite early (10 kills).  The current consensus is that the best all-around assault weapons are the starter weapons with the Heavy Barrel (20 kills) and a low-power scope (50 kills).  Basically, within a few hours of playing the game, you’d have everything you needed for the best all-around assault set-up.  Granted, you’d have to know that the starter weapon was the best and stick with it…but I don’t think using BF3’s weapon unlock system is a good way to address unlocks in general.

    • Dylan Holmes

       @andre.boillot Thanks for the feedback!My response to Shane below covers most of this. If what you say is true (and I have no reason to doubt it!) it’s an interesting decision on DICE’s part to not make that clear; I suspect they WANT you to think the later weapons are better in order to compel you to play. I know I haven’t leveled up my M16 or AK-74!

      • andre.boillot

         @Dylan Holmes It’s quite annoying that the community had to come together to create its own knowledge base in terms of describing the weapons/attachments in depth – and that DICE’s explanations (which sometimes lack clarity) are only available in-game -> in-round from the load-out menus.  The later weapons are better…for specific situations/playstyles.  Usually this boils down to advantages at different ranges, or damage vs. RoF vs. accuracy.  
        Pre-patch, there were issues with certain weapon types having essentially one “best” load-out (holo, grip, suppressor), and if you didn’t know that, you’d be at a disadvantage.  DICE changed the way a lot of the attachments worked though, making load-outs much more role/playstyle specific.  Though, again, you’ll still need to do your own research to get the best results.

        • Dylan Holmes

           @andre.boillot In that sense, it is sort of like WOW; a game designed to be accessible to casual players but which, at the end of the day, requires a very detailed and sophisticated understanding to “optimize” your character and play-style; the kind of stuff you probably won’t learn over the course of play. It’s the age of the gaming wiki, that’s for sure.

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