Game Opinion: The Shelf Life of Video Games

Happy Thursday Reader,

This series of blog posts will be called “Game Opinion” where I vent my personal opinion regarding some aspects of the games industry.

Overview

I believe that each game has its own shelf life and play time (time of each play session) that the player imposes on the game at some point.  This impacts the development of any game just as much as its mechanics and dynamics but more importantly it should morally and ethically effect the developer/publisher of the game.

Rant

I feel that we can group all video games into 4 main categories: MMO’s, casual games, hardcore games and virtual reality and motion games.

First lets start with the easiest, VRG or virtual reality games.  These games are very interactive and are played by combining advancements in technology and motion capture devices to be played.  These games have a very short shelf life or play time due to their interactive nature.  For example, wearing a giant piece of headgear as your visual aid would be fairly cumbersome after half and hour or less of playing the game.  Motion games are limited by the amount of our stamina, someone can only jump up and down or perform action moves for so long until they get tired and need a break.

Then we have the largest group, hardcore games.  When I say hardcore, I am referring to the RPG’s, FPS’ and action games we play on our home console (PC, Xbox, PlayStation).  These are games that have complicated rules and require significant commitment from the player.  While I do understand this is a HUGE group to bunch up together, I still feel that it was worth compartmentalising them into one group.  This group is already sub sectioned very heavily ie: RPG’s, Action, Shooters, Adventure.  However all these genre’s have similar play times, the only thing that defers are their shelf lives.  Games like Call of Duty have very short stories but the real fun is in the hundreds of hours people pour into the online mode.  Then there are games like Oblivion and Skyrim that have very well built worlds that allow for endless play in their single player modes.  Lastly there are games that go for quality of gameplay over quantity and have very well built and scripted stories that can be played and beaten between 18 – 48 hours typically.

Next we move on to the most controversial one: casual games.  Now what is a casual game? I would define a casual game as an entertainment item that has very simple rules and does not require any commitment.  The keyword in that sentence is commitment.  Games like Angry Birds, Pac-Man, Solitaire, Plants vs Zombies, etc.  These games are very easy to pick up and play for 5-20 minuets and after that they become fairly repetitive.  This is why these games are excellent for mobile platforms.

Lately people have been classifying Facebook games like FarmVille, Mafia Wars, FrontierVille and Dragons of Atlantis.  Now these are NOT casual games.  Sure some of them have fairy simple rules, but most of them require commitment.  Lots of commitment.  For example, in FarmVille the main way to advance is by planting crops and harvesting them to gain experience and money.  As simple as that is, the gameplay is in real time and once the player plants a crop they would have to wait however many minutes to hours in order to harvest that crop.  Once someone continues to do this they essentially begin to reorganise their life and schedule to get back on the game to harvest their crops to get more money and reach the goals that the game has laid out for them.  This is what makes the game not casual and even more hardcore then “hardcore” and sometimes MMOG’s.

This leads into the big one: massively multiplayer online game (MMOG).  These are games that take the mechanics and dynamics from hardcore games and add a “massive” new level of online and player interaction.  These games allow for millions of players to be playing the same game online and  are typically played on PC (for our purposes).  Most MMO’s fall under the MMORPG’s, MMORTS and MMOFPS category combining the RPG, RTS and FPS game mechanics with a gigantic online mode attached.  These games have endless shelf lives and huge play times because the developers are constantly adding new content to them.  Rather then paying $60 for a video game, many of the MMO’s have monthly fees or a free-to-play model with micro transactions. While the monthly fees allow for a good quality game, the free-to-play model is built upon making the player the play game for as long as possible to entice them to buying items with real world cash.

This leads me into my main point, people using game design for monetary gain and crafting meaningless goals rather then crafting an experience.  As a huge fan of this medium I love how people can design games to build giant and rewarding experiences that entertain the player.  They do this by setting meaningful goals that the player is self-motivated to reach, and in order to help self-motivate the player we try to immerse the player into the game so that they are having fun.  What angers me is when designers create a game that motivates players to continue playing for hours and hours with really meaningless goals and once they reach a plateau in gameplay and the only way to progress is by grinding for hours with repetitive gameplay.  At this point many developers create items and cheats that help the player advance by buying “exclusive” items with real cash.

Summary

Starting with VRG, these games shelf life begin to slowly erode away as time goes on.  The initial concept of being fully immersed into a video game is very entertaining but the most important thing is constantly setting new goals for the player to reach so that each play session is geared toward reaching a new goal rather then the same virtual experience every time.  If the goals are the same each time then the game begins to loose its spark very fast after the player has spent an hour playing the game.  For these games we must continue to create dynamic and worthwhile goals that the player wants to achieve rather then just simulating the real world.

Hardcore games are the bulk of the games industry and each game has its own ups and downs.  If you want a game with a long shelf life you would either go for a game with a extensive online mode or a game with a long single player experience.  If you want a quality experience with an excellent story and gameplay you are typically looking at games with a short shelf life but are very entertaining and rewarding to play.  As game developers our goal is to provide a full fledged experience utilising new technologies and graphics to help our gameplay mechanics flourish to bestow upon the player the best and most entertaining experience we can.

Casual games are meant to be enjoyed for people who are on the go and have time to kill.  These games are not meant to provide a full virtual experience with 3D sound and state of the art visuals, rather provide a simple and fun experience for people who don’t have access to a home theatre system at that time.  This is why as game designers we must create very simple and rewarding goals for the player to achieve that can be achieved through smaller game sessions.

MMO’s are tricky games to develop for.  First of, developing a game for the MMORPG market is futile.  As long as World of Warcraft exists no other game can dare to compete with its worlds vast size and content. It has been in development since 2004 as well as having released 4 massive expansion packs to extend the life of the game.

Closing Remarks

When developing MMO’s and other games designers need to ethically think about their impacts on the players.  By creating such vast worlds and forcing player immersion, what happens when the player is too fully immersed into the game?  What happens when the player logs 8 hours in your game every day and the player looses all social interaction with his friends to keep up with gameplay elements?

Sure these are choices that the player makes, but as designers we can’t be ignorant to these issues.  We need to place limitations on gameplay.  Nexon does this nicely in Vindictus by giving the player a maximum amount of tokens to enter dungeons per day to limit gameplay.

Maybe it is just me, but I think it is in bad taste or bad moral fibre to manipulate the player into buying items for your own monetary gain.  While designers do need money to survive, there are better ways in getting paid for making games rather then cornering and attacking your players.

Thank you for reading

– Moose