I've never really been into open-ended sandboxy games. For me I just felt like they have far too much content for me to care about. Sure, they might have an interesting main storyline to follow along with, but I just feel like these games always seem to outstay their welcome for me. When I put a game like Skryim down, the experience doesn't end on a high note, but a low one. The game just fizzles out into obscurity to gather dust in my gaming library.
I had played Fallout 3 a few years ago, and was initially intrigued by the exploration and the immersive nature of the game. That is, until I reached the level cap, and felt so powerful that the game really lost any sense of challenge or tension. I had barely explored a quarter of the map and I was already bored with the game. I had plenty of powerful weapons, with little need for better ones, and the story just wasn't interesting enough for me to want to see more of it.
When Skyrim first came out, I looked at it with similar suspicion. Sure, it was the fifth entry in the popular Elder Scrolls series, and I had heard many people rave about how much they love it. But I was still skeptical... until I saw it on a Steam sale on Christmas for $40. A $20 savings within a month of release for a major game! I had never seen such a thing, so I thought "screw it, why not?".
Granted, I clocked in 98 hours into the game, which is nothing to sneeze at. I genuinely got pulled into the thrill of exploring the game world like I never had before, and I was eager to discover what was around the next corner as I explored its vast landscape. But around the time I achieved 80 points in Destruction magic and about 60+ in Conjuration, I could easily summon Dremora Lords and hurl Incineration spells practically at will. Combat suddenly became boring and mindless. Sure, there were stronger enemies, but they were more damage sponges that a major threat, and fighting tougher foes like Dragon Priests came down to more luck than skill, as they could easily one-shot me if I wasn't careful.
I ended up just setting the game down to easy mode to fight Alduin and beat the main story quest... then I was just done with the game. I hadn't seen the Stormcloak/Empire conflict to its conclusion, nor killed all of the Dragon Priests, or learned all the Dragon shouts, but I didn't really care. The game just got stale for me and I ended up moving on to other games.
When it comes to games, I prefer my games tighter and more focused, with just the right amount of content and good direction to create a game that comes together into a satisfying whole, where completing it gives me a feeling of triumph and enrichment. "Endless" games just don't seem to do it for me.
A Tale of the Bearded Muse
I recently read a blog post of a friend of mine, who went into a personal story of his own shifting taste in games. He talks about how his interest has shifted from wanting to beat games as soon as possible, to savoring the experience of games and taking his time through them. Further, he dreads seeing the games he's enjoy come to an end, and has thus become more interested in games that essentially never end, like MMOs.
His tastes sound like the complete opposite to what I thought made games fun. This intrigued me, and inspired me to delve into the core appeal of what one might call "endless" games.
A Little History
Old-school games back in the Atari and Arcade days largely fell into two camps. The first were games that presented the completion of the game as the ultimate goal and challenge. These games were marked with a constant, forward momentum, minimal exposition, and were largely about the thrill of conquering the challenge the game had to offer. From Golden Axe to Metal Slug, these games were typically your light brawlers, shoot-em-ups, or fighting games that drove the player ever forward toward a final, climactic confrontation.
The second were games that a player could never win, only hold out until they inevitably lose. Games like Asteroids or Centipede are good examples of this, where the player's main driving motivation was to get the highest score for bragging rights and the sense of accomplishment.
As games moved out of the arcades to the home, new approaches developed to increase the longevity of games. This included such things as having multiple endings, hidden content, optional challenges, multiplayer, or even tools to allow for player-authored content.
While not every game offers a massive breadth of content, there are plenty of games looking to give players the ability to enjoy their games for as long as possible.
The Neverending Story
A number of different trends have emerged over the years geared toward making games last longer and keeping players hooked. These trends fall roughly into a few catagories:
- True Endless Experiences
These are games that do not have an end state. Games like Farmville are great examples of this. Rather than setting out an ultimate goal for the player to complete, they instead give players a set of tools by which they may define and work toward their own goals. Such games lack any true terminal goals, which end the game experience upon completing, but do often use incremental goals to give players a sense of forward momentum and achievement.
Clearly looking to go into the Pro League
As far as actual objectives are concerned, however, these are externalized from the game itself and put into the hands of the players themselves, so they can decide for themselves what they want to achieve. Often such games also lack a definite loss state, removing an element of games that could potentially turn off players from playing further.
Games like Farmville in particular have the appeal of being about management and control. For people that with busy, chaotic lives, these games provide a little "island" of their very own which they have full control over. By the same token, however, they can just as easily be seen as boring, as your progress does not lead you to any goal outside of what you define for yourself.
