Sunday, August 15, 2010

Too Big and Too Hard

I wrote the following early this year, and it generated a lot more attention than I anticipated. Developers, particularly, responded very positively and noted that the topics covered are a big part of the cultural shift that is taking place at the moment. On the flipside, a lot of hardcore gamers thought I was talking absolute nonsense and treated me like a harbinger of doom. In retrospect, this ably highlights the challenges that lie ahead for video games. The audience is expanding and shifting away from stuff that satiates the core's tastes, developers are able to be more experimental, and the shifts in distribution methods are facilitating this stuff way faster than any other change in the industry's history.


Since we rebooted GamePro at the beginning of the year we’ve spent an awful lot of time talking to game designers and creative directors in an effort to try and get into their heads and find out what makes them tick. While we’ve lots of different stories about what motivates them to get out of bed in the morning, there have been a surprising number of common threads that we’ve pulled from each of these conversations. Most pervasive is the notion that the games business is currently going through a once-in-a-lifetime period that should be relished as much as humanly possible. Unlike any other part of the entertainment business, gaming’s auteurs and its most influential (or at least most affluent) consumers are maturing at roughly the same pace. So as the vanguard of creatives in charge of our experiences adjust to their own life changes, they are able to channel their learnings back into their products (reasonably) safe in the knowledge that they’ll be well-received and broadly supported. As an overall community we’ve grown up together. We’ve gotten older, settled down, and had kids together. So as designers are deciding that they want to make different experiences to indulge their own lives, they can be fairly confident that their audience is in the same boat. This period is unique in that the industry will only be as naturally in tune with its audience as it is right now for a brief period, and its still adjusting its technology at roughly the same pace as its artistic vision.

This whole scenario isn’t just based on anecdotal evidence and wishful thinking from people that want to go home and spend time with their kids. Like everything else about game design, the tools available to designers that prove these theories are more useful than ever, and they’re providing the sort of data about the way we all consume games that’s proving very surprising.

The revelation that I’ve heard from more designers than anything else is this:

Games are too hard, they’re too long, and they provide way too much stuff.

While this may sound like an excuse from an aging group of individuals faced with technology that takes an increasingly large degree of effort to utilize, there’s an enormous amount of data being collected that backs this up.

Conventional gaming wisdom thus far has been “bigger, better, MORE!” It’s something affirmed by the vocal minority on forums, and by the vast majority of critics that praise games for ambition and scale. The problem is, in reality its almost completely wrong. The vast majority of gamers don’t need more. They don’t have the time or the inclination to invest enormous amounts of time and effort with a game. This isn’t the kind of conclusion that can be reached through surveys or questionnaires, because when it comes to our behavior we all have far too much pride, we’re all greedy, and we all lie. If someone asks us, collectively “do you want more or less game?” it’s fairly safe to say we’d all go with the former rather than the latter. Also, when someone asks us if we want to coast through something that’s just challenging enough, we’d say “oh no, I’m a gamer - I need the challenge.”

The problem is, the vast majority of gamers don’t really behave the way they say they do. How do we know this? Because an increasing number of games incorporate telemetry systems that track our every action. They measure the time we play, they watch where we get stuck, and they broadcast our behavior back to the people that make the games so they can tune the experience accordingly.

Every studio I’ve spoken to that does this, to a fault, says that many of the games they’ve released are far too big and far too hard for most players’ behavior. As a general rule, less than five percent of a game’s audience plays a title through to completion. I’ve had several studios tell me that their general observation is that “more than 90 percent” of a games audience will play it for “just four or five hours.”

So what does this mean for the future of games? Well, before we all get our panties in a bunch over the inevitable endumbening of games, it seems that games will become increasingly modular in order to accommodate different tastes. Currently, Microsoft’s development guidelines tell developers and publishers that the optimum time to release DLC is “within the first 30 days” of a game’s release. The problem with that though is that it’s not enough time to gather enough data about the audience’s behavior and then generate content that reflects it. Content delivered in the first month has to be pretty much finished and sitting in the first party approval queue before the actual game comes out. So right now, that first bunch of DLC we see for something is usually based on a hunch, rather than the way we actually play. For some games that appeal to specific tastes, that’s easier (I guess) to anticipate. But as games are increasingly under pressure to achieve monstrously huge sales, the whole system will have to change.

The nature of the majority, as one developer told me recently, is that their preference is to “just dick around” rather than follow the structure. It’s not just an occasional thing – in terms of behavior its fairly pervasive. There’s always a minority that plays things the way the studio intended, but as another developer told me, “sometimes, you just want to tell people that they’re playing it wrong.”

The thing is, we’re not playing it wrong. What’s happening is that studios are starting to look at the way they make games and concede that they’re making them wrong. The vast majority of releases, even the most spectacular and successful, adhere to structural conventions that date back 20 years. As an audience we’re getting bored of that, if we’re honest. Right? Younger gamers demand something more sophisticated, while older gamers don’t have the time or energy to play through something for a bazillion hours.

So expect this; more games that reward that “dicking around” and celebrate emergent game modes, and more games that accommodate the hardcore based on behavior, rather than assumption. Big time multiplayer shooters like Call of Duty and Halo can always rely on an unusually large hardcore contingent, but the teams making many other games can stop beleaguering under misguided assumptions. Consequently our experiences will be “tuned” over time to a far larger degree than they are currently, and they will do so based on how we’re actually playing them, rather than how its hoped we’re playing them.

Hopefully the notion of “value” won’t be lost during all of this.

This originally appeared on GamePro, April 30 2010.


Unknown said...

You sound like someone else I once heard of. There are too many notes in this measure...

