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Opinion: On 'Completion Anxiety Disorder'
Opinion: On 'Completion Anxiety Disorder'
March 11, 2008 | By Leigh Alexander

March 11, 2008 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC

[In this column originally posted at sister editor weblog GameSetWatch, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander wonders why we're completing fewer and fewer games these days -- and speculates that the usual excuses, like time shortage and a culture of impatience, might be paper tigers for the real culprit.]

If you're reading this column, you definitely own at least a couple video games. You probably own several, and some of you are the custodians of an innumerable collection that you meticulously arrange and then photograph for posting on internet forums. And you spend at least a decent chunk of your time playing, and another portion still of your time coveting the next purchase.

But what percentage of them have you ever completed?

Beaten, conquered, finished, whichever your pleasure. I recently spoke with Naughty Dog Studio vets Dan Arey and Bob Rafei on the launch of their new studio, Big Red Button Entertainment, and they theorized that the average gamer confronted with the average game is more likely than not to leave it unfinished -- and it seems a reasonable estimation.

Rising retail costs mean that for most, it's damn near painful to crack the wallet open at the game store, and yet implausibly, despite the larger financial investment, it actually seems like we're finishing fewer games than we once did.

We demand more engaging, immersive and enduring game experiences -- and then we don't finish them. What's wrong with us?

Do you suffer from Completion Anxiety? Looking for answers? Yeah, me too.

Symptoms And Possible Causes

There are a few easy theories close at hand as to why we're finishing fewer games. "Failure to Complete" almost sounds like a condition for which we'll start seeing prescription drug ads on morning television, doesn't it? And as a matter of fact, size, length and depth are involved.

It's quite possible that in these areas, modern games have outgrown the available free time of the average player in all of these areas. And a core portion of the gaming audience has begun to age, meaning time is even more at a premium.

Despite this, next-gen games can no longer escape the court of public opinion unscathed should their available gameplay hours fail to equate, in the player's mind, to the dollar value invested.

For just one example, early next-gen title Heavenly Sword took knocks in reviews and, more broadly, in public discussion, for being too succinct. These days, few (if any) companies can get away with charging $60 for fewer than 60 hours of gameplay.

To be fair, games are now much bigger and larger than they used to be. 16-bit veterans who used to spend months at a time whittling away at a platformer in their clumsier youth can now buy it on Virtual Console and knock out a victory in a handful of hours. Nonetheless, we've demanded deeper experiences for years -- those old games are generally a nostalgic snack, not a long-term project.

Now, extensive and complete multiplayer campaigns have become increasingly essential to a title's success. Multiplayer's supposed to add value in that it's infinitely replayable, as users create a different experience amongst themselves each time. Yet many users end up spending far more time on the multiplayer component than they ever did on any single-player campaign -- so doesn't that mean time's not the culprit for Failure to Complete?

Problems Paying Attention?

So if time's not really the issue, then maybe our attention spans are dwindling. We live in a wired society connected to multiple sources of various stimuli at any given time during the day -- and gamers tend to be more tech-savvy than most. Could this have atrophied our ability to sit still and concentrate?

We can now hold a gathering of our friends, assign tasks and cope with an evolving environment without ever having to get up and get dressed, thanks to online play. And while doing that, we can put on the TV, order our dinner, pay our bills and call our parents from the very same chair, all at the same time, all without having to wait for a minute.

It's easy enough to theorize that living in such a world has made it difficult for us to engage fully with any one single thing, or to invest time in it, if time is what it demands.

WoW fans, for one thing, don't seem to have a problem making time for their hobby. And the most oft-cited reason is instant gratification -- the game can scratch that itch with a relatively low investment of attention, behaviors that are almost automatic, small rewards on the way to bigger ones. Are we an audience of gamers who just doesn't want to put time and effort in for the payoff?

Unable To Do The Things You Once Did?

Maybe it's more persistence, better problem-solving skills we need. Are today's games too difficult for us?

I was recently having that completion discussion with Arey and Rafei because their new studio work is predicated on the idea that frustration and inaccessibility is the reason why many gamers don't finish. During the interview, Arey proposed, "Can you imagine what the film industry would be today if you could only watch 60 percent of a DVD and then stop?"

