Future of Gaming: We (May) Be Screwed
If you play games and had a pulse in the last fifteen years, you have undoubtedly bore witness to the meteoric rise of the Free To Play (F2P) model, which had been preceded by the Downloadable Content (DLC) model, which had been preceded by the “new Madden game every year” model, sandwiched inbetween the 8-hour single-player campaign and Skinner Box School of Character Advancement loafs. It is enough to make a grown man cynically quip “I told you so!” as he shuffles back into the 1990s when games were games, and boys dreamed of somehow getting credited as Writer in the next Squaresoft Final Fantasy epic.* You know, when gaming was cool because it was an ultra-niche hobby that catered solely to you and your demographic – back before the industry totally sold out** and before it was considered hip to pretend you were upset that something sold out.
Well my friends, it actually might be worse than you think.
First, I want you to read this thoroughly depressing article on CNN.com titled Why most people don’t finish videogames. While the figures presented seem to skew heavily into the “90% of statistics are made up” realm of suspiciously round numbers, the essential premise is that only 10-20% of people who play a videogame end up finishing it. This should not be especially surprising news, considering how I estimated back in June that 71.2% of all (non-Chinese) subscribers did not raid T11 at all, and of the players that did raid, less than a third of them killed Nefarian on Normal***. You might argue that WoW endgame raiding is not quite the same as beating a single-player game, or you might even just sneer “Working as intended!” The bad news is that the lack of rational completion rates is leading to the death of single-player games in general, but the magnum opus solo experiences specifically.
Long gone are the days of starting a game on a high-level concept,” says Konami’s Airey. The reason: “It’s costly,” he says.
Fuller says the devil is in the details.
“I worked on a project that took 50 people and 18 months to produce 20 minutes of game play,” he says. “With the expectations so high for visual and audio fidelity, lifelike animations, enemy behavior and movie-quality cinemas, it can take two years for a team of 100 people to create six hours of playable story. At an average burn rate of $10,000 per man month, that’s $24 million just in developer cost. You’re not likely to find a publisher that will foot the bill for extending that campaign to 20 hours.”
Of course, why make a 20-plus hour game when most players aren’t completing them, as is the case with “Red Dead Redemption”? The answer is, most publishers don’t.
The story becomes a bit more chilling once you realize the conclusions these game companies are coming to:
Steinberg agrees: “Just because you don’t slay the final boss or rescue the princess doesn’t mean you can’t see most of, if not all, of what a game has to offer in the hours leading up to it.”
Not only that, but gamers are already warming to the idea of shorter games.
“Completion rates are actually on the rise,” Lee says. “Many games now have a 40% to 50% completion rate, thanks to 10-hour campaigns instead of the 20-30 hour ones of yesteryear. Of course, that’s good or bad depending on how you look at it. It’s better than before. But it still means that more than half of all game content never gets appreciated.”
To counter that, Airey says extended play content will increasingly come from expansion packs, a sort of best-of-both-worlds approach.
That is right, the creative minds of game companies believe they are doing us a favor by making shorter single-player games and fleshing it out with DLC and expansion packs. Indie games usually prove that gamplay depth beats gameplay length, and I agree. But when I think back to my favorite games of all time – Xenogears, FF7, Final Fantasy Tactics – I start to wonder if those type of RPGs would have any place in today’s game market. The battle systems might exist in an indie development space, but what of the narrative depth? I do not know what is more tragic: that we may not see another Xenogears (Xenosaga did not quite cut it), or that perhaps 90% of the gamers who actually played Xenogears originally did not finish it.
It is enough to make this cynic (metaphorically) weep.
The irony may very well be that we come full circle as gamers, our niche hobby exploding into the mainstream to the point where the only games for us end up being niche titles. Be that as it may, I do see some sprouts of optimism in the rise of game platforms like Steam that give sunlight to the indie space. As Yahtzee from Zero Punctuation mentions in a lot of his written articles, the market drive for consoles to have better and better graphics erodes third-party game company support, forcing designers into multi-million dollar budgets for HD graphics or letting us drown in 1st-party rehashes as they get priced out of the market. Because who wants a side-scrolling 2D game on their Xbox 360 or PS3? If it is a good game… everyone should, yeah?
I dunno though, I have a hard time enjoying a game for just the game’s sake. World of Goo, Braid, Eufloria, Osmos, Trine… all extremely entertaining games with cursory or non-existent plots. I had less fun playing, say, Dead Space but I would say Dead Space was the better game. I am not looking for things to occupy my time, I am looking for an experience. And with this game design philosophy shifting back to the Pac-Man era of gamy games, I do not know if there will be room for “old-timers” RPG fans such as myself.
I guess I should start picking up these “book” things I keep hearing about, eh?
* I can’t be the only one, right?
** Everyone thinks their hobby sells out at some point. And they may actually be correct.
*** The number of Nef kills has increased 40.6% since the nerfs, by the way. Magmaw… only 6%.