Many of us have to wait what seems like an eternity to finally get that long-awaited sequel or prequel we have always craved. But there are some games that don’t take such a long development cycle. I’m talking about annual entries of games. Some examples would include Call of Duty, Assassins Creed, Madden, Fifa, and Halo to name a few. However, it seems like people are looking at these series with more and more disdain.Why is this? My thought: it’s the problem of too much of a good thing.
Sometime people want a sequel but what they get isn’t what they had hoped for. You also run into the problem of people taking it for granted. “Why should I get excited for this? It comes every year.” For some games however, it’s expected. Mostly sports games have these annual installments. This makes sense as rosters change, new players are added to teams, members are drafted and stats changed. People want to use players in a different way, and introduce new ones on their team. There’s a reason for the sequel there. This it ties into another problem annual releases have: not enough reason.
Let’s take Assassin’s Creed. The series has done such great work trying to bring history to life and making a great saga. However, after the third game, the response to them went down. This was due to the third game finishing the framing narrative of the series. Assassins Creed 4 did well however, as people saw it as less restrictive and less likely to be bogged down by a narrative many thought had run it’s course. But then Unity and Rogue were released. People picked up on the purpose of these. The story and experience wasn’t as important to the developers. What was important to the developers was keeping the game popular.
This is counter-productive however. If you want something to remain popular, keep it fresh. Keep what people loved about the old but give them something new. It can be alluring to have an annual upsurge of millions of copies sold for your development company. Even though Infinite Warfare isn’t what people wanted, it’s still selling copies. But it’s projected to sell much lower than hoped. The numbers have been consistent over the years, but they seem to be going slightly down. More than that, they are resonating worse with fans. Hopefully annual releases can become “I can’t wait for that this year” instead of the same thing, but a different year.
Mobile Games, Root Access, and You: We need to talk.
There are several things I dislike when it comes to mobile gaming. First of all, it’s all those clones of popular games floating around as bootlegs. Second of all, it’s those talking animals that spit back a phrase, but higher pitched and faster. Third of all, it’s mobile games that lock rooted Android users out of their apps. Buckle yourself in, because I have some things to say on the matter. This might be a long, wordy one.
E3, the advertising juggernaut, has concluded but not without announcing a whole lotta’ interesting titles. One such title I’m interested in is Nintendo’s attempt at an open world, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. (henceforth BotW) The series as a whole has used both linearity and open world designs but the 3d games tend to stick to the more linear style. There are a lot of smart dudes working at Nintendo so if anyone can figure out how to do one well, its them. I, like most people raised as gamers, have been a fan of the Zelda franchise for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories are of my older brothers pulling out the almighty gold N64 cartridge containing Ocarina of Time.
One thing that has me worried is that Aonuma Eiji stated that BotW’s Map will be about the size of Kyoto. Then some lovely and more intelligent people than I did some mathematics and noted that if true, BotW’s map would be about 10x the size of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s map.
That’s absolutely bonkers. And the only part that’s more ridiculous than that statement is that people are actually excited about that. Now now, don’t get me wrong, if done correctly having a map 10x bigger than an already pretty empty map() would be a pretty amazing feat for all of gaming. Only problem is that filling a map that large with interesting interactions is ACTUALLY impossible. And this is my friends is my issue with “Open World” games. Developers endlessly pursue larger maps and more mechanics instead of fleshed out worlds with quality level design and game mechanics with depth. So in this article I’ma talk about open world games and discuss Dark Souls.
Because all roads lead back to Lordran.
Linearity vs Open World
Value Proposition and DPH:
Lots of the praise open world games receive is thanks to the nearly worthless “value proposition.” The “bang for your buck” or “getting your money’s worth.” While nothing is wrong with trying to be smart with your money, there are many who equate hours of “unique” content to quality. Which is absolute garbage. Quality = Quality.
