CNN recently asked why games are never finished by most players. In an age when production values are so high, it’s a very valid question. The industry response is often that older players with work and family commitments simply can’t play as much as they used to, so this makes the case for shorter, more intense, games.
I disagree. In my experience, players find the time to play just as readers find the time to read. Online games also indicate that games can occupy many hundreds of hours for motivated players in the right circumstances.
The uncomfortable question to ask is whether the problem is the games rather than the players. Simply put, are players not completing games because they’re boring?
Production, Not Development
Most of the people who work in game development may call themselves developers but this is a loose use of the term to mean ‘involved in the making of games’. A stricter use of the term would be ‘people who develop the core of the game’, and essentially means programmers and game designers.
In actual fact, most of the art, animation, effects, audio, writing, level design, quality assurance, project management and some programming that goes on as part of creating a big game is a production activity rather than a developmental one. It has a lot more in common with animation houses and special effects companies than it does with bedroom coding or research.
The sorts of teams that work on big games number in the dozens or hundreds, largely composed of specialists, and that kind of environment has very different priorities than exist in small studios. Specialists in a production team worry that their part of the game won’t impress. Their motivation is to beat the competition in order to get noticed, hired for the next game and build their careers.
So production tends to prioritise making sure that everything is gorgeous. It’s vital that journalists be wowed, that E3 coverage is favourable, and so the feeling in the industry is that 8-10 hours of lush wonder is better both for players and for them than 16-20 hours of average.
However big productions tend to fall into several stereotypical types. Since lushness is the priority, the pressure is to make the game as conventional as possible so that it is easily planned for scope. An artist that understands first person shooters understands how to decorate them, a producer knows how to plan for them, and so on.
As a result, big games usually follow genre conventions strongly and innovate around the edges rather than at a core level. They get inherently stuck doing the same sort of specialist tasks over and over, and the resulting product can feel very canned, and thus boring. The industry seems to become fixated on products only of certain types, and finds it harder to fundamentally rethink its whole approach.
So in that sense, if the overall game as produced is not exciting the audience, it’s much easier to blame external factors (like lifestyle changes) that also serve production’s interests than to consider that the product-market fit is wrong. Like the opera, it’s easier to blame everyone else and demand state hand-outs (or tax breaks) than change.
The Indiana Jones ride in Disneyland is awesome. You are strapped into a vehicle and taken through a series of scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark. You see an animatronic Harrison Ford guide you through the tale. There are giant rolling balls coming toward you, snake temples, caverns of fire and rooms filled with bugs (not really). The experience covers all manner of thrills and spills and is expensively produced.
The design philosophy of 8-10 hour game productions is like an extended ride. They are storysense, experience and encounter driven, where every few minutes something amazingly loud happens. A mission must be completed against the clock, a do-or-die escape must happen, a boss must be killed. The excitement should never stop.
On #AltDevBlogADay, Jesse Cluff recently wrote that the soul of great action games is encounters. He suggested designing from the point of view of encounters, and figuring out the lower and the higher levels of the game around those. What he’s advocating is that special encounters should form the main game dynamic.
The problems I see with this approach are similar to what would happen if the Indiana Jones ride lasted three and a half hours as opposed to three and half minutes. It would be uncomfortable, loud, massively expensive to produce and boring.
When you see one massive action sequence, other similar ones are less interesting. Permanent excitement cannot be sustained any more than permanent laughter or horror, so when a game does try to be all spectacle all of the time, it inevitably becomes tedious. At some point the range of actions becomes thin, and the player does not feel as though he is winning, only participating.
Encounters also tend to be special-case scenarios which lack general robustness, so they only have limited application. In God of War there are several canned fights between the player and a variety of mythological figures. Each is its own unique challenge, but would have limited appeal outside the specific encounter. You would not enjoy completing the same fight many times over.
General combat in the game, however, is robust and the bedrock of why the game is great.
Every time Rovio produces a new Angry Birds expansion, it captures players all over again. Players play Minecraft night after night even in its beta state. Counter Strike is still relevant more than 10 years after its release because it is still played, and of course there is World of Warcraft. Even Mafia Wars has players who have formed clans that play with each other for years.
Players have always made time for games that ignite their interest, regardless of format. They feel the delight of mastering them, find communities to play with, and explore them in ways that even the developers that created them didn’t expect. So cultures form around games that sustain devotion in the long term.
But the games that attract that kind of engagement are usually not $50m spectaculars. Accessibility is a part of that, as is cost. Being on the web, tablet or smartphone makes it much easier for players to play continuously, and free-to-play removes a large monetary barrier. It’s more than that though.
The play brain sees through the surface to the depth underneath. It sees the frame of the game rather than its aesthetic whole, and is fascinated on a mechanical level alone. Fundamentally, the difference between a long and a short game is that the frame of the long game is continually fascinating. Whereas if it sees a world that is easily mastered, the play brain gets bored.
You can dress your game up as expensively as you like, but it doesn’t matter to the play brain. It has no time for mutton dressed as lamb. Longer games tend to deliver small wins, but they hold more significant wins back. They have sufficient depth of engine, content or robust gameplay that the player constantly feels as though they are building toward something.
Players spend a long time building characters, cities, structures or farms and they find it extrinsically rewarding. Another kind of building is intrinsic, meaning the reward gained from mastery of skill. Starcraft, football and Counter Strike players are motivated by the intrinsic pleasure of building skill.
At some point the player plateaus however. They attain their maximum mastery. That’s the point at which their farm is so big that it becomes a chore to maintain, or their online rankings in Halo Reach just aren’t getting any better. Maximum mastery is different for each player according to his individual preferences and interests, but when it eventually comes most players do not push past it.
Long games burn slowly, so they don’t get boring as fast, and they can afford to ditch the production values. Even Mafia Wars players find that there is much to do within what you might consider to be an extremely limited environment. Ditto for games like Torn City or Erepublik. Some expensive games also manage this, such as Modern Warfare or Left 4 Dead, but many don’t.
As we move further into post-platform and single-franchise publishing, intentionally trying to build games which are also communities, the question of depth over production values (substance over style) is only going to get more important. Better to recognise now that the world is not to blame for why your games go unfinished. It’s because you’re building the wrong games.
(Today’s image comes from Toban Black.)