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Most players won't finish your game - and that's not a bad thing!
Most players won't finish your game - and that's not a bad thing! GDMag Exclusive
July 1, 2013 | By Jason VandenBerghe

July 1, 2013 | By Jason VandenBerghe
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Most players won't play to the end of your game. That's not a tragedy -- that's a feature of video games' design landscape. Ubisoft creative director Jason VandenBerghe explains, in this reprint from the final (June/July 2013) issue of Game Developer magazine.

Argument: As a game designer, you are more free when crafting your ending than you are for any other piece of your game.

First of all, having an ending at all is your choice. Don't want one? All good! Games are loops, and if you want to leave yours closed, you will be in good company. No one has ever "finished" poker, or football.

But for games that do have an ending, only a small portion of your players will ever see it. We are, as an industry and as a culture, still confused about this. We are dismayed at the low finish rates of our games, and a player who puts down the controller before reaching the end is left with a vague sense of having dissed the game team.

Yet, the ability for players to stop playing whenever they feel like it is inherent in the form! This is not a bad thing; this is a good thing. It is part of the game-design landscape. And if you learn to worry less about insisting that everyone who starts finishes, and put your attention on the advantages this fact of gaming gives you, you will not find a more personally liberating moment in game design than in designing your end.

The question is: How will you use that freedom?

Learning to Dabble

For several years back in the late 1990s, I lived with an eccentric friend named Dylan. Dylan was a carouser, a lover of swords and theatrics, a collector of experiences -- and an avid video game starter.

Dylan played dozens, maybe hundreds of games per year, and this was before the Internet, so they mostly came from the store. But, for all his passion, I don't know that I ever saw him put more than an hour into a single one. He would buy them, try them, love them... and then set them aside forever. This was a man who stopped playing Diablo after an hour or so (!). Even more weirdly, he was always perfectly content with his purchases, never showing a single hint of regret at not seeing the end.

He never did this with movies or books. Ever.

Watching Dylan's weird relationship with the games he played taught me that it is absolutely not required to finish a game to appreciate it.

Not a Bad Thing

Last year, you may remember that CNN published an article by Blake Snow that regaled the Internet with the news that only 10-20 percent of gamers actually finish the games they started.

No argument. When we see game finish rates over 30-40 percent, we sing the praises of the team and pop the bubbly. Numbers like that imply that we managed to make some seriously compelling content, and smooth out all the bumps along the way. Precious few games reach that goal.

But, I have a beef with an unspoken assumption in this article, and in many articles like it. Here's how the article's author put it:

"Let [this] sink in for a minute: Of every 10 people who started playing the consensus 'Game of the Year,' [Red Dead Revolver] only one of them finished it. How is that? Shouldn't such a high-rated game keep people engaged? Or have player attention spans reached a breaking point? ...Who's to blame: The developer or the player? Or maybe it's our culture?"

My beef is with the idea that failing to finish a game is a bad thing.

Putting down the controller somewhere before the final climactic scene in a video game is not a sin. It is an intrinsic part of our art form.

Unfinished

I never finished the first BioShock, yet it remains a game I thoroughly enjoyed. Grim Fandango? Never finished it. But I sure as hell use it as an example in design discussions! I have never finished a single Z, but, man, they are fun (usually).

There are a ton of games that don't even have endings. Most arcade-style games and most MMOs don't have real endings. The Sims doesn't have an ending. Poker? Chess? Football?

In fact, a broad majority of the world's long-standing favorite games are specifically designed to never be finished. One game of Sudoku leads to another, which leads to another... In game design terms, even putting an "ending" into your game is, clearly, optional. We know this. It's self-evident. So, then, why do we gnash our teeth and tear out our hair when only 20% of players reach the end of our (story) games?

Not a Movie

I believe that the idea has its roots in our beliefs about other media. There is an implicit rejection that is present when someone walks out of a movie, turns off a show on TV, or sets down a book unfinished. For those mediums, the message of this action is clear: "I'm not enjoying this story enough to continue."

When someone stops playing a game, however, the possibilities are far, far more varied:

"I'd love to keep playing, but the time commitment is too high for me."

"I enjoyed the beginning, but now it's getting sort of grindy, and that's not for me."

"Love the game, but I'm weary of the player culture, so I'm going to hang out somewhere else."

"My friends stopped playing."

These are not necessarily sins of the designer. Gaming is as much a lifestyle as it is entertainment, and if a game doesn't fit into an individual's life, they are going to put it down. That's not a tragedy. That's a feature of our design landscape.

So, instead of looking guiltily at our completion rates and fantasizing about a world in which 99% of the players who start our (story) game reach the final scene, let's flip it around and see what we can do to take advantage of this fact, instead.

Flip It Around

More than half of your players are not going to finish. You know that going in, so think of it as a design constraint! What does that mean to you?

First: The deeper into your game your content is, the more likely it is that the players that are still with you have been having a good time. They're in. They've bought it. You have earned a certain amount of faith capital with them, and they probably want to see what else you've got up your sleeve.

Second: Because your producers and various high-mucky-mucks have seen the finishing stats for other games, they know that dev time spent in detailed iteration on your ending is effort going to a small subset of players. They will prioritize the team's time accordingly. They will thus be more likely, whether through disinterest or lack of time, to let your crazy idea for the end slip through the cracks.