I played Undertale, my favorite game last year, for only 15 hours. And those 15 hours were significantly better spent than 15 hours I spent walking to all the various caves throughout my 100+ hours of Skyrim. Maybe I’m gettin’ too old, but if a game could pace itself nicely wrap it up in around 10-20 hours that’d be great. Instead of measuring hours spent we should measure Dopeness Per Hour or DPH. For example, Undertale had significantly higher DPH than TES: Skyrim.
Open World Design Problems:
Since open worlds are- so open, they need to do a LOT more stuff to be perceived as genuinely good. It’s not Bethesda or Bioware’s fault, it’s a “problem” inherent with the design of Open World. And while there is certainly value is in trying to create the illusion of player agency, I feel even that task is better suited to a more linear experience.
For example, In the Elder Scrolls series I really love playing the Dark Brotherhood quest lines. So first thing Lil’ Greg does when he buys Skyrim is find the Brotherhood and continue the quest line to completion. SPOILERS. You end up killing the EMPEROR. Now me saying spoilers was a just a formality because killing the EMPEROR does not matter. It doesn’t change a damn thing. Killing the Emperor should be a huge deal. But it ain’t. Wanna know why? Cause they had to make cave #129.
The size of the map makes it so all of the Dopeness developed has gotta’ get spread around. The freedom the player is granted means they have to spread out the Dopeness evenly as to lessen the chance of the player taking the “lame path” or Moments of Low Dopeness.(MoLD) This makes games like Skyrim or Oblivion feel like a huge blur to me. Because they had so much to do they couldn’t even make the pay off on one of the -major quest lines- worthwhile.
And Skyrim is considered one of the best examples of an open world done well. You don’t need me to tell you about all the bad ones out there.
Funny thing is this is all stems from Skyrim’s. Skyrim serving the open world niche got hyped to all hell and sold amazingly. The mindless suits and their focus tests are incapable of studying or understanding what makes Skyrim fantastic. So suddenly every game’s overworld starts getting bigger and bigger, with marketing talking about how much larger they are than their predecessors.
The Perfect Example: Dragon Age: Inquisition
The Elder Scrolls’ open world serves a purpose. The designers at Bethesda use the open world to try and create a world that feels alive. The NPCs seem to have schedules and goals outside of you. You can use the mechanics presented to set goals for yourself and aim towards them. And while Bethesda games are notorious for having immersion breaking moments..
The use of a first person perspective and large beautiful landscapes helps to invoke that all too important feeling of immersion. Many games think that just randomly including open world game mechanics just- because. Case and point, another game I enjoy, Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Inquisition is filled with large landscapes filled with simplistic MMORPG-inspired side quests and resources to gather. Problem is, the character you play as is known as the “Inquisitor.” You are the leader of a great military might known as the Inquisition! Why is the boss doing the grunt work? We should be slaying dragons and saving the world! We could’ve had an interesting and immersive simulation forcing the player to take the role of a military leader in a troubled time. But we stray from the potential thematic cohesion, and for what?
Okay, so it doesn’t work narratively. What about mechanically? Well. The game somehow manages to be both linear and open at the same time. The solid story is bisected by the long periods of mindless gameplay as you gather a special currency that unlocks the next plot mission. There are huge lulls in the storytelling, the combat is a simplistic grind, and traversal takes forever. It takes all the problems that come with being open world and gets NONE of the benefits.
So why’d they do it? I dunno’.
Some suit was probably like. “Hey hey hey, we have a fantasy genre game under our belt right? So why don’t we try to make one of them Skyrims I’ve heard so much about?”
The Beauty of Linearity:
Alright so we’ve discussed a lot of the problems, what’s the solution? Linearity! My dear undead!
With a linear experience the designer has full control of the dopeness and can choose where and when to sprinkle the high moments. This doesn’t need to completely remove player agency as the designers can use a light hand in guiding the player towards the “correct” path. Perfect example of this comes from Dark Souls. After completing the tutorial you’re transported to Lordran, the main area of the game. You’re presented with three paths, one guarded by powerful enemies, one guarded by enemies you are unable to hit and the other with weak ones you’ve seen before.
