There’s a growing trend in game design involving the micro-management of players. It’s a trend that’s rooted in the fear that if people get lost, confused or bored even for a moment, they’ll stop playing. They won’t recommend the game to their friends, reviewers will say mean things, and the $150 million that went into the game won’t be returned, resulting in an acute case of Unhappy Investor Syndrome, the symptoms of which include corporate bankruptcy and sudden unemployment. I can empathize with developers who play it safe. But what’s the cost?
Jonathan Blow has talked about responsibility in game design in the past, touching on the idea that when media is consumed in significant amounts it has an effect on the mind of the audience. We are the sum of our experiences, and if we’re going to spend a few, a dozen, or a hundred hours on a task, it’s going to have some sort of impact on our thinking. The way the big games are designed changes our beliefs around what games ought to be like. Precedents are set, and standards emerge.
The concern that players might not be at Maximum Engagement Levels at all times results in some troubling behavior from developers. Vigilant checking-in, hand-holding, and nagging that is annoying at best, and can ruin an otherwise interesting and fulfilling moment. It’s hard to have a meaningful experience when you’ve got a sweaty executive looking over your shoulder screaming "are you still having FUN?"
You don’t have to cast a wide net to find examples of this. I’ve killed all of my real-life cousins to help me overcome the telephonophobia inflicted on me by GTAIV. An example that stings a little more is Far Cry 3. It’s a beautiful game. There are dozens of species of animal, a bunch of neato caves to check out, bamboo forests, and the best grass shader I’ve ever seen. And there are compelling missions that feel exciting and have some decent narrative hooks to encourage me to do them.
So why does the game insist on using a Times-Square worth of signage to keep me doing what it wants me to do, repeatedly intruding on my joyous, self-directed exploration with popup notifications?
It feels like the developers are scared that without an externally-driven goal, we’ll stop playing. Sure, the notification says ‘Explore the island or...’ but that's kind of redundant - we’re already exploring. I assume the real goal of the popup is to check in with us, because we’re not trusted to be able to amuse ourselves. I was playing earlier, and literally once every minute the notification appeared, flashing all grey and orange and stupid. It breaks us out of our curiosity-driven exploration, it's intrusive, and just plain unnecessary.
There also seems to be a huge amount of anxiety in AAA studios around the possibility of players missing stuff. This stuff can be anything from a location, to an ability, to an interesting way to interact with the game’s systems. Players are no longer trusted to figure any of this stuff out for themselves.
It’s clear that not all departments at major studios think this way. which leads to some interesting conflicts. In last week’s article, I discussed how Skyrim leads players towards goals using the design of the environment. Skyrim does it very well, but even with the great work by the environment artists, somebody still decided players need floaty HUD quest markers. We can see two ideologically opposed methods of leading the player at work. But players are more likely to use the more accurate and more easily accessible one, the floaty markers, and so the carefully designed environmental communication becomes largely redundant.
Both Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4 have similar issues, although here they're arguably more intrusive. One of the key elements of these games’ worlds are radio towers, tall structures that players can climb to reveal some of the map, unlock equipment and get a view of the surrounding area. If the developer had trusted their players, these towers could have gone a long way toward fostering exploration and promoting player autonomy. Picture it: players are given a high vantage-point from which to view and analyse the landscape, and they’re given the freedom to come to their own relatively well-informed decisions about what’s worth investigating. A chimney poking up through the trees, a ruined structure beside what looks like a cave, somewhat hard to see due to their distance from the tower, but all designed in such a way that, from this vantage point, they arouse a powerful curiosity that drives players out into the world.
Nope. Instead, the player gets a cutscene dumped on them. The game steals control of the camera, breaking the first-person view paradigm established by the entire rest of the game and we see a bunch of fly-by shots of nearby places-of-interest. In one of these shots I saw a rusty fishing hut with $10 in it, which didn't even make sense to highlight - but it was shoved in there anyway, just in case players missed it. The entire curiosity-driven, ‘I wonder what’s behind that ridge’ mentality that should accompany a good exploration experience is gone. Players are simply spoon-fed a list of things they can do, because developers are scared we’re not smart enough to find these things on our own.
The issue isn't that these design mentalities exist. It's that they're becoming (if they haven't already become) the standard for big franchises. The fear that players won't get the exact prescribed experience has made open-world exploration something to be discouraged, and when we are out there in the world, we're pushed to visit specific locations as though we're ticking boxes. Of course, players could choose to not engage with the developer's attempts to spoon-feed them, but we all know, being players ourselves, that we'd probably take the easiest road. It's the job of the developer to see when their systems are encouraging this, or being over-micromanagey, and put a stop to it.
Follow the template, pump out one game a year with the same core gameplay in different settings, never let the player feel self-doubt or confusion, and you'll get your investors' money back. You'll sell a lot. It'll be mediocre, but it'll sell. Trusting players is hard, and scary, and it's a lot of work. So it's probably not worth it, right? Just be mediocre. You'll be fine.