Third: Players themselves already know that arriving at the end is a rare occasion—because they, personally, most likely don't do it very often. Every player has put down the controller on at least a few games. If they do decide to complete the whole thing, they will wear that fact as a badge of honor (we hope). So, they are psychologically primed to receive some kind of acknowledgment for their effort. Bright-eyed, with the end in sight, your players look to the designer expectantly, ready to interpret whatever you present as a kind of reward, while your producers turn a blind eye...

Tell the Truth

I only have one piece of real advice for you about this moment: Tell the fucking truth.

Whatever it is that is in your heart, whatever it is that has drawn you into making this game in the first place, do that with your faith capital. Spend it telling them that, somehow.

The first Modern Warfare had a great example of this: The final mission was the most over-the-top crazy, punishing, nearly-impossible-to-complete madness-fest in their game. It had almost no explanation, required none ("PLANE! TERRORISTS!"), and it was simply brilliant. The level was a celebration of the game that you had just finished, a self-referential guns-blazing cherry on the cake that was completely unnecessary, but became legendary.

One of the most satisfying endings I have ever played was the ending of The Darkness. It laid bare the truth of the fantasy they had created, and gave me full rights to punish an evil that I had come to loathe. The truth there was consistent with the story, but it was the play that they created that made that last scene true. I hated the villain of that game, and in the end the game did nothing to force my hand (beyond closing the door behind me). When I took my revenge, it was me that did it, and that act stayed with me.

But it is the ending of the first Metroid, perhaps, that best demonstrates the strange liberty we have with this moment. It could have ended with Samus Aran raising a blaster into the air in victory. That would have been satisfying, and it was an amazing game all the way through. Hero pose! Instead, Samus stepped out of the battle suit, demonstrated her gender, and shattered the 8-bit preconceptions of players everywhere. It is still one of the most celebrated endings in gaming history.

As An Example

Let's say we were to apply these principles to this article.

You've stuck with me this far, so I can perhaps assume that you're interested in what I've had to say so far. We're near the end, so you are maybe starting to think about what you'll read next, or putting down the magazine. Perhaps you are looking forward to the internal satisfactory tick-mark that comes from reading the last line.

How might I use this receptive state of mind? What is my truth about endings, right now?

GD Mag

Speaking of endings, did you know that this is the final issue of this here magazine? Funny story: Through random luck, I've ended up with the honor of writing the final Design of the Times. That's this article, right here.

You know, the first time I picked up an issue of Game Developer was back in 1996, in the offices of Hyperbole Studios. I was a late-20-something, blown away to be suddenly making games after long years of professional wandering.

It was the existence of this magazine that gave me my first glimpse into the murky, somewhat-secret society of game developers. The magazine's professional-looking cover and its interior pages full of post-mortems and dev tricks all were clearly aimed specifically at a readership made up of people who made video games. Flipping through the pages, I gradually discovered that I very much wanted to be part of that target market.

It's much later now. We have internets, game developers are meeting with vice presidents, and 99.9% of people under 25 have played video games. It's a world in transition, and I cannot wait to see what happens next. But I, for one, won't move forward into that future without fi rst pausing and, maybe just for a moment, placing an affectionate hand on the magazine that was the warm face that greeted me as I entered this industry.

Thanks. Thanks for that, and for all the other stuff.

Endings Set You Free

That is my truth on endings: I mark them, I use them to reflect, and if I can get away with it, I give thanks to people who have had an impact on my life.

As a game designer, you are more free when crafting your ending than you are in any other piece of your game. So, in the end, tell the fucking truth. Tell as much of it as you can manage. Tell it as best you can. And see if you can give the world something to remember.


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Comments


Josh Neff
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"only 10-20 percent of gamers actually finish the games they started"- really?
From the actual article: (In the article, author Blake Snow quotes Activision production contractor Keith Fuller, who says, "What I've been told...”)
So this is a case of a guy told another guy who told this guy that only "10-20 percent of gamers actually finish the games they started"... nice to know its straight from a reliable source.

Sufice it to say I find this incredibly difficult to by off on. Course I say that as somone who consistently MUST see the end of nearly every game I play.

Patrick Reding
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Let's look at some Steam statistics for percentage of players having earned the "complete the game on any difficulty" achievement, for a sample of games from my collection:

Bioshock Infinite (Tin Soldier): 59.6%
Plants vs. Zombies (Home Lawn Security): 43.3%
Orcs Must Die 2 (Restoring Order): 29.0%
Portal 2 (Lunacy): 46.1%
Hotline Miami (The End?): 23.7%

This may not be the most comprehensive poll, but it does strongly suggest that the 20% statistic is completely off, especially when it comes to AAA titles.

Eric Ruck
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Steam may not be your best representative population. More likely to be diehard gamers who will finish things. Vs the guy who buys a used copy for 360 at GameStop.

Jason VandenBerghe
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I'm sharing my experience with the statistics on the games I have exposure to, not trying to update the "official" statistics. I don't have stats on the whole industry.

See, that isn't the point. :) The _point_ is that finish rates are low, and always have been - and I'm arguing that this is a feature of games themselves.

