Too Big and Too Hard

Video games are too big, and too hard. Even for those of us that will argue against this notion until we're blue in the face, there is an increasing amount of data that proves it. Here's what seems to be going on in game development right now to address it.

Since we rebooted GamePro at the beginning of the year we've spent an awful lot of time talking to game designers and creative directors in an effort to try and get into their heads and find out what makes them tick. While we've heard lots of different stories about what motivates them to get out of bed in the morning, there have been a surprising number of common threads that we've pulled from each of these conversations. Most pervasive is the notion that the games business is currently going through a once-in-a-lifetime period that should be relished as much as humanly possible. Unlike any other part of the entertainment business, gaming's auteurs and its most influential (or at least most affluent) consumers are maturing at roughly the same pace. So as the vanguard of creatives in charge of our experiences adjust to their own life changes, they are able to channel their learnings back into their products (reasonably) safe in the knowledge that they'll be well-received and broadly supported. As an overall community we've grown up together. We've gotten older, settled down, and had kids together. So as designers are deciding that they want to make different experiences to indulge their own lives, they can be fairly confident that their audience is in the same boat. This period is unique in that the industry will only be as naturally in tune with its audience as it is right now for a brief period, and its still adjusting its technology at roughly the same pace as its artistic vision.

This whole scenario isn't just based on anecdotal evidence and wishful thinking from people that want to go home and spend time with their kids. Like everything else about game design, the tools available to designers that prove these theories are more useful than ever, and they're providing the sort of data about the way we all consume games that's proving very surprising.

The revelation that I've heard from more designers than anything else is this:

Games are too hard, they're too long, and they provide way too much stuff.

While this may sound like an excuse from an aging group of individuals faced with technology that takes an increasingly large degree of effort to utilize, there's an enormous amount of data being collected that backs this up.

This isn't the kind of conclusion that can be reached through surveys or questionnaires, because when it comes to our behavior we all have far too much pride, we're all greedy, and we all lie.

Conventional gaming wisdom thus far has been "bigger, better, MORE!" It's something affirmed by the vocal minority on forums, and by the vast majority of critics that praise games for ambition and scale. The problem is, in reality its almost completely wrong. The vast majority of gamers don't need more. They don't have the time or the inclination to invest enormous amounts of time and effort with a game. This isn't the kind of conclusion that can be reached through surveys or questionnaires, because when it comes to our behavior we all have far too much pride, we're all greedy, and we all lie. If someone asks us, collectively 'do you want more or less game?" it's fairly safe to say we'd all go with the former rather than the latter. Also, when someone asks us if we want to coast through something that's just challenging enough, we'd say "oh no, I'm a gamer - I need the challenge."

The problem is, the vast majority of gamers don't really behave the way they say they do. How do we know this? Because an increasing number of games incorporate telemetry systems that track our every action. They measure the time we play, they watch where we get stuck, and they broadcast our behavior back to the people that make the games so they can tune the experience accordingly.

Every studio I've spoken to that does this, to a fault, says that many of the games they've released are far too big and far too hard for most players' behavior. As a general rule, less than five percent of a game's audience plays a title through to completion. I've had several studios tell me that their general observation is that "more than 90 percent" of a games audience will play it for "just four or five hours."

So what does this mean for the future of games? Well, before we all get our panties in a bunch over the inevitable endumbening of games, it seems that games will become increasingly modular in order to accommodate different tastes. Currently, Microsoft's development guidelines tell developers and publishers that the optimum time to release DLC is "within the first 30 days" of a game's release. The problem with that though is that it's not enough time to gather enough data about the audience's behavior and then generate content that reflects it. Content delivered in the first month has to be pretty much finished and sitting in the first party approval queue before the actual game comes out. So right now, that first bunch of DLC we see for something is usually based on a hunch, rather than the way we actually play. For some games that appeal to specific tastes, that's easier (I guess) to anticipate. But as games are increasingly under pressure to achieve monstrously huge sales, the whole system will have to change.

The nature of the majority, as one developer told me recently, is that their preference is to "just dick around" rather than follow the structure. It's not just an occasional thing – in terms of behavior its pretty much pervasive. There's always a minority that plays things the way the studio intended, but as another developer told me, "sometimes, you just want to tell people that they're playing it wrong."

So expect this; more games that reward that "dicking around" and celebrate emergent game modes, and more games that accommodate the hardcore based on behavior, rather than assumption.

The thing is, we're not playing it wrong. What's happening is that studios are starting to look at the way they make games and concede that they're making them wrong. The vast majority of releases, even the most spectacular and successful, adhere to structural conventions that date back 20 years. As an audience we're getting bored of that, if we're honest. Right? Younger gamers demand something more sophisticated, while older gamers don't have the time or energy to play through something built around a punitive system for a bazillion hours.

So expect this; more games that reward that "dicking around" and celebrate emergent game modes, and more games that accommodate the hardcore based on behavior, rather than assumption. Big time multiplayer shooters like Call of Duty and Halo can always rely on an unusually large hardcore contingent, but the teams making many other games can stop beleaguering under misguided assumptions. Consequently our experiences will be "tuned" over time to a far larger degree than they are currently, and they will do so based on how we're actually playing them, rather than how its hoped we're playing them.

Hopefully the notion of "value" won't be lost during all of this.

Reprinted from GamePro with permission.

John Davison is the EVP of content at GamePro Media where he oversees all editorial content for both its print and online properties. Previously he was the co-founder of What They Play, the games website for parents which was sold to IGN last year. Before that you may have known him as the editorial director of the 1UP Network where, among other things, he co-hosted the popular 1UP Yours podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @jwhdavison.