Today I started playing Kingdom Come: Deliverance and quite early on I realised something. The lockpicking minigame is really bad. In this game on Xbox you have to use your right joystick/thumbstick to find a sweet spot, then using your left stick you have to turn the lock which sounds simple. The problem is that when you turn the lock the sweet spot moves so your right stick has to move to stay on point. It sounds simple but it’s so fiddly to do that even on locks rated “very easy” I’ve only got the lock half way around before my pick broke and I had to start again. It’s a skill to learn but if I need to put that much effort in to learning something virtual then why don’t I spend that time developing a skill in real life. What I mean is that this lockpicking system is too complex.
Then you go to a game like Fallout 3 where it’s find a sweet spot and turn, it’s so easy that it’s boring when you have to do it. This system has been used in quite a few games from Bethesda and they use the same system repeatedly because it works. This system is quick, easy to grasp and simple for the player. No-one dreads using this system but no-one looks forward to it either, it isn’t good but it works.
Before arriving at the Fallout 3 style of lockpicking, Bethesda used the tumbler system found in Oblivion. In this system up to five tumblers had to be bounced up and locked in place. This was a good idea, something creative that took a bit of focus and got the player engaged. However it was too had to predict when the tumbler was right so, although it felt like you could learn how to do it properly, the minigame wasn’t interesting to learn when there were spells or a skeleton key that could open locks for you. It was a good level of complexity but it wasn’t very fun and with the alternatives in game it became pointless to try.
The Elder Scrolls online tried something new. A tumbler game similar to Oblivion’s except this time you just put pressure on the tumblers until they shake and lock them in place when they do, this is done with five tumblers and is against a timer. There’s some pressure added with the timer but that’s all that adds any interest, there’s no consequence to failing and what’s inside chests is usually not worth it anyway and breaking into houses is just for certain classes. This one is too simple and has too little reward to be any good.
I’ve seen games that have a lockpicking skill without a minigame which is just number based as to whether you can open things, some of these have animations and some don’t. Some games just force you to complete an objective or find a key before a lock will open which was a nice idea in God Of War with the puzzle chests but that can’t function in games that need hundreds of chests rather than just a few. In VR Blood And Truth had a more interactive lockpicking game with the Move sticks where your whole arms got involved and there was door breeching but non-VR games don’t function with those controllers so can never be as interactive.
It seems that game creators can keep trying new innovative ways to open locks but I don’t think there will ever be one that is actually good in method and fun for the player to do.