What, indeed. Especially given that we're welcoming a wider audience of players into our world and want to continue doing so, the pair told me that a dynamic difficulty level, that lets the players control how they're challenged, is the key to a taller stack of finished titles in every gamer's home.

How many, of the past several games you left unfinished, were either too hard for you to finish or too easy for you to remain engaged with? If you could have had control over the difficulty level, would you have finished the game?

I'm still not convinced that dynamic difficulty wouldn't result in a few too many hollow victories for my taste -- what's the point, after all, of overcoming a challenge that you've set precisely in your comfort zone? But then, that's assuming that difficulty level is the issue at all. I'd say, in fact, that today's games have gotten much easier.

Loss Of Pleasure And Interest?

Now, the tricky one: Maybe it's just that a lot of these games aren't very good. You didn't finish them because you were bored. You weren't frustrated because it was too hard, but because it was too unwieldy, difficult in the wrong way, or you just hated the characters.

We talk a lot about the promise and potential of games as an engaging storytelling medium -- but words like "promise" and "potential" are words we use when something could be there, but isn't there yet. Game design is trying every day to raise that bar, and what "does it" for some players won't do it for others.

Still, it's a safe bet that there are many games with which you can't necessarily find fault, that are still sitting and waiting for you to haul through that last leg of the journey. While you've probably abandoned plenty of games because they were just terrible or you didn't enjoy them, it's likely there are just as many others that you're not exactly sure why you never got around to winning.

I've got plenty of such titles. In most cases, I'm much further than halfway through, averaging perhaps 40-20 percent left to go. They're good games. I want to finish them, or so I say. And yet, I just can't, or don't, or won't. It isn't an issue of time, it isn't an issue of my attention span, and it isn't an issue of engagement.

I've dumped some 95 hours just into Pokemon Pearl, doing repetitive behaviors over and over again, so I've obviously got plenty of time and attention. Those games I haven't finished? I think about them, even write about them rather often. It's not necessarily an engagement issue either, unless it's on some subtle level beyond my cognition.

There's Hope...

So while we've suggested that even the most decent of games go unfinished because the investment required is too steep -- time, money, attention, skills, patience -- how can we really say that, when everything we as an audience say and do suggests we want to be immersed, we want to commit that investment, we want to be challenged?

Except for the price -- of course we all would like games to cost less -- we're actually most frustrated when a game doesn't provide that depth of experience, when it's over too quickly, when it's too easy, when it lacks places for us to make an enduring emotional connection.

What if it's just that, after investing so much, we just don't want it to be over?

You poured hours into your character. You navigated an inscrutable chain of events to obtain his weapon. You grit your teeth against boss battles, and you came to care about your character's success. You fell in love with the world -- why would you want to face its ending? After all that work, there's probably no replay value left unless you're hardcore. And even then, the second playthrough is an architecture, a science experiment, a manipulation, not a new discovery.

Failure to Complete analogizes us to the social archetype who breaks up with their partner just when they start to fall in love. Who bails just when it looks like this could be forever, or who flees at the first suggestion of commitment.

Don't we have relationships with some of our games? Think about it -- it begins with attraction, when you see an appealing description, a good preview, a sexy trailer. Then comes the skepticism, the scrutiny of the developer's previous efforts, the steeling yourself for disappointment. The swapping gossip with your gamer buddies after the first "date," the sense of careful, hesitant joy as you start to get drawn in. At first, the new game was all you could think about.

And then, once the novelty has worn off, you realize you're comfortable. You're satisfied -- and coming to the game's end result might exhaust the possibilities. You love the game while it's still young and exciting, so much you don't want to visualize yourselves married and aged.

You're afraid of disappointment. Maybe you sense the game taking a turn for the odd and you're afraid of the pain of betrayal. You fear that the ultimate result of all your work will be a letdown. Or you're just afraid of being alone and starting over again when it's all done with. A shiny new release catches your eye, and before you know it, you've ditched your old companion for the excitement of a new relationship.

Is our obsession with multiplayer gaming really a deep desire to play everything with our online friends? Or is it just that we want gameplay that will never nosedive on us, never break our hearts and never be over?

