Back in 2006, I posted some long comments at Deus Ex Machinatio, an excellent blog that focuses on the development of Alternate Reality Games. Though my posts are a couple of years old, I thought it might still be worth adapting one or two of them here for Elf Needs Food…
When it comes to satisfying both casual and hardcore gamers, team sports games get it right. And they’ve gotten it right since the glory days of the Sega Genesis. With most sports titles, you can flip on the game and choose to start up a quick match from the main menu. The only additional setup necessary is picking the teams — where you can make the matchup as fair or lopsided as you like. For someone like me, who only plays such games occasionally, this all is perfect game design. From startup to completion, I can enjoy a satisfying experience in a matter of minutes.
Serious players, on the other hand, can spend real-time weeks or months simulating entire seasons, micromanaging almost every aspect of gameplay. They can switch team members, alter coaching strategies, design plays, create players, and change game options between (or even during) games. In each season, the individual games are like episodes, which eventually lead up to the big finale, the championship.
Because experiences may vary greatly from player-to-player, team-to-team, game-to-game, and season-to-season, sports games can have storylines as complex and open-ended as any other genre. Or they can just provide a simple diversion for a few minutes in the middle of a busy day. It just depends how you prefer to use them. Designers for other game genres should look to sports games to see what can be applied across the spectrum.
This brings me to the biggest issue I have with the current state of videogame development: ownership. Game companies need to start letting customers own the games they buy.
By this, I mean players should not only have the right to play a game “correctly.” They should be allowed to do just about whatever they want within the context of the game world.
If they want to be invincible, have super speed, or even fight the final boss right away, why shouldn’t they be allowed to do so? Players who enjoy only the battle system in an RPG are often allowed to skip the cutscenes, so why aren’t the players who care only about the story allowed to skip the battles?
For a real world case, I submit The Warriors, the game based on the 1979 movie.
I wanted to play the game to experience the events in the movie. Problem is, that section is at the end of the game. I can enjoy the Rockstar GTA-type of game in small doses, but I rarely feel like playing them enough to make it all the way through. However, I would still have felt that I’d gotten my money’s worth even if I could just play the sequences pulled from the movie.
The opportunity to play the movie is the main sales hook of The Warriors. Yet, despite being willing to pay $50 for the game, I wasn’t allowed to skip to that section. Without a cheat device or someone else’s PS2 save card, I’ll probably never see it. I’ve found I don’t care much about the storyline that Rockstar wrote to lead up to the movie’s events, so I haven’t advanced very far.
When creating a series of games based on another movie franchise, The Lord of the Rings, Electronic Arts fell into the same trap as Rockstar. A good chunk of LotR completists — including non-gamers — were interested in EA’s games for the movie interviews and other video features added onto the game discs. But access to the full collection of these videos was restricted to that minority of players who were good enough and dedicated enough to complete the games.
As a result, many fans of the movies paid money for something that is, in large part, worthless to them. Other fans avoided buying the games altogether, knowing they had neither the time nor the skills to see the content they really wanted. By making the special features accessible to all purchasers, EA could have expanded their audience for the game.
EA, Rockstar, and other companies often offer their most valuable content to reward good gameplay, when they should consider using this content to reward the customer’s decision to spend money on their game. For most serious players, winning the game is the best reward for good gameplay. It can be good to offer these dedicated players some other rewards, too. But don’t hide some of your best selling points and most entertaining gameplay options from a huge contingent of your potential audience — the ones who will likely never play every aspect of your game through to completion.
The current design practice of withholding ownership is illogical from a customer’s standpoint, but the industry has yet to figure that out. Their take is this: if you want to see the cool shit, you have to earn that right.
I already earned it. I paid for the game.
The industry’s practices may have made sense 20 years ago, during the arcade game’s heyday, when companies wanted players to keep pumping coins into machines to continue their progress. But when the company’s already got my money, there’s no excuse not to give me full control over the experience.
Imposing restrictions on the customer would be unacceptable in tabletop gaming, traditional media, or software design. If I start a game of Monopoly and want to begin with my piece on Boardwalk, it’s possible. Anytime I want, I can break open the Trivial Pursuit box and read the cards. When I buy a DVD, I’m not forced to watch the movie before I can check out the special features. If I want to try making tables in Microsoft Word before even learning how to change font sizes, nobody will stop me. Most of the time, I’ll use these things in the standard way. But if I don’t want to, I have that option.
Look, I’ll always play most of the games I buy as they were designed to be played. But if I don’t want to obey the rules of the occasional game — so long as it’s single-player and offline — I’ll be the only one who stands to gain or lose anything from cheating.
If developers start to offer more game ownership to us customers, I promise I won’t run to the GameFAQs forums and lie about winning games in record time. The hardcore gamers can still feel superior for having beaten the game properly. Others will just be glad they got to do and see what they wanted. And the game companies will have increased their chances of selling future games to both of types of players.
I hope the first development team to successfully execute this new pattern in a major title makes a killing. And I hope that success helps establish a new trend in game design.