- Faux Endless Experience
These are games that feel like they go on forever, but in reality have a finite amount of content. Sandbox games like the Grand Theft Auto series or MMOs like World of Warcraft are some of the most famous examples of this. They provide a large amount of missions and objectives directed within the game, and that content is distributed such that players may take on different tasks at their own pace and in the order of their choosing. This gives players a greater sense of agency in the narrative of the game, as well as making their experience unique in comparison to their friends.
Oh my, how did this get here?
MMOs and Sandbox games diverge a bit, however, in their core appeal. For MMOs, it is the social element that keeps many players coming back, even years after the game has gone out of style. People build friendships around their guilds, trade things at auction houses, and enjoy major raids and other group content. These kinds of games leverage the sense of camaraderie among players, and in some cases can allow for rather compelling emergent social drama to emerge, energizing the playerbase by showing just what can be done in the game's possibility space.
Sandbox games go for more of a hard-coded system of emergence, based on different permutations of the games' many interacting systems. From the behavior of civilians to physics systems, they create a space where the player can enjoy causing mayhem and delight in watching how the world will react. Perhaps the funniest thing I have heard happening comes from a story a friend of mine told me years ago about Fallout 2. He was in a city (New Reno, I believe) talking to this mafia boss type guy at a bar. He ends up pissing him off, so the Mafia guy starts shooting him.
Now, the interesting thing about early Fallout games is that if someone is firing a ranged weapon and it misses, it has a chance of hitting someone else in the line of fire. In this case, it hit a prostitute on the other side of the bar, who immediately became hostile, pulling out a knife and attacking the mafia guy. The mafia guy kills her, which aggros the rest of the prostitutes in the city, which proceed to attack him, which aggros the rest of the mafia guys. In other words, one stray bullet started a full-on mafia vs prostitute war.
In essence, these types of games are most often about exploration and taking in the game over the course of a long time. Often they are the ones that have the largest amount of substantive content for people to sink their teeth into. Yet such games can have their own problems, where the grind of trivial side quests and objectives can become boring, especially after main story objectives are complete.
- Session-Based Play
Many games today either include a multiplayer mode or are based entirely around the multiplayer experience. These games, while often having far less content than massive, sprawling games, often enjoy longevity equaling or even exceeding the playtime of even the largest sandbox games. Most of these experiences are competitive, like League of Legends, though some like Left4Dead hold the promise of having more co-op focused games in the future (though Left4Dead does have a competitive mode as well). In either case, they rely heavily on an energized player base and community to keep them active and in the spotlight for players (not unlike with MMOs).
Tired of me bringing up how awesome League of Legends is every other post? Me neither!
Such games overwhelmingly provide a virtually unlimited play experience, though the narrative possibilities have not been explored nearly as much. Perhaps the closest to that trend is in the upcoming game Diablo III, which will feature randomized quests, in addition to its traditional randomized loot and dungeons. Until we have more sophisticated systems of dynamic narrative, I believe our best bet at an unlimited narrative experience comes from the players themselves.
These types of games are perhaps the most like their old arcade counterparts, with each session being a competition to reach some ultimate goal. Yet even after the goal is achieved, the game isn't over. Far from it, as the game encourages you to experience the struggle to reach that goal over and over again, with the thrill and unpredictability of human allies and adversaries providing an emergent narrative of sorts for the player to enjoy.
As I alluded to, the biggest pitfall of session-based games is that for the most part they are competitive, or otherwise focused around overcoming a challenge, which can limit its appeal among inexperienced and casual players.
- Community-Driven Content Creation
With the advent of level editors and authoring tools, it has become easier than ever for players to not only play with one another, but share a piece of their creativity with the communities of their favorite games. Starting with Starcraft (if I'm not mistaken), excellent content development tools were made and, perhaps more importantly, integrated into the main game such that players could easily stumble upon mods and custom maps.
Further, there have been games like Minecraft designed entirely around user-generated content and mods and sharing it with others (thanks to Minecraft's multiplayer mode). This kind of initiative goes beyond just providing more content for players, but actually makes that content feel more meaningful, as it is made by friends and fellow gamers that the player can relate to, perhaps motivating them to get in on the action.
The Story Continues There is yet one other point I touched upon I have yet to cover - the idea of player satisfaction - the feeling of triumph and the validation that the time spent with a game was worth it. Alas, that is another story entirely, and rather than shoehorn it into this discussion, I will leave it for my next post. Stay tuned!