As for me and my 95 hours of Pokemon Pearl, I'm about to go and buy all of the rest of the portable Pokemon games I don't have, so that I can collect more Pokemon from older games. No expense of time, money or affection would be too steep, because the nearly-impossible task of completing the National Pokedex means that I'll always have something left undone in a world that I already trust.

Even if I can complete the National Dex, I'm sure the next game will be out by then. I feel secure in the relationship. That's why, despite requiring a good deal more investment than any of my other still-unfinished games, I recently completed the story.

Maybe I still need treatment for my Failure to Complete if I ever want to have longer, deeper, more sizable gaming sessions. But this is a good start, I'm sure.

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Kirk Battle
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Interesting post. I really liked the relationship analogy.

I guess that like someone you're truly in love with, once you get past the looks and fun banter there are only a few things that can really keep the relationship going with a game. For each person that's unique. RPG completion is a good one, but lately seeing the end of a good story is what has kept me finishing games.

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There is that magical time interval during which I either finish a game or I don't and the game stays unfinished. This time interval is about a week for me. I guess the problem is that games require you to store a certain amount of knowledge of its reality and needed skill in your brain, if you leave the game for too long you have to reaquire that knowledge and this can be a reason not to get involved again.

Ian Ke
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I enjoyed the relationship analogy as well.

For me personally, the draw and excitement of the new, next game seems to be what hinders me from completing games. Especially if the new, next game releases within a month of the current game I am playing. For example I'm currently playing Lost Odyssey, but I'm afraid I won't finish it in time for Crisis Core. What will probably end up happening is Lost Odyssey will be put aside for the brand new game. This has happened to me on too many occasions. It's hard to say to myself, "Ok, I'm going to finish this game before I move on to the next one," when there happens to be so many good releases within a short time frame. I just don't have enough time in my day to finish all the games I would like to before the next big game comes out.

But, occasionally, there will come a game that draws me in so well that I will see it all the way through to the end. Unfortunately for me, Lost Odyssey isn't one of those games for me. Call of Duty 4 was that last game for me. And I was glad that the single player campaign was short and sweet, b/c it didn't require so much of my time.

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I find the games I do finish have two things in common. A great story line and difficulty settings. I have probably 20 games sitting at points of problems that are either too time consuming to figure out and I lose interest or, the solution is beyond me. One other big problem that crops up WAY too often is no way to save a checkpoint where I'm at when I want to quit for the session.

The recent games I've played all the way through? Bioshock! I haven't enjoyed a game this much since Doom. Great story, great graphics and solvable at a level I chose to play at. When I finished it at the normal level I turned right around and played it again at the top level.

Another facet is DLC. I'm still playing Guiar Hero III and Rock Band at MY comfort level and keeping it new with all the DLC songs available.

Christian Nutt
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One thing is that I reached a point where I don't mind if I don't finish a game. I'm satisfied to get out of it what I got out of it. Well, this mainly applies to RPGs. The first game to hit me with this was Wild Arms -- the original -- when I realized after ~24 hours that it simply wasn't very good and I might as well stop playing. I realized stopping made more sense than pressing forward.

The game where I really came to peace with it, though, was Chrono Cross. I was digging the hell out of that game, but I reached a part of the story that I found quite stupid and gameplay that I found difficult to push through, and I just dropped it, around 30 hours. And I realized, after talking to people who had shoved on through, that some of them loved and some of them hated and some of them were indifferent to what came next... but I knew that I really enjoyed what I had played, genuinely, and didn't care that I hadn't seen it through.

So... that's my philosophy. Play till you're satisfied and then stop. And sometimes that's not till the credits roll, or beyond... that's a reflection more of the game's quality and how well it interfaces with your tastes than a reflection on us as gamers, I think. At least in my case, anyway...

Aaron Murray
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Quite interesting. I've completed Portal but Not Half-Life Episode 2; BioShock but not Halo 3; Lords of Thunder but not Super Mario Galaxy...maybe I just enjoy shorter games?

Jan Kubiczek
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If anything I believed there was something like a "Completion Disorder". Usually games nowadays leave a fair chance to complete them so the only reason not to complete a game is lack of interest, intelligence, time... WoW probably is the best example for "Completion Disorder".

