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The act of getting access to additional abilities or game-related content.

Many games withhold abilities or content from players until they have met certain requirements, which may be as simple as reaching a certain level of completing the game or proving a certain level of game mastery. When players have been aware of these abilities or content before they are revealed the act of Unlocking them becomes significant in itself.

Note: This pattern does not look at the opening up of new spatial areas in Game Worlds, see Access Rewards for discussions on that (and the type of access to game content discussed here(.


Players of Tabletop Roleplaying Games such as Dungeons & Dragons could unlock new powers and skills by gaining character levels. This is also found in Computer-based Roleplaying Games but may here take the form of development trees, as for example in the Dragon Age series. Similar trees exist in First-Person Shooters such as Borderlands and Dead Island. Unlocking new weapons in the Battlefield series does not give access to better weapons but rather ones that are more specialized.

Games on social network platforms such as Facebook, e.g. CityVille and Empires & Allies, also make use of Unlocking but here this is typically tied to being able to finish constructions and players can pay money to do this instead of having to get the help from a certain amount of friends.

Using the pattern

Designing for players to be able to perform Unlocking in games rely on deciding what Abilities or game-related content can be unlocked and announcing this to the players. Unlocking is often applied to control how Privileged Abilities, Vehicles, and Weapons are introduced into gameplay. Sidegrades is a specific type of game content acquired by Unlocking that instead of directly improving players' abilities give them a greater Freedom of Choice.

Achievements and Development Trees, the latter linked for example to Powers, Skills, or Technologies, are examples of patterns that by their nature provide Unlocking so implementing these in a game also create the Unlocking pattern. Abstract Player Construct Development or Character Development can also provide Unlocking through the use of Character Levels, the already mentioned Development Trees, or more specialized solutions. For games with explicit Endgame phases, e.g. World of Warcraft, reaching theses can result in the Unlocking of new gameplay content. Endgame Quests are specifically packaged gameplay content used for this purpose.

Having sufficient numbers of Neighbors, or getting help from them, is a way of implementing Unlocking in CityVille and other games on social network platforms; for these games Unlocking is typically also Purchasable Game Advantages.


Since Unlocking is the act of gaining access to something preordained, this can easily be felt as a Reward, or more precisely an Access Reward than gives Value of Effort to the actions leading up to the Unlocking; an exception to this if the Unlocking is a result of an Purchasable Game Advantages. Knowing about the possibility of Unlocking something makes it possible to have Anticipation about this and can motivate both Grinding and Player-Planned Development. It however ruins the possibilities that the effects of the Unlocking actions are Surprises.


Can Instantiate

Access Rewards, Anticipation, Grinding, Player-Planned Development, Rewards, Sidegrades, Value of Effort

Can Modulate

Abilities, Endgame, Privileged Abilities, Vehicles, Weapons

Can Be Instantiated By

Abstract Player Construct Development, Achievements, Character Development, Character Levels, Development Trees, Endgame Quests, Neighbors, Purchasable Game Advantages

Can Be Modulated By


Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With



New pattern created in this wiki. However the concept was first described in the Gamasutra article Aesthetics of Social Games[1] by Aki Järvinen.


  1. Järvinen, A. (2010). Aesthetics of Social Games. Posted 07/05/10 on Gamasutra.