Friday, May 23, 2008

The Untimely Demise of the Epic Game

In a conversation between Gamasutra and new Infogrames president Phil Harrison, the following exchange got my attention:

Gamasutra: I know a lot of developers with whom I've spoken have indicated that, as far as they're aware, most players don't actually finish their games, and most people who sit down to watch a TV show or a movie always will finish it.
Phil Harrison: Exactly, and that was a key motivation for this game, was the fact that they did some research, and I forget the exact numbers, but it was something like only eight percent play to the end of the game.
If this is true, then I think it tells us something important about where computer games are headed.

The old paradigm was the "big" game: lots of levels, lots of NPCs and mobs, lots of stuff with which to interact, lots of story and dialogue. Even the early computer games followed this model (although the term "lots" is relative), in that the game was conceived as being something so big that you couldn't finish it in a single sitting. There'd be so many hours of content to explore -- 30 hours, 60 hours, even 100 hours -- that you'd have to stop several times on your journey to the end of the game.

What occurs to me is that the audience for home computer games has changed. In the Elder Days, the few folks playing computer games enjoyed the big game that took a long time to complete. These folks were already "core gamers" who were invested in playing all the way through any game they bought; the extent of the journey made finishing the game feel satisfying.

But it seems that things have changed. Old-school gamers who expect to finish a 100-hour game may now be a minority (perhaps an extreme minority of gamers); the majority may now look at computer games as just another quickie entertainment form -- not as a memorable experience, but just another way to kill some time. They either don't have lots of free time, or they simply aren't interested in investing large chunks of the free time they do have into just one game. This would explain why so few gamers may finish today's computer games.

Which leads to the question that Phil Harrison and probably other publishers are asking themselves: if most gamers never finish such big games, why make big games? Why invest millions of dollars' worth of development time and effort into an endgame that most players will never see?

If that's so, then we can expect to see other publishers follow Phil Harrison's lead and start funding only the games that appear better aligned with today's casual and short-attention-span gamer's lifestyle. Examples of this would be shorter games like Portal, and episodic games like Sam & Max. In other words, it's likely that we'll be seeing fewer epic-sized games like Oblivion or GTA IV.

Let's say this analysis is more or less accurate. That raises several questions.

First of all, if this is a real phenomenon, how does it relate to books? If people today really hated long narratives, who would read anymore? Is there any data that people today are no longer finishing books that they've bought? (I almost don't want to know the answer to that one in case it's actually "yes.") Is there any correlation between the kinds of people who buy and read big thick novels and those who play epic computer games through to completion?

Secondly, where does this leave MMORPGs? The typical online role-playing game is, by nature, a big game. If players play characters, those characters need a world in which to act... but building a world implies creating an environment that's big enough to feel like a well-realized place in which characters can participate in stories. Furthermore, since virtually all current MMORPGs use the character class/level convention, content must be created for different classes, but most players will only experience the content for one or two classes at most. From the individual player's perspective, they never see most of the character-specific content of any MMORPG.

Some of these concerns have been addressed by the recent emphasis in MMORPGs on quests/missions. By designing the typical quest to be something that can be completed in an hour or two, MMORPGs give players a convenient stopping point between gameplay sessions. However, this doesn't address the point that there's no "end" in a persistent-world game. As with epic single-player games, the end for most players of a MMORPG is simply to abandon the game.

So what happens to MMORPGs in a game development milieu where only the shorter/simpler games get development money?

Finally, a personal reaction: If we're looking at far fewer "deep" games in favor of shorter, simpler games, where does that leave me? I still love the deep, complex, highly immersive games; I enjoy investing myself in the games that feel like richly detailed and fully realized worlds. To me, the Looking Glass-style games -- Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Thief, Deus Ex, BioShock -- those are the games that really show off the unique art form that is computer games.

I really enjoyed Portal. At heart, though, I'm still a fan of games built as large worlds with extended narratives. A bag of chips, an apple, a box of popcorn -- those things are OK, but what's wrong with occasionally wanting something more substantial?

When substantial games that immerse the player's heart and brain are no longer being made in favor of cheap-to-produce game-y action games that can be played to completion in an hour or two, what's my incentive to care about computer games any more?

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