Chances are, if its your first time, you’re gonna read the obvious sign and head down the easier path. But..
If you wanted to, you could try and persevere past the powerful enemies and be rewarded with powerful items. And on subsequent playthroughs many players do.
Also, linear experiences are less demanding technically. Its cost way too much rendering the large open landscapes required to create that sense of scale that open worlds require. It takes way too much manpower to fill that hard to render area with engaging meaningful interactions. With all those leftover resources the developers can sculpt more interesting and engaging worlds. They have the resources and time to develop more engaging gameplay.
Dark Souls managed to create a world more engaging and filled with more agency than the vast majority open world games despite being pretty linear. This beautiful piece to the left was an artists’ interpretation of the world of Lordran. A world that is almost entirely connected. The masterful level design and environmental storytelling makes the world come alive. Every corpse, every crack meticulously placed to get a certain point across. And it’s effectiveness shows, this is a piece from a fan of the game made to celebrate the LEVEL design of a video game.
If that ain’t praise, I dunno’ what is.
Cover Image by Judson Cowen. Prints available here.
In 2005 and 2006 a little game called Nintendogs took the handheld gaming world by storm. Such a simple idea, taking care of virtual puppies, the idea had been done before, but most of those games had an ending; ultimately there was a way for the game to end whether it be training the dog after a certain amount of time or completing mundane care tasks with little reward. Then the Nintendo DS artfully used its stylus and touch screen to create an interactive environment in which the person behind the screen acted more as an actual owner and less of an errand boy.
First of all, you got to pick your own dog. You were given enough money to pick whichever dog you wanted that was available in your specific game. Then you got to name it, feed it, give it water, give it baths, make sure they were happy and energized with toys and walks. You can could teach your puppy tricks and even train it for competitions. You could make your dog a pro athletics champ or maybe just dress them up and take them out on walks hoping for a special mystery gift to show off your doggy prowess to your friends who also had the game.
The game offered tons of opportunities to redecorate the house, dress your pup up, and become a competition champion. The only real end goal was maxing out the trainer points which were earned while playing the game, but in the end there were always the dogs to take care of. The puppies always needed to be fed, given water, washed and walked at the very least. There was always something to do in Nintendogs; so why do so why are so many puppies left abandoned?
It is really sad when you think about it, the puppies being left all alone with only themselves or maybe they have a friend or two to play with. They’ll be parched, starving, and filthy with flies jumping off of them, but they’ll slowly walk up to the screen begging for a bit of love and attention. It’s almost heartbreaking going back to an abandoned Nintendogs game, simply because they don’t die; they just wait.
It could be said that this style of punishment is used in other games, but in games like Animal Crossing the villagers move away if you don’t keep up with them. That would almost be better than the Nintendogs treatment. Yes the dogs run away, but that actually only happens if the game is left on. If that game isn’t played the dogs are left in a state of abandonment, still growing hungrier, thirstier, and dirtier with each passing day.
Thinking about the dogs being left to just wait reminds me of that one story, Hachi: a Dog’s Tale, the story of a very loyal dog who constantly waited at the train station for his master so that they could come home, but after the master dies while at work, Hachi finds himself waiting still for him to come to the train station, leaving Hachi to wait for the rest of his life. He was so loyal he couldn’t bear to leave his spot.
You can’t really ever hurt your Nintendog. They can get “sick,” but there isn’t a risk of losing them. They just look a little off for the rest of the walk after they eat trash, but after a few paces they’re back to their chirper selves. You can tug their leash a little too tight, but they only whimper for a second then they bark with joy. You can tug their paw a little too hard and it prompts a sneeze or they dance a bit jumping back and forth on their paws, but you can never really hurt them at all. They don’t hold a grudge over anything that their owner does or doesn’t do; they just continue to wait for love and attention, even if it’s the form of a few style taps on the screen. Give them food, water, a bath, maybe even a walk; make your Nintendog’s day, they’ve only been waiting ten years.