Wednesday, March 4, 2009

i can’t believe i played the whole thing

tramampoline! trambopoline! Have you ever started a game and been really, really into it? When I start playing a game and I get really into it, I’ll often be unable to stop playing. Three hour play sessions become the norm for the next few days. Then, poof! Something else comes along, or you need to take a break to go be social for awhile or some other bullshit happens. When it comes to games, lots of people have trouble finishing. Don’t worry, honey. This happens to a lot of guys.

What makes this happen? When we start something, why can’t we see it through to the end?

If you’re playing an RPG, the most common cause is fatigue. RPGs are, on average, about three times the length of other games. No matter how fantastic, any game’s mechanics are going to have trouble staying fresh over that amount of time. Once you’re to the halfway point, you’ve heard most of the game’s music, you’ve seen most of its enemies and items and mechanics – from here on out, it’s all palette swaps and variations on previously-established themes. The game has simply overextended itself, and it’s hard to stay invested once you feel like you’ve seen most of what the game has to offer. We’ve talked about this problem a little before – don’t pad your game just to make us feel like we got our money’s worth. It can make the difference between keeping a game proudly displayed on your shelf and pawning it for a quick buck. Got damn, I’m busy! and I don’t have time to spend two-thirds of your 30 hour game level grinding because you were too busy to create 30 hours worth of actual content.

If you’re playing a sequel, something similar can happen. Sometimes it’s like being tasked with eating a giant pile of candy, or a whole extra large pizza. At first, it’s great! Oh boy, candy and/or pizza! Get to a certain point, though, and you don’t want anymore pizza. This is the way I started feeling around halfway through God of War 2 – it sure was a purty game, but hadn’t I played it awhile ago when it had different art on the box and was called God of War?

Sometimes, it’s not even the game’s fault. Many times, I’ve been barreling through a title, making excellent time and enjoying the hell out of myself, when something will happen to disrupt it. Maybe I’ll go away for the weekend, maybe I’ll get caught up in doing something for my dumb blog, or maybe I’ll just decide that I’ve had Too Much and I want to spend the entire evening in the fetal position, crying and rocking back and forth. Any road, something will happen to derail my concentration, and I just won’t be able to get back into my groove. I stay out of the groove long enough, and I forget where I was in the game and what I’m supposed to be doing. I forget where I am in the game, and it’s another barrier to entry. Why is playing video games so hard?!

So we’ve got problems finishing games. What are developers doing to lure us to the end?

Some promise Achievements, those shiny meaningless baubles that we all know that we want even though they have never and will never mean anything to anyone. Some developers actually use Achievements as a means of keeping tabs on you, and no, I don’t mean that in a Big Brother sort of way. Yes, they give Achievements to you when you find and shoot all 658 of the Jellied Pod Babies on planet Rylen 17, but they also give you some of those coveted points when you pass certain milestones in the game, and also when you beat it – developers can check these numbers and from there extrapolate data about how far their constituency got in a given title before moving on to something else. I would like to hope that they’re using this data to tailor the length of future games down to a manageable level, or perhaps even to identify whether there was a specific part of their game that didn’t resonate with people.

Others go the way of shiny new unlockables – racing, fighting and Katamari-ing games sometimes take this tack. If there is some tangible incentive for getting to the end of the single player mode – a faster car, a better gun, a coveted character – players are more likely to sit through it, even if it’s awful. The “Subspace Emissary” section of Super Smash Bros. Brawl was a laughably amateurish story mode from such a vaunted developer, but I know at least one other person who sat through it so that they could win the extra game content. I will give you a hint: he is a co-editor here and his name isn’t Rob, because his name is too busy being Craig. It was Craig.

Some, especially smaller developers, are aiming smaller. Seems like we’re talking about stuff like Braid and Portal around here at every turn, but it’s hard not to – they mark what I hope is the beginning of a trend in games to be more to the point, to keep going only as long as they can keep having ideas. This will lead to experiences with a stronger, more immediate impact both emotionally and intellectually, give us all the ability to experience more games in the same amount of time, and may even lead to reduced development time and cost, something the industry is dying to do what with the economy and all. Everyone wins!

That’s all I’ve got! Now go and develop something I’ll want to get to the end of.