Somehow, it’s already November. But also, good lord, it is finally November. Such is the duality of 2020, a year born from a freshly molted tuft of Satan’s black wings. Thus, this week’s episode of Splitscreen is about time. What’s its deal? Who decided it was a good idea? Also, more pertinently, which games use it in an interesting way, and why don’t more games respect players’ time?
To kick off the episode, we discuss a variety of games that include time-based mechanics, including Superhot (cool, but not as cool as it could have been), Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (not as good as Majora’s Mask, sorry folks), Viewtiful Joe (reboot when?), and Chrono Trigger (the best). Then we move on to a very particular time of the video game year: The holiday season, aka the fall games rush, aka “please stop packing so many major releases into the same week—you’re going to kill me.” In another one of my famous rip-offs of very good historical debunker podcast You’re Wrong About, I explain why “the holiday season” as we know it exists at all, how games got involved, and why the industry keeps cramming all its biggest releases into the same couple of months even though it doesn’t really need to anymore. For our last segment, we talk about how games do and do not respect our time, coming to the disheartening conclusion that games gain a plethora of additional moneymaking options when they don’t respect players’ time, but also that, in some rare cases like World of Warcraft’s recent level “squish,” it’s possible to streamline things too much.
Get the MP3 here, and check out an excerpt below.
Ash: Nathan, what’s a game that does not respect your time?
Nathan: So yeah, I think there are a lot of them in this day and age, because so many games have to not respect your time to get you to spend money. This has existed a lot in the mobile space for a long time, but I think even in bigger “games as a service” games, the meta has become “OK well, if you play the game entirely for free, everything takes way longer. If you spend money, then you get the experience as it was intended to be played—which is not on fast-forward, but just at a more enjoyable pace.”
I find that interesting in regard to the flavor of the past couple months, Genshin Impact, which is a kind of Breath of the Wild/JRPG fusion. It’s entirely free and has an enormous, expansive world full of possibility. But at the same time, there is ultimately a hook. There is ultimately a time at which it wants you to spend money. At the outset, it respects the heck out of your time. It lets you do pretty much whatever you want to. A lot of content is open. Even the grind to unlock more stuff is fundamentally really enjoyable, because it’s rooted in Breath of the Wild-style exploration, so it’s honestly the best part of the game. But eventually, you do hit a point where, especially for the end game, it starts limiting the amount you can do every day in a really, really abrupt way—to where, if you don’t want to not be able to do anything of consequence after a handful of minutes, you’ve gotta spend money.
So I think we’re seeing this evolution where, initially you had games very openly not respecting your time to get you to spend money, but now companies are getting savvier. They’re going “OK, how can we hook people first—with games that are admittedly really good!—in a way that ultimately gets them to spend lots of money?” So the question becomes: Is that a good tradeoff? Should we be happy that games like Genshin Impact are like, “Hey, your first 15 or 20 hours with this game are going to be enjoyable in a way where you don’t really feel pressured to spend money”? Or is it still just disguising something that’s pretty insidious?
Fahey: No, it’s disguising something that’s still pretty insidious.
Ash: It’s insidious, yeah.
Fahey: Along the same lines, one of my games that doesn’t respect my time is...well, you can really say any mobile game. I was once the Kotaku mobile editor, so I had to deal with a lot of free-to-play stuff. Every game that was free-to-play would throw some artificial restriction in there. The only reason that mechanic existed—fuel cells for racing games, or energy or lives in Candy Crush, or lives in this game I’m playing right now called Pop Blitz, which is the Pop vinyl match-3 game where you can collect different Pops—is to get you to spend money. In Pop Blitz, you have five lives, and once that’s over, you have to wait 10 minutes for the next life. Why? Why am I waiting 10 minutes? There’s no reason, except oh wait, I can spend money and buy some hearts, or use in-game money to buy hearts.
I don’t want to pay for my time, is what it comes down to. I feel like how I play and when I play should be my own decision. I shouldn’t have to spend extra money to play more often. There are different things to incentivize me to give you more money. I will spend a couple bucks every now and then on some coins to buy a Pop. And that’s fine. Why should I have to spend money so I can play through another stupid 60-minute Blitz section of matching little heads on my phone?
Nathan: I think the answer to that question, though, is pretty simple: Time is more valuable than anything else.
Fahey: Are you saying time is money?
Ash: But money is the root of all evil. Does that mean time is evil?
Nathan: I think it does mean that time is evil. That’s the only conclusion we can draw. Ash, what is a game that you think either does or does not respect your time?
Ash: So this is weird. This is a game that does not respect your time, but it also circles back around and ends up respecting your time more, but is worse for it. I’m talking about World of Warcraft with the new updates for Shadowlands that kind of streamline the leveling experience, which makes it easier and faster to get from level 1 to 50, which is the highest level now, whereas before it would take, like, weeks to do that.
So Blizzard realized they wanted this to go as fast as possible for people to get to the end content to experience all the new shiny shit that they’ve done, at the cost of taking away some of the more interesting and fun aspects of leveling. Azeroth is a big fucking world. It has to be after 16 years and all the different expansions. Some of those are great areas that are now going to be completely abandoned because there’s no incentive to do them anymore. You lose a lot of the richness of Azeroth because of that.
Fahey: Well, you can still go to those places. You go to a time-walking thing, and if I want to go to, say, Pandaria, I will go to the time-walking NPC—who is a cute little gnome, who’s actually a dragon, and I love her—and she will send you to Pandaria. You’ll start the expansion off exactly as you did in the old days. But two things: Pandaria is very boring. And also, there’s not a lot of incentive to go there, as you said. You can gather up some Pandarian armor, but the leveling rate has been smooshed between all of these expansions. So it’s not like you need to go there anymore. You can level perfectly well going from the new opening experience to the most recent stuff and ignore all that rich history.
I think what you were getting at there—and I’ll let you say it, after I say it—is that your character’s not a friggin’ hero anymore. My character I’ve had since launch has gone through each of those expansions, and I feel like “Damn, I’m a badass in this world. I have gone through all these things.” But if you go from the new starting experience to Battle for Azeroth, it’s like “Wait, why are all these characters respecting me so much? I haven’t done shit.”
For all that and much more, check out the episode. New episodes drop every Friday, and don’t forget to like and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher. Also if you feel so inclined, leave a review, and you can always drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or suggest a topic. If you want to yell at us directly, you can reach us on Twitter: Ash is @adashtra, Fahey is @UncleFahey, and Nathan is @Vahn16. See you next week!