Understanding Softlocks and Hardlocks in Video Games

Last Updated: July 18, 2023By
Person holding PS5 controller

Video games serve as a dynamic platform for interaction and storytelling, captivating players worldwide. While games can offer immersive experiences and complex mechanics, navigating the terminology and understanding various aspects of gameplay can sometimes pose a challenge.

Key among these terminologies are ‘softlock’ and ‘hardlock,’ terms that are crucial to understanding game progression and player experiences.

These terms, often encountered in discussions around game design and player forums, represent unique situations that gamers frequently face. Understanding the difference between a softlock and a hardlock, how to recognize these situations, and possible ways to overcome them can greatly enhance one’s gaming experience.

Detailed Understanding of Softlock

A ‘softlock’ refers to a state in a video game where progression becomes impossible without external factors like bugs or glitches, yet the game continues to run. This is in contrast to a ‘hardlock’, where the game itself completely freezes or crashes. 

Essentially, a softlock is a situation where a player is effectively “stuck” without a way forward, even though all game functions are still operable.

Examples of Softlock Situations in Popular Games

There are many instances where softlocks can occur in games. For example, in a puzzle game, a player might move a necessary object to a position from which they cannot retrieve it, making puzzle completion impossible.

In open-world games, players might inadvertently trap their characters in an area with no exit, preventing progress.

The Impact of Softlock on Gameplay

The experience of a softlock can be frustrating for players, as it can impede game progression and disrupt the gaming experience. Players may have to restart the game from their last save point or even from the beginning, depending on the game’s design.

This potential loss of progress can create a negative experience for the player.

How to Recognize and Avoid Softlock

Recognizing a softlock situation often comes from understanding the game’s mechanics and keeping track of progression-critical elements. To avoid softlocks, players should frequently save their progress (if the game allows) and be mindful of their actions, especially when interacting with game elements crucial to progression.

Player and Developer Solutions to Softlock

Players often share their softlock experiences and solutions online, aiding others who find themselves in similar situations. Developers, on the other hand, continually work to minimize the occurrence of softlocks, providing patches and updates to rectify identified issues.

These might include modifying game mechanics, improving level design, or adding safeguards to prevent players from becoming softlocked.

Detailed Understanding of Hardlock

Unlike a softlock, a ‘hardlock’ in a video game refers to a scenario where the game itself becomes completely unresponsive, often resulting in a freeze or crash. This can happen due to a variety of reasons such as a software bug, hardware malfunction, or data corruption.

When a hardlock occurs, the player usually has no other option than to restart the game or the device it’s running on.

Examples of Hardlock Situations in Popular Games

Hardlocks can be found in all types of video games, across different platforms. For instance, certain high-performance games can cause a system to hardlock if the hardware cannot handle the graphical or processing requirements.

Similarly, a game might hardlock due to a bug in its code, which might occur when the player performs a certain action or enters a specific area of the game.

The Impact of Hardlock on Gameplay

A hardlock can be even more disruptive to gameplay than a softlock. When a game hardlocks, any unsaved progress will likely be lost, forcing the player to revert to a previous save point.

This can lead to significant frustration, especially if the hardlock issue is recurrent and unresolved.

How to Recognize and Avoid Hardlock

Hardlocks are generally easier to recognize compared to softlocks, as they result in the game freezing or crashing. Preventing hardlocks is trickier, however, as they are often tied to technical issues rather than gameplay mechanics.

Ensuring that the gaming system is up-to-date, adequately cooled, and not overloaded can help mitigate the risk of hardlocks.

Player and Developer Solutions to Hardlock

When facing a hardlock, players usually have to resort to troubleshooting steps such as restarting the game or the entire system. On the developer side, hardlocks are typically addressed through software patches or updates that fix the underlying bugs causing the issue.

In some cases, hardware manufacturers may also provide solutions, such as firmware updates, to help prevent hardlocks caused by system-level issues.

Softlock vs Hardlock: Key Differences

Comparison of Impact on Gameplay

Both softlocks and hardlocks have significant impacts on gameplay, though in different ways. A softlock prevents further progress in the game while leaving the game operational.

On the other hand, a hardlock completely disrupts gameplay by freezing or crashing the game. In both cases, players may lose their progress if the game hasn’t been saved before the lock situation occurs.

Differences in User Experience

The user experiences of softlock and hardlock vary considerably. A softlock can lead to confusion and frustration as the game seems functional but doesn’t allow progression.

A hardlock, conversely, delivers a clear signal that something has gone wrong due to the game freezing or crashing, though it can cause considerable frustration due to lost progress.

Potential Solutions and Workarounds for Each

The solutions to softlocks often involve gameplay strategies such as trying different actions, restarting from a previous save, or looking for community-shared solutions. Hardlocks, however, are usually resolved through more technical means like game patches, hardware updates, or system restarts.

How Each Affects Game Development and Design

From a game development perspective, both softlocks and hardlocks represent critical issues that need to be addressed. Softlocks may indicate a problem with game design, such as a puzzle with a potential unsolvable state.

Hardlocks, however, typically point towards more serious software or hardware compatibility issues. Both require developers to continuously update and patch their games, ensuring smoother gameplay and player satisfaction.