Moni Rudy
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yes I agree. I believe this is coming from a person who has to complete every game which makes it impossible to believe that somebody else wouldn't. I have to complete each game I start even if it is yours later. I have completed Bioshock 2 every which way including the X and the Y ending on every game of Bioshock2 that I went back to re play a different way. and cried might I mention that I cried each time so yes I do understand your frustration at only 10 to 20 percent but as far as I know most of my friends have only completed a game or two

Michael Herring
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As kind of an anti-pattern (or a shining exemplar, to some people), the ending to Path Of Neo is pretty awful (or absolutely brilliant, to some people).

I guess what I'm saying is: They told the truth at the end of Path of Neo.

Florian Garcia
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Let's take it the other way around and ask ourselves: " didn't we push players away from finishing games?"
For quite some time, we've been neglecting endings on story driven games. Along with real time cinematic (before modern warfare), it has always been the "if we still have budget" feature.
Also, I believe people get tired of the cliff hangers. As sequels, prequels are driving the franchises ever forward, our endings get quite predictable and redundant.
Food for thoughts.

Michael Herring
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Couldn't agree more. That's why I always liked Final Fantasy endings; completely over the top, but never a cliffhanger.

Scott Lavigne
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I feel like I'm more inclined to agree with Simon Chauvin (below). I don't think cliffhangers drive people away. I think lack of compelling gameplay lets them leave.

Let's be honest with ourselves; video games don't exactly have a reputation for compelling and original plots. The most popular titles are mindless violence power fantasies. People simply get their fill of splattering brains in campaign mode and go back to playing just the multiplayer component with their friends.

It doesn't hold them because the reason they play the game is because it allows them to relax/vent at the end of the day and because it can act as a social event. Why spend time on the campaign when the multiplayer component accomplishes the same goal with more added on top?

Jason VandenBerghe
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@Florian: Nah. See, that's what we've been doing for the last thirty years - shaking our fists at our players' behavior as though the natural way they are engaging with our art form is somehow a violation of our sacred trust.

I'm trying to shake you out of your certainty that the party line on this topic is accurate. It isn't. :)

Florian Garcia
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The only thing I know is that i know nothing :) Certainly no certainty!

I was just raising the question. I personally feel that we've been neglecting our endings and plots. Could it have shaped our player's behaviors? That's an interesting thing to look into :)

Simon Chauvin
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Most players abandon before the end because most games rely on cinematics and/or new weapons/objects to get players to the end. But once they mastered the core gameplay most players will feel like they finished the game, they literally squeezed the game of its essence. I don't find it weird or vague, what's weird is that developers still insist on stretching games over and over, even if the core gameplay doesn't allow it.

Luis Guimaraes
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That's why I personally never finished Alan Wake, having started it over twice in the attempt. Same enemies, same amount of enemies, same guns, same trees, over and over and over... I remember saying to myself "I really want to know what happens next, but it's not worth it".

Nothing else to see, nothing else to do, so why bother? Either make it more interesting or make it shorter.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

David Molnar
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"But once they mastered the core gameplay most players will feel like they finished the game, they literally squeezed the game of its essence."

And this is the truth - can't agree more. I played a lot of games but finished only a few of them and you just said what i felt. After mastering the core gameplay i never wanted to go further. But there is the other side of this coin of truth : the games that has got no ending like sports or the MOBA games are pulling players back to challenge others and play "one more" game BECAUSE they mastered the core gameplay.

Robert Green
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Perhaps because they had already planned more 'endings' to follow as DLC?

Bob Johnson
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@Simon

Great description.

Jason VandenBerghe
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@Simon: I find in my work that unless there is something clearly broken in a game's design, there is no "most players"-style reason that players step away from a game. Everyone has different tastes, and will continue with a game if it is providing them a solid dose of those tastes (and long-term takeaways - a different topic).

Remember that I'm not talking only about bad or broken games. *Great* games have finish rates under 50% (all of them). So, targeting flaws in the design to explain this player behavior breaks down.

Many players just stop because they got what they were looking for, and are ready to move on. Can't it be that simple? :)

Simon Chauvin
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@Bob Thanks :)

@Jason That is exactly what I'm saying, they got what they were looking for, so if a game is finished by less than 50% of players it means that most players got what they wanted without actually finishing the game. Which means that finishing the game is not about reaching the end. In my humble opinion I think that it is because a game is finished when you get a full practical understanding of the game's mechanics. But you're right that many factors are to be taken into account. Which still means that most players don't see the end of a game the same way the developer does.
And just to be clear, I'm not talking about broken games, I'm aiming at big hits like Red Dead Redemption, Far Cry 3, that kind of games. But somehow you're right, I do think that they are broken by the fact that they are clearly sandbox games coupled with linear narratives. Once the mechanics are squeezed out (you played the cowboy/hitchhiker/gangster in every way you wanted) it's just the end of a huge part of the game, some will have the time and desire to reach the end, but most players (more than 50%) will be left with a culpability for not finishing the game whereas they have nothing to do with it and that is the problem I think.
Anyway, thanks for taking the time to reply! :)

Jason VandenBerghe
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@Simon: I like your word "culpability" there. It's a great way of expressing the guilt burden players who are satisfied but not at 100% experience.

