Another year, another time for lists. While I must admit a strong compulsion towards them, I recognise their arbitrary nature. That said, on a forum I frequent, I post a thread every year for the worst game of that calendar year.
This year has had me on a different slant, however. I feel I have had to rename the thread to “most disappointing” game due to what seems to have been a very strong year overall. At present, titles like Mario Tennis Aces and State Of Decay 2 seem to be dominating the debate, but it has had me thinking – has this actually been a rather solid year for games overall, or have I been insulated away from the really terrible titles just through my playing of the ‘good’ stuff? I find it difficult to believe that 2018 has been any worse than any other year, but am straining to find a ‘terrible’ game. Please prove me wrong. Martin Hollis Firstly, it’s a little early for all this talk. But in general, you’re right. It’s hard for a game to be truly bad these days, and with so much on offer, you’re much less likely to play a stinker.
Nathan Brown asks in E325: “When was the last time a game grabbed you in the first five minutes, and refused to let you go?”. Bigbudget games take too long to get going. This column pretty much reflects how I’ve been feeling about triple-A games for two decades. This is the answer I’ve always proclaimed.
A game should immediately give the player the option to get involved in states of either paradox or ambiguity. Yes, this is going to get theoretical, but hang in there. It might help to compare it to Csikszentmihalyi’s theory on ‘flow’.
When it comes to adventure games, paradoxical spheres are where the player is told, by narrative, to do something. At the same time, the player is told, mechanically, that they should not be doing that. In other words: the story says you should do ABC, but the difficulty of enemies and obstacles say you should stop. Overcoming this paradox is the backbone of every game, if not every story. Naturally, this is a tough balancing act for developers: make it too difficult, and players give up. Make it too easy, and players feel like they’re doing work.
A good solution to this is by creating an alternative sphere of play for the player to escape to when they feel necessary. A lot of successful adventure games already do this, and we tend to call this the ‘open world’. This ambiguity doesn’t tell the player what they have to do, but secretly rewards the player for, well, playing. Again there is a dilemma for developers. This can go wrong: if there isn’t enough to gain from adventuring in such places, why bother? But this can also go wrong if there is too much to gain from these places: if the rewards of the ambiguous sphere become stronger than the paradoxical sphere, the player will feel like their ‘play’ has become ‘work’.
Classic RPGs often use this formula: going into dungeons will reward you with more story, the best upgrades, and the excitement of seeing if you can overcome epic challenges. Notice how you often cannot save in dungeons: this keeps up suspense. In the outer world, the player can usually save anywhere, try out all kinds of mischievous things, collect XP and gold to improve their chances of success, and improve their understanding of the game’s mechanics. Notice how the benefits of both spheres reinforce the benefits of the other sphere: getting better in the open spaces make the determined spaces more doable; the determined spaces make the open spaces feel more playful.
“Players are not only advancing in age; they have also started to penetrate cultural boundaries”
The opening of Breath Of The Wild does this splendidly: it’s obvious what you are supposed to do, and that doing so will grant the greatest rewards, but it’s also always obvious that there is something to be gained by deviating from the correct path.
Spider-Man does a good job by letting the player immediately swing around NYC, giving an ambiguous sphere to try things out. Unfortunately, besides learning acrobatics, there isn’t much to be gained. Perhaps you recall the letdown of encountering the invisible walls: playtime has ended. Once you start the story, you’re stuck in the way-too-easy paradoxical sphere, and the game starts to feel like work.
One last example: Dark Souls’ best moment, in my opinion, is when you find out that following the obvious path leads you to skeletons that will kick your butt. And it’s at that moment that the game suddenly leaves you to constantly gauge whether what you are doing is paradoxical or ambiguous.
So there, that’s pretty much what I think leads to us either being hooked or bored by a game’s content. I didn’t say it’s easy to design a game correctly according to my theories, but I like to believe that there have been plenty of successful examples. Thanks for reviewing 2017’s Hollow Knight recently, which I’m currently undertaking. Maybe it didn’t grab me within the first five minutes, but it hasn’t let me go since I got a feeling of where I should and shouldn’t be adventuring. Robert August de Meijer Dark Souls
is an awkward point of reference, because it doesn’t immediately grab you either. Still, we hope the makers of the industry’s biggest open worlds are thinking along similar lines. We’re getting bored.
All the outrage and misdirection at the “100 hours” stuff is conveniently missing any input from QA staff in the game industry. All over the world, testers are forced or coerced into working 12-hour days, often for months on end, but you won’t hear from any of them because they’re scared of losing their jobs. I worked for one big developer for over 10 years and the QA were always crunching hard for long periods. In some studios it was common policy to ban holiday outright in August and September. It was heavily implied when I worked there that if you didn’t “pull your weight” and do the overtime with everyone else, then you were risking everyone’s jobs, letting the team down, jeopardising the release of the game. If you showed any negativity towards crunch, you’d be black marked and not get as good a bonus and definitely have less opportunities to progress.
I worked at another large game studio in the UK where overtime was compulsory. You’d have to have an incredibly good reason not to stay late. We often worked 13-15 hour days, often five days in a row. There will be many HR departments and managers emailing their staff, reminding them of the NDAs they signed and the company social media policy. The Rockstar devs that have spoken about “only doing 50-hour weeks” are only giving one part of the story. QA aren’t getting a say. The lowest paid, worst treated part of the workforce will be too scared to say anything. This is an absolute scandal and needs to be investigated properly. Name withheld Indeed, it’s often the case that those on the bottom floor that feel the most pain, and are the least likely to speak out about it. The industry has changed for the better since the Rockstar Spouse scandal, but if the last few weeks have shown us anything, it’s that there’s still a long old way to go.
After reading in E324 about the antiquated views on the worth of playing games espoused on University Challenge, I sighed the same ‘change is slow’ as you. Still, I would like to offer insight from a recently published academic study that I worked on that should reassure your readers that change is indeed coming.
As a medium, games are not new anymore (as the letters from gaming parents hastily written between child-proofing and football-practiceshuttling attest). Players are not only advancing in age, however; they have also started to penetrate cultural boundaries. At the same time, the seemingly deadlocked academic debate on games’ effects on violent behaviour is slowly shifting. Recently, my colleague Julia Kneer launched a survey among general audiences that highlighted a deeper layer of this discourse. Instead of asking if games make us violent – surely by now that dead horse has received enough of a pummelling – she simply asked respondents why they thought other people would play games. This is a different kind of question than asking players why they themselves play. Their motivations lie with managing moods, feeling impactful, or bonding with other players.
From an outsider’s perspective this depth is not there. Imagine Paxman’s answer to this question and you’re just as likely to get ‘gamers are lazy’ as a vague reference to escapism. The survey’s results (which you can find at bit.ly/ JustAsked) showed that there are indeed plenty of Paxmen and Paxwomen in the world who see players as wanting to play to commit (virtual) violence. However, it also indicated that those people tended to be older, and that they did not count players among their close friends and family. Family members and friends of players who do not play games themselves were more positive about their loved ones’ pursuits, with the motivations they gave closely mirroring those of players.
So, as we ourselves get crinklier, non-players with negative views of games get crinklier still, while we are normalising gaming simply by virtue of continuing to exist. I just wish the loading time for this particular level wasn’t quite so long. Ruud Jacobs Well put. Your PS Plus sub is on its way, and should keep you busy while we wait for nature to take its course on the dinosaurs. (Is that too morbid? Sorry, deadline does things to us.)