Remember the days when extra content in video games was a surprise to unlock instead of an extra purchase advertised up front? Game design and business models have changed a lot over the years, but the shift is most obvious in, say, fighting games. Spending a few dollars to unlock Shin Akuma EX Omega isn’t nearly as thrilling or rewarding as defeating every Arcade Mode opponent with a Super Deluxe Combo with Fries and then confronting SAEXO yourself. Every now and then I’ll see people lament that DLC has replaced the standard of secret unlockables, and I understand that woe. Discovering how to get Mewtwo in Melee meant a lot more to me than just buying him in Sm4sh.
But doesn’t it seem a little odd? Comparing content hidden inside the game to extra purchases added later? Are they really so connected? I think it’s worth examining both to understand why unlockables have become so much less common, what makes the increasing presence of DLC such a divisive one, and why we draw parallels between DLC and unlockables so often.
The appeal of secret content is quite simple. A game is advertised as having X amount of content, and that looks really appealing. Awesome! So you buy the game, play it a bunch, and… wait, what’s this? Who’s this cool new guy? Why is he fighting you? And why is he now in the roster? You can play as him? More awesome! Now the game has X+1 content! A great game just got even greater! Except… the secret character was always in the game, wasn’t he? The game’s content didn’t increase to X+1; the game always had X+Y content, the developers just withheld Y content from you.
But you didn’t know that, so it did no harm. You bought the game for X content, the Y content was just a bonus you discovered later. And that thrill of discovery is a wonderful one. It’s the kind of excitement that gets people talking about the game with their peers. There’s a wonder in sharing secrets with friends, or the spread of rumors on the playground that may or may not be true. These uncertain promises draw discussion about games, and often invite people to test themselves to verify the truth of these secrets.
At least, they often did, before the information age kicked into full gear.
Rumors spread even faster, and facts spread just as quick if you know where to look for them. Youtube videos serve as proof between cause and effect between actions in games. After an age of Pikablu-littered fake news, people began to hold fan-sites more accountable for accurate information. News sites like to report new information the instant it becomes available. Any secrets that exist in a AAA game are posted to some guide website days after its release, barring the most cryptic outliers. Secrets become so much less secret when you can quickly confirm or deny their existence, without even paying a cent or playing a second of gameplay.
If you already know the secret instead of seeing the game as having X content, we know it has X+Y, but we can only play X at first. If the secret unlockable is no longer secret, it’s just a locked thing. Depending on one’s outlook, this can become more disappointing than anything. If it’s obvious that they’re in the game, why not let us play as them already, one might think? I believe that outlook is why unlockables are no longer so common in games; their content is still included, just upfront instead of kept a secret.
Coincidentally, the Internet’s development brought many new toys for developers over time; namely, the ability to add new content into games, or alter content already existing in games. You could even call this content downloadable. Previously, after game was sent to store shelves, that was probably it for it’s development, barring an enhanced edition or whatever. These days, practically any game can be expanded upon long after its original dev cycle ends.
Glitch that was overlooked? Ironed out! Fancy new character idea the devs suddenly get? Welcome to the gang! Fun game mode idea that the fanbase would love to see? Have fun with it! At long last, the content that exists in a game can truly be expanded from X to X+Y, rather than only creating the illusion of new content by hiding it beforehand. Naturally, this content takes more time and resources to develop after the game already was put on shelves, so it usually (but not always) comes with an extra price tag. It’s a small price to pay to make an awesome game a little more awesome.
Unfortunately, with this new technology came those who would misuse it. We see games rushed out often only to be horribly buggy, or to be lacking in content, or some such. The publisher’s solution? DLC! Which… I mean, it’s better than nothing, but if you only needed it in the first place because of a rushed job, aren’t you missing the point, devs? If our first impression of a game is that it’s only okay, or even bad, will putting a band-aid over it really change opinions of it, especially if we need to pay more for it? In a lot of cases, the actual reasonings behind these cases are much more complex and less malicious than people make it out to be.
But big companies have a reputation of making greedy decisions for a reason. If Shadow of War’s announcement of a DLC pack for charity contains fine print which suggests that Warner Bros. is going to directly profit from sales of the charity DLC? We have just as much reason to suspect foul play as the kid who claims he didn’t eat Santa’s cookies while he wipes milk and crumbs from his mouth. I see an example that’s less offensive (but more relevant to this blog’s subject matter) in the case of Marvel vs Capcom Infinite, where the story mode clearly teases the inclusion of refreshing new characters like a Monster Hunter in the base game, only to move them to paid DLC.