Your comment points (in my head, anyway) towards the idea of doling out the game in smaller 'chunks' so that players who are satisfied with less can find a conclusion without having to take the long road, while also giving players with a larger appetite enough to satisfy *them*... and, yes, that is precisely the kind of design that I am interested in exploring.

Nice!

Michael Pianta
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I pretty much agree with this. I don't know if it's really possible to generalize all player behavior, but just looking at myself and my friends, most of the games I fail to finish I actually did finish, in the sense that I was done with them. It's just that the game kept going for some reason, probably so that some length quote could be put on the box. "Over 50 hours of gameplay!"

However, if there's one thing that I think could be done to improve completion rates, it would be adding a handy recap feature into every game. I can't count how many times I've played a game, was enjoying it, set it aside to play a different game, came back a few months later and could not get back into it. What's going on again? How do I do that one move? Where am I going? and so on. There are so many games that I never finished because there was no easy way to get up to speed again.

Simon Chauvin
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In my head too! But slightly different I guess. I believe that the fact that there are two endings in a game (developer's and player's) is directly imputable to the narrative paradox. If you want to tell a story and at the same time giving the player enough freedom you have to make big concessions, as an author of story you have to step back, it's not your story it's the player's.
I personally think that, for instance, a cowboy game should be made so that the player can retire at any time, she can decide that she has seen enough and want to move to something else (stop the game). The narrative should adapt to that, offering a closure like you said. But this cannot work in a linear imposed narrative, we need something more dynamic and less imposed to the player. I really like rogue like games they make great unique stories that you can share with your friends after and you never feel like you did not achieve something. But as I said it's a very personal opinion, I'm waiting to be shown wrong :)

marty howe
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If your game is good, people will finish it. They will become addicted, and won't be able to stop.

You mention poker, chess etc as not having an ending. Games are different, games have an emotional element, escapism, empowerment, being the hero and killing all the bad guys etc. as well as a story arc (hopefully)

When you design a game for players, don't think like poker, or chess (winning, getting the most points etc) Make the player feel something.

Bob Johnson
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I disagree. I think multiplayer videogames are like poker and chess.

Sp videogames are different though. Comparing sp videogames to poker and chess is a terrible analogy.

Jason VandenBerghe
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@Marty: You're talking about a very specific breed of game. It sounds like you're pointing at the action/adventure or the RPG genres... but StarCraft is simply not built for the same kind of evocation as those types of games.

Does that make StarCraft 'not a game'?

Dane MacMahon
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I think developers should embrace a short but sweet and focused experience (and reflect this in the price). Ubisoft pretty much nailed this lately with their downloadable Call of Juarez and Far Cry games. Both were exactly what I want from a shooter: 5 hours, solid theme and story, fun while it lasts, $15. Perfect.

The RPG and online shooter genres are obvious exceptions.

Bob Johnson
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I wish Far Cry was $15 when it came out. It was $50.

Dane MacMahon
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I was talking about Blood Dragon, obviously.

Justin Speer
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Could have been more obvious.

Bob Johnson
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@DAne

I haven't played Far Cry since the 1st nearly 10 years ago so forgive me. I did sample one of the sequels a few years back.

Anyway the obvious part to me is why they add a number or a second name to the original title when naming a sequel or spin-off. ;)

Dane MacMahon
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I wrote "lately with their downloadable..." which was meant to identify each one. I maybe should have wrote the whole names out for each though. No big deal :)

Bob Johnson
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YOu did write lately and downloadable. The clues were there for me.

I guess I wasn't up on those latest versions to put two in two together.

I actually thought there was some new $15 versions of those old games that I hadn't heard about. lol.

Anton Temba
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To be frank, if I find myself uninstalling a game before finishing it, it just means it either badly flawed or it sucks.

For a linear, story-driven game, if its truly good, you will go out of your way to finish it, period. Any excuses you otherwise might have for games you left unfinished will simply not apply when a game manages to really captures your attention and you like it a lot.

The reasons why a game is left unfinished is a never a simple matter of one or another thing and the reasons are always different from one project to another, so you can't really make any generalizations when each game is a seperate case with its own quirks. It would be like comparing apples to oranges or throwing stereotypes around, you can't answer everything with one point.

That said, it usually boils down to two thing: It sucks or it has major flaws that ruin the otherwise good experience. As for the details, its always a game by game basis. Statistics are worthless here.

Jason VandenBerghe
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@Anton: I'm actually talking about *great* games as well - the ones that fail through design flaws are (as you say) less interesting.

What's your favorite game that you finished? And, how many of your friends who also played that game finished it? All of them?

Bob Johnson
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That type of customer that buys all the games and just plays an hour of every one of them is more interested in staying in touch with gaming than in playing the games.

Nathan McKenzie
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It seems like there's a deeper argument here about why people enjoy games in the first place hiding in the middle of all this.

Narratives actually do kinda suck if you don't finish them, I think. They're often not designed to be consumed partially and be fulfilling.

But I don't count the fact that I never finished Super Ghouls and Ghosts, say, as a problem with the game. I had fun trying to beat it, and the fact that it put up a lot of resistance meant that I was amazed when other people had in fact beaten it, and I wanted to know what it was like. I assume that was many players experience with the first super mario brothers.

