There’s a rather insidious word floating around the games industry, namely “content.” It seems to be a highly praiseworthy thing to have a massive amounts of content crammed into your game, to have it so jam-packed with stuff that it’s practically bursting out of the screen like it’s auditioning for Poltergeist.
I’m not so convinced, because content isn’t so inherently great, though you’d hear arguments to the contrary. “Watch_Dogs, Titanfall and Destiny failed critically for not having enough content.” “GTA V and Arkham Knight were great because they had tons of content.” To this I say a strong and resounding… Meh. It’s not awful to have this stuff, but it’s not great either, a bit like a clingy lover. I assume.
Let’s take a look at the examples above. Watch_Dogs seemed anaemic because it held a vast sandbox map with very few activities to fill it. But if it had been a sequence of linear missions, we wouldn’t be complaining nearly as much, because there wouldn’t be that sense of emptiness. Titanfall and Destiny struggled with content because of their multiplayer focus, and without a structured story they both just petered out and became boring when you started doing the same things over and over. And whilst Grand Theft Auto and Batman both had lots of side quests, they were often dull or just not worth the effort, such as the golfing in the former or the Riddler trophies in the latter.
That said, there are some games that thrive on vast quantities of content. Skyrim boasted a vast fantasy world with adventure in every direction, and came up clean on that score. Dark Souls is a long, teeth-gritting slog in which you have to push for every victory, but it works and fits the tone perfectly.
I think that’s the issue – that to make a game full of content is not a victory in itself, you have to make all that content fun or it might as well not exist. It’s just packaging and extraneous matter, and it’s a problem that’s endemic to sandbox games in particular, which hope that if they throw enough variety at the players then maybe something will stick.
Look at Sleeping Dogs, so desperate for additional features that it added a bizarre cock-fighting minigame (I’m resisting the urge to make an immature joke) and a horrible karaoke feature, a feature which has the gall to come up twice in the main story, and that’s not even mentioning the embarrassingly easy drug busts you do over CCTV. None of it was fun, none of it was rewarding, but goddamn it, we made this sandbox and we’ve got to stick something in there, even it makes the player want to start cutting bits out of themselves.
The real danger is loss of focus, padding out the game to fit some arbitrary timespan without the consideration of pacing, a tightly-designed narrative and whether the gameplay is fun or not. GTA V has the attitude of child’s toybox, so filled with little functions and playthings because it hopes you’ll enjoy some of them, rather than building on the core features and making something more elegant and razor-sharp. I still can’t forgive that game for that bloody yoga sequence, forcing me to play that before getting to do heists and gunplay. You know, the fun stuff that we buy the game for.
I do get the urge, there’s an appeal to a longer game, and whilst I do like a well-paced story that’s slim and tighter than others, there’s nothing wrong with a title that has a wider reach and allows for options. But as we all know, an excellent story doesn’t come just from a good writer – it comes from a good writer AND a good editor, who can cut down the unneeded fluff and make something really focused.
Games need more of this cut-throat attitude, though sadly I doubt it will happen. Making any of these features requires so much work, that it would be horrible to think that it’s got to be thrown away right at the end if it doesn’t make the grade. With the resources and capital that gets pushed into everything in a big-budget game, they can’t afford to lose any of it. There’s no room for experimentation.
The annoying thing is that many games only work so well because all the extra flab has been cut away, leaving a pure and hugely rewarding experience that’s unfettered by anything else. Even the big games like Skyrim all revolve around a provably good set of core mechanics. There aren’t any minigames about dragon taming, skooma cooking, or being racist towards elves, thank Talos.
Though we should take into account a game’s length when we’re pricing it. The Order: 1886 can be completed in five hours, but is being sold at the same price as any other game. That’s preposterous, it’s a scam, no matter how pretty the graphics are. You don’t sell a bungalow at the same cost as a mansion, even if it does have great décor. And yes, I’ve said before that story length isn’t the best measure of a game, but you have to be sensible when you’re sticking a price tag to the result. People want the best value for money, and how much we get out of a game does matter in that regard, it’s ridiculous to think otherwise.
No, a game being full of great content is fine, but if you don’t have much to work with, just make a shorter game with a lower price to match. It might sound horrific, the idea that you might not make as much profit, but it’s far better than hammering various ideas together in the hope that you’ll be long enough to fit some self-imposed limitation.
Essentially, it comes down to identity. Be Wario Ware or be Portal, but don’t try to be both. Then you just get Chell with a big mustache, and that pleases nobody.