Geek Spiel – Too Big For Their Britches: When Games Outlast Their Mechanics

 Despite huge sales, AAA game developers and publishers continue to struggle to turn a consistent profit. Between the used game market, rental services, and piracy chipping away at the bottom line, huge budgets and years of time investment make it difficult to earn money back,. Some publishers have taken draconian measures (such as Microsoft’s infamous DRM decisions for the upcoming Xbox One; since being rescinded), but others have taken a more gamer friendly approach by cramming their games with enough content that even the most frugal of players can feel that they’re getting their money’s worth when they drop $60 on a game.

The quality of this content, however, is greatly variable. The quest to extend the amount of gameplay as much as possible has led to many halfhearted multiplayer modes, poorly realized open worlds, and an abundance of uninspired “go here, kill this”/fetch quests. It’s not to say that any of these chosen mechanics are bad in and of themselves when done well, but that they have become shorthand for “we can make our game last longer by doing this.” Such a quantity over quality gameplay approach is easily noticed by players, and soon developers are left scratching their heads as to why their games aren’t selling as well as they could.

I know the world’s in jeopardy and all, but I’m REEEEEALLY gonna need you to get me those 50 bear asses.

But even when designers put their heads together and come up with something truly unique and inspired, they encounter a more insidious issue. In an ideal game, a number of well-realized mechanics all feed into and compliment one another, each building upon the gameplay experience to create something deep and complex. They provide enough direction to give impetus for moving forward, but enough openness that players can feel free to find their own unique, personalized expression within the game world. The problem I’m suggesting may arise when, despite the fact that the game as a whole may have an anticipated 40 or 50 hours of gameplay, if broken down into its individual parts, the amount of fun, immersive gameplay offered by each of the games mechanics (measured in hours of gaming) don’t add up.

This is a bit of an odd concept to wrap your head around, so I’ll try and clarify a bit. Say a video game has an anticipated 20 hours to beat the main campaign. In addition, that same game has a number of side quests that reward you with additional money or experience points to upgrade your character to face tougher foes. These side quests add another, oh, let’s say 10 hours to the game, adding up to a total of 30 hours of play. In addition to THAT, there are hidden items (for completion) and loot chests scattered around the world that you can find for additional cash. Bam. Another 5 hours, let’s say. Sounds like a pretty good investment for 60 bucks, right? Well, here’s where it gets complicated.

Such a game would, of course, have a store that you can spend said money at, and an upgrade tree to spend those experience points on upgrades of your choosing. What happens when a player decides to take the opportunity to explore, find a whole ton of loot chests, and do a bunch of side quests, rather than focus on doing the main campaign? By amassing cash from all the side quests and looting, the player goes through and cleans out the store, buying all the best weapons. This same process of exploration greatly accelerates their ability to amass experience points and progress through the skill tree, soon reaching max level on most, if not all of their skills. Suddenly, despite only being a third of the way through the campaign, your player is now a unstoppable murder machine made of meat and rage, and as a result, instead of the campaign being engaging and fun due to the progressive increase of difficulty, a gamer can carve a swath of bloody destruction with ease. Don’t get me wrong; this is fun, but after a while, without the challenge, things get rather boring, and boredom is the kiss of death in gaming.

Hour 5: “I AM ALL THAT IS MAN!!! HAHAHAHAHA!!!”
Hour 10: “I AM… still.. all that is man… and Game of Thrones is on. Fuck this.”

The problem goes deeper than just boredom, however. The fact that each of the mechanics supplement the others is what gives them value. You need money and experience to get stronger, which you need to beat the tougher enemies, which you want to do because you want to find out what happens next in the story, etc. But once you’ve bought everything and levelled up as far as you can, those experience points and money lose their value. As a function of this, a great deal of motivation is lost for doing side quests, so that a player may just not feel any inclination to want to do them (even if there are many left). Minus 5 hours of gameplay there. If a similar incentive is applied to the collectible items, they suffer the same penalty. Who wants to spend hours looking under every rock if there’s no real reward? There goes another 5 hours. Not only that, but remember that ease of gameplay that was brought by all that amassed firepower? It too plays a part: unless your story is exceptionally crafted, the monotony that follows simply being able to mow down waves of enemies without any feeling of challenge or novelty may very well cause a player to lose interest in completing the campaign. Suddenly, a 20 hour campaign is cut down to 8 hours worth of gameplay for the simple reason that it isn’t fun anymore, and an anticipated 35-40 hour game now in actuality only has 13-15 hours worth of enjoyment in it.

While this only hurts the player initially, the effects of this problem not only extend to the developer and publisher of that game, but also to every other AAA developer and publisher. A player feeling buyer’s remorse after dropped 60 bucks on a game where she was promised a long-lasting enjoyment is suddenly skeptical about doing so in the future, opting to rent, buy used at a drastically reduced price, or straight up pirate the game to avoid the financial risk. Even eagerly anticipated games run the risk of failing this longevity test, hurting the industry as a whole in result.

Stay tuned for the next edition of Geek Spiel, where we’ll take a look at ways that game developers can (and that some already do) to help give their games a genuinely longer shelf life!

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