Some Games Should Have Fewer Features

While reading Nathan Grayson’s assertion that Batman: Arkham Knight should have borrowed Shadow of Mordor’s “nemesis” system to use with the various street toughs Batman fights throughout that game, I had a horrifying vision, one I don’t believe he intended to elicit. I imagined this gameplay system being piled on top of everything already present in Arkham Knight.

There are many reasonable complaints you could make about that Batman game, but a blanket “there’s Not Enough Shit in this game” statement is not one of them (as opposed to “it should have had this specific thing,” which is fair). It so faithfully follows the common mantra of blockbuster game sequels — “everything from the previous game, but also more and in a bigger world” — and open world games in general in the Age of Assassin’s Creed that it’s sort of a nightmare to deal with and comprehend if you are in fact trying to do so. Some individual aspects of the experience are good, but when taken as a whole it’s a mess. So when I imagined the Nemesis system thrown into that maelstrom of game features, I felt a strong impulse to run for the hills, so to speak.

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This Batman game is of course merely representative of the problem, a symptom rather than the cause. The cause is the industry’s embrace of feature creep. In software and tech, feature creep is considered a bad thing because you have to make sure first and foremost that the product’s core features do what they’re supposed to and do it well—when you add features beyond that core it can turn the whole into a confusing mess for a lot of users. An easy gaming analogy is gamepads; an old NES controller was so simple that pretty much anybody could pick it up and use it, but a non-gamer is unlikely to be comfortable with a DualShock 4 even playing a game with a simple control scheme (like Knack, for example) because it’s intimidating to look at.

This is a sentiment I’ve seen leveled at Arkham Knight pretty often in the past week, that the game tosses you into the city with many of Batman’s gadgets, and it’s intimidating at first and by the end when you’ve unlocked everything it transcends intimidating for a lot of folks (though others like it that way; fair enough, though accessibility is still a question). Personally, even as somebody who plays 60 or more new games every year, I find myself regularly feeling daunted by open world games that are very full of Things To Do. Like in Dying Light, when following the prologue missions you find yourself in a safe zone surround by exclamation points. Or in Dragon Age: Inquisition when I glance at the map in the war room and see a dozen questing areas to unlock. Or in The Witcher 3 when I encounter a questgiver and/or bulletin board seemingly in every small town I ride my horse through. Or whenever I look at the map at all in Assassin’s Creed Unity. Having too many choices makes me anxious, even if the question is largely meaningless like “which sidequest should I do next?”

There is such a thing as too much in a video game, and I’ve been pondering this in the past week not only because of my experiences with the Batman game. Yesterday I published a piece over at ANIMAL New York about an indie game called Spirits of Xanadu. That game is a fairly standard package on the surface—a starship is inoperative way out in the far reaches of the universe and you have to go fix it and figure out what happened—with a twist. Though it does have bad guy robots trying to shoot you, you can switch the difficulty to “peaceful,” which just turns off combat and lets you explore the ship and experience the story at your leisure. It’s still creepy and weird and unsettling, and since the shooty bits mostly seemed to be there just because they could be I found the peaceful mode to be the best way to play.

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The murmurs about Mafia 3 this week also got me thinking about Mafia 2 again. Mafia 2 was that impossibly rare open world game that had no side activities of note—people complained about this but I found it endearing. 2K Czech built a virtual city that served as a setting rather than a vessel to fill with #content that tries to pull me in a million different directions at once. It was a standard linear and focused narrative action game that just happened to take place in an open map, and it was good! I can’t honestly say why Mafia 2 turned out that way (game development is weird), but I like that it did. And considering feature creep is something companies like to avoid because it is prone to cause delays and budget overruns, I imagine 2K might have also been OK with that.

The best argument for streamlining might actually come from Rocksteady’s Batman games themselves. They began with Arkham Asylum, which back in the day was hailed as “finally a good Batman game!” It also was simply a good game, action adventure and stealth in a contained environment with a clear throughline and side activities that didn’t didn’t come off as #content. From there Arkham City and Arkham Knight have been all about going bigger and having more Stuff. And not more of the stuff that made Arkham Asylum good, but more Other Stuff. The series began as a simple and contained and easy to digest stealth-action detective game, and it ended with flying drones and Batmobile tank battles and Alfred urging you to prevent some bank robberies while the city is under occupation by a mercenary army.

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I’m not trying to create a new law of game development here or demand every game be like I say it should be. But I am saying that bigger is often not better. Simplicity is accessible. Focused experiences are great. Quality over quantity. Every AAA game doesn’t need to aspire to be the only game core gamers ever will want to play. In other words, let’s take one thing at a time, Batman.

In addition to the comments section below, you can tell the author of this post how wrong he is on Twitter at @philrowen

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