And you sound like you haven't picked up any recent 360 games. GtAIV is a stellar example. Everything about it was smaller, simpler and easier than it's predecessors. Most 360 games you can stand still and let the bad'ns POUND on you. If you seriously think that Red Dead revolver is too heard, you are perhaps suffering from early onset Parkinson's. Excuse me while I go play Bioshock, and follow the magic golden indicator and stroll through it before supper. You can beat Fallout3 in 2hrs following that magic "mission indicator", and the level settings for enemy spawns means you will never see a DeathClaw until level 12, because they CANNOT spawn until the PC is lvl12, wouldn't want to have the PC fight a bad guy who might be able to actually DEFEAT the player, heavens forfend! Everyone I know had beaten the game before they reached level 12 btw, just follow the magic indicator. But I suppose making the player actually DO anything other than mindlessly mash falls under your definition of "too hard". Go back to Roller Coaster Tycoon. Although I suppose you would find that too complex. I guess you like "thrill ride" games, the games that pull the player along by a ring in his nose, where every door is just painted on except the one the player is MEANT to go through. Your article isn't just wrong, it's hilariously out of touch. Psychonauts must've been like a marathon for you, the Monkey Island series, why you must consider them to be utter trash, what with them being so difficult and long compared to today's simplified and shortened games.

Millsy said...

I don't quite understand how you can claim games have been moving towards "More". About the only thing that has been getting better in games is the graphics. Everything else has been steadily shrinking and getting easier.

Even the simplest of games strive to become more-so. Look at Doom I/II compared to Doom III. Getting lost or overrun was a common occurrence for newer players in the originals, then you move on to Doom 3 with it's incredibly small levels, and almost no chance to go the wrong way because everything was completely linear, and you only fight one or two enemies at a time.

About the most complicated a game becomes these days is something like Fallout 3, where you might actually have to manage an inventory, or follow a plot line (but not really, the game just makes it out like you -should-).
Most games are just like Call of Duty, Halo or Gears of war. Follow the hallway, shoot anything that moves and continue. Most "hardcore" gamers don't even think of the highest difficulty settings as being a remote challenge.

Looking at WoW, Call of duty or practically any of the big name titles that have been released in the last 7 years, I would say you are about 10 years late in making this blog.

Unknown said...

oh yeah back in the old days, you would routinely find a game of simply absurd complexity on PC inscrutable in every option encrusted detail. Or on the consoles you'd find a level with head smashers that get you every time or 20 impossible quick action events right at the end (Re4).

To totally blow this article out of the water, take this. WOW is the most popular game these days. and it looks like it's the harbinger of more to come. I personally loathe the idea of subscription play. But from what I've seen of it, it's got what is by todays standards a very complex character system, a complex inventory system, as far as difficulty goes from what I've seen others playing, you can easily get your character into a situation where he/she is brutally murdered by monsters 10x your strength. And again, it is far and away the most popular game out there today. Id say it is YOU sir who have made a false assumption as to what constitutes a casual gamer and what constitutes a viable marketplace. PS every casual gamer I know, plays the few games they do buy 100% collecting every damn hidden whatever. I would consider myself more hardcore, and outside of GTA:VC and Batman Arkham I've never even thought about collecting all the hidden whatchamajiggers. Also as a "hardcore" gamer I have 100s of games I've started but will never finish, not because they are too complex or difficult or long. But because they are competing with so many other better games for my time. Where as all the casual gamers I know buy ONE game a year and play it once a week or so, but play it COMPLETLY. My mom for instance is no hardcore gamer, but she played Roller Coaster Tycoon to its fullest. The real casual gamers buy few games and eat them entirely. It us Hardcore games who play games like Mirror's Edge and say, "well this sucks, I'm off to play Dead Space" and thus leave a large number of unfished games, not because they are too hard or complex, but because they do not SHINE. I think you've been spending too much time listing to indy whine.

Don said...

I was curious about this, so I went to and did a bit of research. The results aren't perfect...they're based only on users who have synced their achievements. I chose the achievement that best represents the end of the game (aka the story or the main quest)...not 100% completion or maxing out character levels. The percentage represents the number of players who have completed the achievement compared to those who are recorded as having played the game. Also, the results for Halo 3 and ODST may be off, as you can't measure if someone has completed the game on Easy mode.

Mass Effect 2 (2010)
83.0% Mission Accomplished

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007)
81.2% Win the War

Modern Warfare 2 (2009)
81.1% For the Record

Gears of War 2 (2008)
79.6% Tourist of Duty

Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009)
77.3% Big Bang

Halo 3 (2007)
76.5% Campaign Complete: Normal

Gears of War (2006)
76.2% Mercenary

Mass Effect (2007)
75.8% Medal of Honor

Assassin's Creed II (2009)
73.8% An Old Friend Returns

BioShock (2007)
73.2% Secret Achievement (spoiler in title)

Halo 3: ODST (2009)
68.5% Campaign Complete: Normal

Fable II (2008)
67.3% The Hero of Skill

Crackdown (2007)
The Trifecta

Fallout 3 (2008)
62.1% Take it Back!

Mirror's Edge (2008)
62.1% That's a wrap

Call of Duty 2 (2005)
62.1% Won the War

Borderlands (2009)
61.1% Secret Achievement (spoiler in title)

Assassin's Creed (2007)
61.0% The Eagle and The Apple - 1191

Dead Space (2008)
57.6% Survivor

Red Dead Redemption (2010)
57.4% Into The Sunset

Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
52.7% You Won!

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006)
41.7% Champion of Cyrodiil

Far Cry 2 (2008)
17.4% The horror... the horror...

It's interesting to see how many of the sequels have improved their franchise's percentage. Also, you'll notice that the more open a game's world is, the less likely a player is to complete the main story. I suppose, just as video games compete with other media, and video games compete with each other, the other elements of a single video game can compete with its own main story.