I am, to this day, unhealthily proud of myself for finishing Blaster Master, the Guardian Legend, and Legacy of the Wizard back in the day, all precisely _because_ while playing them it was pretty obvious that they were hard enough that most people would never see them through to the end. That was central to the pleasure of playing them.

I think you see echoes of that now with Demon Souls and Dark Souls.

I don't think that's the right way to frame a game - but it is certainly a right way, at least for a certain subset of players. "Seeing all content" is kind of a reductive metric for "did someone get what they wanted to out of their relationship to this game".

Jason VandenBerghe
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YES! Yes. Yes yes yes. EXACTLY. Thank you! :)

Craudimir Ascorno
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I think this issue comes down to the fact that among the "core" mainstream, we have been facing a shift from the "games with a story" paradigm to the "games as a story" paradigm.

Back in time, games had no endings (Atari) or very simple endings (8-bit and 16-bit eras) because the point of the game was not to play it just to reach to the end. Nobody played Mario and Sonic games just to see that the princess was saved or the animals rescued. Nobody found it outrageous that Metroid ending was just showing that the person under the armor was a woman, or that Alex Kidd in Miracle World ending consisted only of text. Finishing the game per se was the reward for the player and he had motives to go back and play again to see if he or she was able to overcome the challenge once more, maybe trying different things this time.

Nowadays, single-player games are too story-centric. When we listen people talking about The Last of Us (called the Citizen Kane of games), Bioshock Infinite, Beyond: Two Souls, Mass Effect trilogy, etc, we hardly see anyone talking about the gameplay. It is like the game was about the story, and only. It is like the "game" part was just a hassle to people wishing to see the end of that story. Not that the gameplay of those games are not good, but people hardly see value on them. As long as they are not botched or too intrusive in gamers' objective of completing the story, they are okay, but not the main selling point of the game.

That is why we get companies complaining that gamers buy a copy, complete it in a week and trade-in in GameStop, that pays premium for early trade-ins, screwing up their sales. While the old games had people beating them and saying "well, I will start something else now, but I will play it again next month", we have people beating (or getting all the trophies/achievements) the new games and saying "I am done with this game. Never will play it again". That is why endings became such a big deal and may cause a huge controversy (Mass Effect 3). Watching the ending of the game has become the main goal, and the electronic games act more like a movie or book than a traditional game (board or card game).

It became so evident that the so-called "AAA" games now have more movie production aesthetics than game production aesthetics. Visuals and story became more important than gameplay. An early offender to this pattern was the JRPG genre, that is often criticized for its focus on story, bombastic production values (Final Fantasy), but lack of gameplay substance. The traditional turn-based combat system with random encounters and unnecessary grinding is often seen as something harmful to the "gaming experience" of those games. However, running around the world talking with NPCs and seeing the story unfold is hardly a "gaming experience", but a story telling experience. And we also see in this genre, the great divide between people who prefer single-player games, that are story focused, or MMO RPG games, that are often accused of being "mindless grind fest without substance", and the traditional RPG fans are often baffled on why the MMOs have so much people dedicating uncountable hours to a single game.

But the difference is evident, the traditional RPG fans consist on experiencing stories, while the MMO games consist on experiencing the gameplay. And the same way as the traditional RPG people are puzzled by MMO RPG successes, "AAA" single-player developers are puzzled by social games, Angry Birds-like games, Mario Kart, Fifa, and Call of Duty successes. While the former focus on experiences most people deem unworthy reliving, the later focus on experiences people want to have again and again, regardless if they have beaten it and seen the ending. That is why the former are so concerned about the endings, and the later are not. For the story-driven games, the experience is timed, so the ending must leave a great impression, otherwise the gamers won't be back for the next game, exactly like a movie producer. For the gameplay-based games, the ending is irrelevant, because people are having fun playing the game, and the gamers will come back for the next game if it provides intense gameplay.

Tomas Henriquez
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Most of the comments here refer to the game, if its either good or bad, compelling, engaging, etc. But we are forgetting a key factor: human psyche. There are millions of gamers out there, and therefore many different ways to approach any given game. I, for one, am a person that finishes games. Doesn't matter how bad it is. If I buy it I finish it. I've played countless games, many of them have been awful, but I always finish them, at least to be able to analyse the full experience the designer intended to give.

On the other hand, I have a friend, who barely finishes any games. He is an avid gamer, has probably a bigger library than myself (sort of like Dylan mentioned in the article), he reads game forums/pages daily, when he buys a game he reads faqs and tries to get the best weapon/secret item or whatever the game offers...YET, he never usually finishes the game. Either because a new game came out, or just because he doesn't want to finish.

Hardcore gamers, casual gamers, game finishers, game quitters, (and may other "categories"), its all just part of the gamer fauna we have to deal with when designing games. We can't please them all all the time. That is why you have to create the experience you believe in (with ending or not).

Jason VandenBerghe
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YES! Again, yes! Beautiful. That's exactly the point I was trying to make. Thank you!

Bob Johnson
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I think those people that heavily sample games but don't play much of any of them like the culture, the novelty etc but don't really like the games.

Also this notion of not finishing a game is very vague. Not finish could mean you played a 15 hour game, for example, for 1 hour or for 14 hours. Big difference.

Eric Geer
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I find that I don't finish many games because they are too lengthy(and there are new/better games around the corner), stories aren't intriguing, game has become too frustrating, or the game just isn't that good.