I’m not writing this blog to pardon those examples of exploitative DLC practices. We all know we’d be much better off with transparent and fair business practices everywhere. I’m writing this because, while not very often, I sometimes see people argue that the advent of DLC is responsible for the end of secret unlockables in such games. I’m sure there’s some big AAA developers who’ve chosen to do exactly that to make some extra money, but that’s the issue I have with this argument; some. Not all of them. The most vocal opponents of DLC denounce them for being a universal threat to good game design, to which I respond… what has DLC really done to secret unlockables?
The Internet’s development has created two big changes in game development philosophies. For that reason, the two seem interconnected. But there is no causation between the two themselves. Secret content, as we usually think of it, is embedded into a game’s code from the start of its shelf life. DLC isn’t added until after the game’s already gone gold and is in the hands of players (except Day 1 paid DLC, no thank you). Yes, content can be built during development and implemented after (see the aforementioned MvCI bit), but why jump to the conclusion that such is a universal constant of DLC? Even long before DLC, developers were no stranger to the concepts of iterative re-releases or physical expansion packs. Was anything stopping Capcom from keeping Ryu out of Street Fighter II to instead include him in Street Fighter II Hyper Excel Alpha Final Chapter Prologue & Knuckles? I think it’s more likely that the exploitation of modern DLC comes out of some other changes in publisher methodologies, rather than mostly to replace standard unlockables.
There just isn’t any real correlation between the assumption that secrets and DLC are mutually exclusive. In fact, there’s proof that DLC isn’t responsible for killing secrets: Super Smash Bros for Wii U and 3DS. Sure, the secrets were found out months before the DLC was even announced. But it remains true that the 4th iteration of the Smash series launched with the same unlockable system the series always had, including a handful of characters never teased in promotional material. Later, we got more characters, stages, and Mii costumes up for sale, after the game was already long considered complete by most players and critics. If the two can coexist in a respectable game, is it really accurate to say that one replaced the other?
With all of that said, should secret unlockable content be banished from game design? Of course not! I said that secrets are harder to keep in today’s age of information, not that they have any less appeal than they used to! Why else do we keep insisting that others respect spoilers for narrative games, or the like? While they won’t attract the same doubt and playground rumor factor as they used to, they can still be executed stealthily to surprisingly delightful effect, if approached carefully. For instance, I’m going to spoil a secret, fully-fledged character from Hyrule Warriors you might have known nothing about right below.
Did you know that Hyrule Warriors’ Boss Mode DLC has a playable Giant Cuccoo? The promotional materials for that DLC pack only mention Ganon as an additional character. However, if you A-rank Stage 3 of Ganon’s Fury, you unlock Cuccoo’s Fury, where you command an overgrown chicken to mercilessly ravage an army of monsters much like Ganon, but with a new moveset and altered scenarios. Nobody expected that or suspected the Giant Cuccoo before the DLC’s release, and when it finally was discovered, it was a pleasant cherry on top of the rest of the new content. Yep. A secret character hidden within a $3 DLC pack. How ironic is that?
I miss the age of abundant secrets too. But information spreads like wildfire across the Internet. It's not impossible to bring back that golden age of discovery within games, but I don't think that's likely to happen any time in the current culture of the Internet, especially with how easy it seems for leaks to spill. If we’re going to criticize DLC, I’d rather criticize it with factual examples of DLC being bad or exploitative, which there are already plenty of. It is not a fact that DLC and secret unlockables can’t co-exist; they have, they do, and they will continue to do so. There’s also a lot of factual examples of DLC being used for good. I bought Mario Kart 8 knowing I’d love it plenty as is. I bought its DLC packs knowing it’d make a great game even greater, and even my lofty expectations out of them were surpassed. Yes, DLC is becoming an evil in the hands of many developers. But it doesn’t have to. We’re not going to make much progress in getting rid of bad DLC practices if we overgeneralize their problems so much they get mushed together with the good ones.
This probably wasn’t a necessary blog, given the responses when I made a Quickpost to test the waters for this topic. But I can’t shake the impression that many recent examples of poorly implemented DLC might be disproportionately jading opinions about DLC as a whole for at least a few people, so I wanted to get these thoughts out there. I hope that one day, somehow, we might see secret unlockables rise in frequency again. Regardless, I welcome well-designed DLC implemented through ethical business practices with open arms.