Opinion: The generous and the stingy - a growing trend in game direction
[Game Developer magazine editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield discusses a growing trend in game direction, where content is parceled out instead of released as a whole. This editorial was originally written for Game Developer's January issue.]
There was a time when the backs of game boxes had a slew of bullet points printed on them, illustrating numbers of enemies, features, and hours of gameplay. We decried this, at the time. "Games are more than a series of features!" we said. "Games are interactive experiences, and can't be reduced to a simple list of numbers of items and maps!"
Nevermind the fact there aren't nearly as many game boxes anymore—I'm starting to actually miss those bullet points, as well. Or at least I miss what they represented—because game designs are getting stingy.
In the past, many of the best games were (and a few of the current best games still are) generously designed. By this I mean in some games a lot of the content will not be appreciated or experienced by most players, but it's in there beneath the layers, because the developers felt it should be, and because they wanted to make a vibrant, living world.
This allows players to keep discovering new ways to interact with and enjoy the game, even after playing it for hours.
I'll use a recent example: Bejeweled 3
is a proven property that's remarkably popular. You could probably spruce up the graphics, add some nice filters, and be done with it.
But Bejeweled 3
has a whole lot of interesting, weird ideas. It's got explosions, particle effects, and lush sound that would please any FPS fan, on top of eerie fantasy novel backgrounds that are clearly are meant to appeal to the more casual. The music is a fantastic take on classic '90s PC games, with a bizarrely compelling Mortal Kombat
-style deep voice over.
There are 8 modes to play which all use the same mechanics in clever ways, to form a very curious and very compelling amalgam that, ultimately, Popcap didn't need to go out of its way to create. The game is very generous to me as a player. It keeps giving up little nuggets of enjoyment when I pay attention to this or that element of the design, art, or sound.
Microtransactions and downloadable content are making their way into everything. Until recently, Tetris
was held up as one of those classic, pure examples of straightforward, fun-oriented game design. But now, a recent iOS Tetris
has launched with a paid subscription. The game is 99 cents, and you can pay $2.99 per month to get access to exclusive content, and most importantly, a booster that lets you increase your Tetris
You get a core game for one price, then you get the "extra bits" for an additional fee. Features that might be generous in the design are sold at a premium. This is decidedly stingy, and almost every corner of the industry is trending this way.
Chop and crop
Let's be honest about what we're doing here in the freemium space. We're taking what would traditionally have been a whole game, and we're chopping parts of it up to sell off individually. In Zelda
, you never paid for a sword that was slightly more powerful, you found it in the game after a long and arduous journey.
Most folks will tell you their free-to-play game is fully-featured, and all the microtransaction-purchasable items are unnecessary for full enjoyment of the game. But that sort of design is inherently stingy. Even if you design to compartmentalize, you're separating something from the whole, and the capacity for generosity to players is diminished.
A lot of downloadable content for triple-A games is similarly compartmentalized through DLC. I do understand it—these models can extend the life of games well past their “shelf” life. In fact, in a game that’s inherently generous in its depth of content, like Fallout: New Vegas
, DLC is almost a welcome departure: A sidequest can be a breath of fresh air.
But if you try to integrate that content into the core game, like the already generous Dragon Age: Origins
did by making an entire character and story arc downloadable, the overall feeling of generosity is diminished. Ultimately, while I do not think DLC or freemium games are inherently bad, I believe that these types of models have changed the way games are envisioned for the worse.
In most parts of the industry, I’m seeing less and less interest in creating a full game that’s finished in one go. This is a money issue, of course. Everyone needs money. But what about the love of the craft? What about the care put into making a game with an authorial vision, or an overall "feeling?"
The feeling from games nowadays often comes from the community as much as (or more than) the structure and design. That’s all well and good for some, but that way of doing things won’t yield you a Shadow of the Colossus
or a Far Cry 2
. If you chop off part of the game’s "feel" into DLC, doesn’t this inherently change how you treat it as a creator?
I do believe there are genuine ways to go about freemium models or DLC which are not so stingy. Consider the model of Dead Pixels on XBLIG, which is quite a generously designed game for a dollar, with hours of randomized gameplay (and a co-op mode). This game uses a neat model where the developer will begin work on free downloadable content if the game reaches a certain sales target.
This in turn can incentivize more people to play the game, thus more sales, and thus more free DLC. But a large company would never take this risk—there’s little guarantee this will work. But it’s done for the love of the game, and as a player, that’s what matters.