Whatever the reason may be, I hold onto many partially completed games to finish up another day. Not that I won't finish them, but I don't intend to finish them now.

I don't think this is something that developers necessarily have to worry about, unless you are banking on DLC purchases. If you get the first sale, then you got it. But if you want longevity of a game or need that DLC purchase to ensure an income, then you better be making that game worth the finish.


Story, in many cases is what keeps me coming back, if the story fails so does my interest. Maybe it's not even story, but rather purpose. You give me a purpose, hell, even curiosity to complete a game and I will continue through to the end, a la Journey.

Sebastian Bender
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Very interesting article and insights!

I, personally, don't finish many games. This has two reasons:

1. the game is too long and
2. returning to an unfinished game after a longer period is hard.

I do think that finishing a game is kind of important if the game is story-centric. As a consumer I'm paying for the content and I want to see it. As a designer I'm thinking about this kind of content and I want people to see it. As a producer I'm paying for the creation of this content and I want it to amortize.

I suggest two things:
1. Make story-driven games shorter so I can finish them in one session ( < 4 hours).
2. Create a personal summary of my personal story and plot milestones every time I load a game. "Last time on Skyrim..." would definitely get me back into the game and engaged. At the moment I've got too little time to read through all the quest logs and check my inventory to recall what I was doing 3 days/weeks/months ago.

I know that this is no easy task and it would be far from perfect at the first try but I hope this will become one of our standards like the hints on a loading screen or a tutorial.

Jason VandenBerghe
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Hey Sebastian. :) Glad you enjoyed the article.

Your first suggestion falls into the "make all games to suit my tastes and everything will be better" fallacy. Me, I love longer story games, and don't mind at all if they go a while... and opinions will always vary on that. You're a particular kind of player, one of many kinds. :)

But I completely agree with your second suggestion. There have been one or two games that made stabs at this over the years, but nothing that successful (that I recall)... and the feature is complicated to make. HOWEVER, it would be an excellent way to keep players who have 'lost the thread' (from not playing for a week or two, say) moving forward in the tale, I think.

Cool! :)

Sebastian Bender
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I agree with you on player types, of course. I also know a lot of players that like longer story arcs a lot.

But I don't think this is a kind of fallacy here. Think of movies: Each movie nowadays has a certain length - normally around 90-120 mins. That's not because movie makers wouldn't make movies 3-4 hours long (they used to do it and sometimes do today). This restriction came from various other factors:

The market grows (happens to games now, too)
Budgets grow, content is expensive (same with games)
User's attention/time is precious (you see the pattern?)
Platform holders (cinemas) want to show multiple times a day, publishers want to grow a portfolio to mitigate risks (same with games)

Now there are many people who linke longer movies but my point/thesis is this:
1. The demand for long story-driven games is declining as more supply of games in general exists (though I can see demand for games rising that keep you engaged long-term, although I would attribute this not to their plot/storyline)

2. The time a consumer spends with one game declines as there is more content for little money available.

I think we will face the same development that the movie/television industry made - regarding content/story-driven games. We need to start learning from this industry and offer new ways to re-engage players over the course of multiple sessions with the same content. And we can learn from the best practises from TV series, which basically slit a movie into multiple (forced) sessions.

It is definitely important to have extensive storytelling in games. But IMHO it is also important that players finish content-driven games so that they can enjoy it and we do not lose demand for these games.

Nathan Mates
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I agree on the recover-after-a-break issue, but I find it far worse on any sort of arcade/skill based game than say Skyrim. On Skyrim, I know a lot of RPG diehards hate the markers for main & current subquest on the map. But, I found them invaluable for returning to the game after a break. Usually, as I headed off on a quest marker -- even if it was only "go northwest" -- memories came back to me and I figured out what I was trying to do in my last session.

Arcadey games -- those that have more reliance on player skills including pattern memorization or button pressing in sequences -- I find *MUCH* harder to recover from any break in playing. If I've got to execute a button sequence in 0.34 seconds to beat an enemy, I may be able to do that when playing the game from the beginning. After a month, if I've got to 1) remember that sequence, and 2) get my timing back to that accurate within the first minute of gameplay, that game is never going to be played again.

FPSs have -- to me -- a shared skills bucket, where aiming skills don't atrophy much in a month of not playing a game. RPGs, where the skill rolls are determined by stats saved a month ago don't atrophy much either. It's the player-skill in button mashing a per-game sequence & timing that are the most vulnerable.

I know there is a vocal (not arguable) minority (arguable, but I would point to sales numbers for my evidence it's a minority) that loves hard punishing games. What I note above is that for me, such games are extra-hard to get into after any sort of break, and therefore I choose to NOT ever buy such games. User-controllable difficulties for any sort of player-skill are a must if there's going to be any break in the action. I've got 330+ Steam games. It's up to the game to cater to my desires and interests, not the other way around -- games that annoy me can and will be replaced.

Alfa Etizado
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Think of all the wasted effort though. Maybe all of that could be put into making a better, shorter game. Or maybe even a better game with no end, like you mentioned there with chess.

Games like that exist but not as often as they should, specially when it comes to big studios.

Jason VandenBerghe
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Are there movies that your friends love that you don't? Is a movie that you don't like but that your friends do 'wasted effort'?