Take Twilight Princess for example. What is lost if you complete it. You do not get the whole picture if you leave it unfinished. Of course there is enough bad games that probably do not deserve finishing... I would not call that a disorder then.

Every finished game though can be like a small death... Thanks for the analogy. ;)

Mel Saint Marceaux
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Interesting Article.

I tend to finish my games most of the time. In fact I have an Excel spreadsheet listing all the games i've ever played and if i've finished them or not. A lot of unfinished games stem from my youth when i didn't really know what i was doing. And let's face it, a lot of these older game were hard! (I've yet to beat Castlevania but I breezed through Curse of Darkness).

For these XBLA and the VC are a Godsend.

No I have to say in my case most games I don't finish is because i'm bored and lose interest.

Difficulty can be a factor, there are very few games i have not finished because they were too hard. But when it becomes too easy it becomes boring....and yet.

about 60% through Oblivion and Divine Divinity my character was very strong and didn't have much issues so it became less interesting, but i still finished the games. (I don't really like to play with difficulty sliders).

Time can be a factor. we simply don't have the same free time that we had when we were 12. A lot of the very old games were a matter of one sitting, not so any more so it's more investment. I have bought Mass Effect but I haven't started it yet because I know I will have to give it my all. And I have to finish Mario Galaxy and Neverwinter Nights......

I have a tendency (which i'm trying to fight) to start several games at once, which makes it harder to finish. My favorite part of a lot of games is the first few hours, the new, the discovery, the excitement. I loved Viva Piñata when i first played but i'm hard pressed to pick it up again (those red monsters don't help at all, it is very furstating to spend hours breeding only to have everything destroyed in seconds).

I also used to buy games as they came out because "I'm going to play them eventually".

But lately I'm trying to better about this.

I only play one console and one PC game at a time and i try to beat them before i start a new one. It is very hard to resist temptation to play the new ones (Mario, Mass Effect, Bioshock....)

I also wait until I buy them figuring the price can only go down.

So voila, I rambled a little but hey, that's what it is to have a passion.

michael irwin
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There are usually a two factors leading to my not finishing a game. 1) Games that don't offer a user defined save point and 2) games that force me to repeat a section of the game over and over again because i've died or something.

Forced save points (i.e. checkpoints) will kill a game almost immediately for me. I need the ability to stop playing at a moments notice to deal with family reality. If a game can't affoard me the ability to save where I am when I want, then I won't buy it if I know about it. And Once I find out after the fact, this game will more often than not end up not being finished.

My second point will quickly reduce my *want* to play a game when, for example, i'm forced to watch a stupid cut sceene without being able to exit it and if you make me play through 20 minutes of game level, die, and repeat that same process again from the same cut sceene. I curse you with all the gaming gods fury I can muster.

Granted, mostly console games suffer these problems, and I thought when hard drives were added, we'd get away from that, but alas, game companies seem to think the hard drive isn't there for saving my progress when I want to.

Then they do the unthinkable, port it to PC and keep the stupid game killing items in the PC port!

Brandon Van Every
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I've snapped the CDs of many a game in half because they had something infuriatingly boring about them, that got me stuck. Usually this is preceded by a week or two of game playing mania, which I enjoy at first, but then reach some point of diminishing returns where it's only a treadmill. My conclusion is that many games have no sense of pace, or quality per unit time, and deserve to be ignored. It's analogous to looking at old cheesy 70s movies, before most directors got the idea that they should cut the boring scenes and keep things moving along. The industry will evolve and figure this out, but it's got a long way to go because of the historical prejudices about number of "entertainment" hours.

Dan Mitchell
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More often than not, I have been let down/disappointed by the ending of games I have completed, they just leave you feeling, I did all that work for a crappy cut scene. I think you got it right when you just did not want to reach that point where it ends, and there is that big let down so you have no choice but to look for the next game and hope for better

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Great post, I fully back your thoughts on the issue.

Back in the NES and SNES era I was (we were) hardcore gamer(s) : we had to finish this damn hard game before playing another one (it could take 1 full year). Now the only game I can play is Halo 3 online, it seems that my VG love is disappearing... :/