The idea that all games must satisfy every person, that there is this one type of "über-game" that will reach all people... that idea is poison, in my opinion.

Luis Guimaraes
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Then a low rate of finishing, that's /not/ fault of the game to keep interesting high or ending before it drops, must be actually a success of some kind: getting people to buy stuff they don't want.

Or perhaps "every person", "all people" is not the best way of referencing those who already went the mile of acquiring the game, wit showing the pre-requisite of interest in it.

That people do fall for hype and impulse buy is a fact tho, but for how long is that business practice of fooling consumers sustainable?

Jason VandenBerghe
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You're assuming that if someone doesn't finish a game that they feel they didn't get their money's worth.

Turns out, that is *also* not true. There are lots (and lots, and lots) of gamers who are happy to play until they reach a personal goal, and then set it aside (even with the narrative unresolved).

Alfa Etizado
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It isn't about making a game that satisfies everyone. I don't think it's a wasted effort that a game I don't like exists, for an instance.

The problem here isn't that people don't like the game, I think people probably enjoy a lot of the games they don't finish.

On Steam, comparing the % of players who earned the first achievement and the one for beating the game. It's like you said, 20-40% beating the game.

Portal and Portal 2 were the ones to lose less players of all games I've checked, starting at 71% and ending at 46%. That's about a third of the players who didn't beat it, which is pretty good if I'm not terrible at math. Portal was a short, unique game that a lot of people loved.

In Borderlands, 63% get the easiest and earliest achievement, only 23.1% get the one for beating the game. Still, Borderlands 2 did pretty well commercially, better than Borderlands, I think out of the people who played the first a lot more than a third enjoyed it.

Now for shorter and more directed games, Trine and Trine 2. Trine starts at 81% and ends at 23.8%, Trine 2 starts at 58% and ends at 15%. The Walking Dead, goes from 84% to 37%, every next achievement is earned by about 3% less players and you get every achievement by just playing the game, a game with almost no friction. A zombie game, based on a popular series no less, that sold like hotcakes and has an 8.6 user score on Metacritic (PC version), which is really good.

The problem is that you got the player interested in your title, either because of the story or the mechanics, so you did something right, but for some reason they're not interested in a lot of other things you did in that game. They'll quit the game and say they've liked it.

Because I don't think the games I mentioned were disliked by even half the % that didn't beat it, and we know how a brief negative experience during the game can taint some players' perception of everything else in there.

So this is why I think it's a wasted effort. You've created something they like but you've made too much of it. Or you've created something good but added a bunch of other things nobody cares about.

Either way, you've created something you didn't need to create in order to draw the player in. If you got someone to buy your game AND enjoy it, you've already succeeded, and you managed to succeed without needing maybe half of what's in there. That's half the entire game so only a third of the players would enjoy it.

What if that effort had been put into making the game even more satisfying for the majority that never beats it, or to create something that'd let you stand out and reach a wider audience. Or maybe simply ship a shorter game for a better price.

Oh, here's a crazy thing. Aliens: Colonial Marines, a 5 hour game. It starts at 86.8% of players earning an easy achievement you get on the first level, and ends at 41.6% for the achievement to beat it. That's as good as one of the most well received games from last year, The Walking Dead.

Luis Guimaraes
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@Jason

"You're assuming that if someone doesn't finish a game that they feel they didn't get their money's worth."

I'm actually guessing what that someone will assume after a while. They're the consumer. In an ideal world the consumer knows the difference of stopping a game because it's boring and they can't take any more, or stopping it because it's too long and they can't take anymore.

Despite a solution for their problem already exists and it's free:

http://www.geek.com/games/games-edited-into-movies-the-10-best-vi
deogame-films-1554555/

Craig Lebsock
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I always feel terrible if I don't finish a game. It's not so much that I feel I owe the developers something, but rather I like to know how a story ends. Regardless of how I feel about the game I feel I need to end it (even if I take a 3 month break and come back to it eventually). Some games I loved the endings to and got so into the huge climax of the game that it alone made the whole experience worth it (Ace Combat series did endings so so right), whereas others left me feeling like "Seriously? That was it?" (Battlefield 3's subpar ending). I'm a bit disappointed to hear that only 10-20% of players actually finish games, and I can understand why people don't finish certain games, so while I'm disappointed, I'm not surprised. Several of my gaming buddies never even touch campaigns and will run straight to multiplayer. I usually prefer to play the first few levels of the game just to get a feel for it before I even consider multiplayer. It's just different players and how they feel about the story of a game.

This was a great article! Definitely something to take into consideration when creating a game.

ric neil
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I agree with Alfa, but want to bring up another point.
With the advent of real telemetry (analytics) in games now. You can measure how well you are doing against your business model.
If restaurants operated at the rate we operate at for completed meals, they would go out of business or change the completion rate.

Our industry is in turmoil, layoffs galore, fragmented devices, mass market expectations, design by data, new console launched that look unprofitable. We can help fix that by making the business model better.

The person that did not finish bioshock2 would have been happy if the game ended where they stopped, they had enough of your content. They ate their fill. We need to stop making games for the 20-35% of customers that are never full.

Remember, we need to make money, and over delivering will soon get the attention of the Finance guys, and we don't want them telling us how long to make a game. (sorry finance guys)

Bob Johnson
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Not finishing a game is pretty vague. It could mean you put an hour into it or 15 hours of what is considered a 16 hour experience.

I think if a large portion of the customer base isn't playing large chunks of your game then something is going to give eventually.

Richard Black
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I think it depends entirely on the type of game and to a lesser extent when it was made.

When I was kid in the early years of gaming I don't actually think many games were meant to be won, and if there was an ending it wasn't likely to have any expository beyond your score. You usually played just to play, but that was largely before rpgs even became a category. When there were rpgs they were usually designed so that you could play them for weeks, months, or years. Then again there was a lot less competition as well.

Now you're right to an extent but in all liklihood you stop playing a game because you've been distracted by another game. There are so many competing for your attention and I don't think anyone expects you to play a game for months and months anymore. Games are frequently more encouraging and less punishing to help you speed through them knowing you have a limited attention span.

Still a lot of games are designed to be finished and I think many do. I doubt the uproar over the ME3 ending would have been quite so loud if a great many people hadn't played through and finished three games, perhaps multiple ways, and were just profoundly dissapointed all their time and effort culminated into a choice of three colors for their ending cutscene.

So really I think whether you have an ending or not is determined by your design. Are you a distraction or an experience? A lot of mobile games and older console games are distractions. Kill some time with them when you have it and move on. Other games are experiences and you can settle down with them for the long haul. Many have marathon sessions with them and don't like to be distracted and when engaged by them can be extremely critical about how they turn out.

Dave Hoskins
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I'm like this with books. I enjoy reading them, but somehow just stop somewhere random, and it gets left on the shelf. With FPSs I used to simply NEED to get through all the levels, instead of somehow enjoy it totally, which seems like the opposite!
I have stopped playing some games because they've suddenly become very difficult, whether it's a bug or inconsistent design. The memory of such incidences prevent me from playing the game again. If games aren't fun, then why play them? It you find it funny to see players get angry with your game, then you've complete missed the point.

Has anyone tried collections of short unconnected stories in a game? Where each story finishes after an hour or so, and you can start any story from the beginning? Players can then look forward to a whole new adventure, and start the character off fresh each time. I don't think I've seen that before.

Paul Shirley
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Only last night I quit and uninstalled Ninja Blade, 75% through the final mission rather than grind away against the games bugs any longer. Then headed to YouTube to watch the ending.

In a world with YouTube full of gameplay video viewing a story isn't tied to progress in a game, however compelling the story might be it can't make players suffer through bad/buggy gameplay. If you actually care about completion, divert more of the cash towards the actual game because hooking players on the story no longer works.

Lihim Sidhe
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For a medium that makes extensive use of mechanics I'm surprised this article or the comments have not mentioned a 'finish mechanic'. This allows everyone to win.

All this means is that when a player decides they have had their fill of the game, they can que up an ending that's affected by a player's progress in the game. In otherwords multiple endings that open up depending on progress. A narrative supplment to the Game Over screen.

I can only think of two games that come close to this - Chrono Trigger and Indigo Prophecy. In the former soon after the player begins the game the player can opt to challenge the last boss immediately. If they do so they will get decimated and of course a 'Game Over' screen follows. In this way a player can decide to end their game in a more conclusive way than just quitting all together.

In Indigo Prophecy (a game I didn't finish 100%) the last time I remember playing is where I failed a quick time event in the protagonist's apartment and this failure brought on an actual ending. The protagonist explained how since he failed to do X in time, how Y circumstances were brought about and he was going to spend the rest of his life in jail. There it is. That's MY ending for Indigo Prophecy.

So if game designers were to offer endings based on let's say... every two hours of progress, then technically every player would finish the game. They wouldn't see all of the content of the game of course but they can still 'close the loop' no matter how long they play. The longer one plays the more awesome the ending.

When I don't finish movies it's because the movie is either so bad or predictable I already know what's going to happen. So in my mind the movie has already closed its loop in lieu of bad writing. "Dude you have to see Transformers 3!" "Why? Special effects? Michael Bay? Explosions? Romantic interests accompanied by save the world underdog story? Don't need to see it."

I aim to be a cross between a web developer and game designer. I could activate my 'finish mechanic' right now, spend all my resources on opening up an office and hiring people before I have a clue of what I'm doing and be broke and out of business in about a month's time or less. That's what a gamer playing my life could choose if they simply wanted to move on. But I have many levels in my life before I activate my finish mechanic - an associate's, a bacheloer's, internships, networking, a daughter and most immediate... getting out of the Army. That route is for the hardcore gamer that wants to see all the content.

/rant

Jason VandenBerghe
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Uh.

Well, okay. Since you put it that way.

...

That's fucking genius, by the way. And, no, I have no excuse for not thinking of it.

Brilliant. Yes, that would work. Yes, there are multiple applications for that idea (for example, you could allow players to "finish" chapters or levels as well, to allow them to close the loop without completing all the tasks, etc).

The reason we don't do this right now is a) the notion of players skipping content we have laid out for them is personally offensive to many developers (I am not in this camp), b) it's more work for less play (which we don't like), and c) we hadn't really thought of it, or seen a successful implementation of it in a game.

Honestly? Thanks.


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