One of the most exciting advances in video games is the massive size that many of them achieve. Games like Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto have created open world experiences that are almost too daunting for some gamers. The danger and downfall of some of the larger games that have recently launched is that the large world ends up diluting and flattening the content within the game. So while you actually have a massive amount of content quantitatively, the quality of the content therein is incredibly lacking. I’m going to look at two massively hyped games that have been criticized for failing to deliver the promised game and experience they advertised. First up…
This was was supposed to be the quintessential next-gen title. It boasted of a massive sandbox experience with a new and innovative approach to the open-world genre by allowing the player to “hack anything”. Originally planned as a “Day One” launch title with the Xbox One, it was actually delayed 6 months. Delays can actually be a good sign, indicating that more polish and fixes will be implemented prior to launch. For Watch Dogs, however, that did not end up being the case. Controversy about the title first emerged when it became known they were showing graphically boosted smaller versions of the game at the various expos and in media channels like YouTube. The size and scope of the game made it impossible to maintain the level of graphic intensity that had been shown to those playing and viewing demos. This misstep could have been overlooked had the game delivered on its promises about the experience. Rather than a huge expansive world with dynamic missions and vitality, the game felt like a bland repackaged version of other games. There are different types of side missions that are basically the same regardless of where you do them, and most of the sneaking mechanics functioned poorly in comparison to other more polished franchises like Splinter Cell or Assassin’s Creed. There were also a host of bugs and glitches, and the multiplayer barely worked when you could actually connect with other players. I believe that what happens with a game like Watch Dogs is that the vision is so big that it becomes like a giant pot of soup that can only be filled if you add lot of water and celery. Sure, the water and celery fill it to the brim, but they are bland and dilute the vibrancy of what could have been a very flavorful dish. Now I’m hungry. Anyways… One could argue that Watch Dogs had a massive amount of content and things to do, and that person would be largely correct. The problem is, the content is so repetitious and boring that it becomes a chore just to think about completing all of the “steal a car and get away” side missions, motivating the player to either ignore them or try not to be exhausted by them. The bugs and glitches are also a symptom of a game that is too large to properly test, so it becomes a “patch as you go” experiment for the poor community that buys the game at launch. From the outset the game looked like Skyrim brought to Chicago, with a secondary campaign DLC available as soon as the game launched, and endless buildings and streets to explore. But after just a few hours, my friends and I quickly realized there was nothing to find or discover of any value. Each side mission or gunfight felt exactly like the last, and that was only if you didn’t have a game breaking glitch drop you through the map or the inconsistent controls give away your position. There was no draw to come back to the game when you weren’t playing because it felt incredibly dated and poorly made. The lack of engrossing and fun content lead many of us to return the game within the same week we bought it. Another immensely hyped game that was supposed to usher the video game community into the next-generation of gaming was…
Destiny was, without a doubt, the most anticipated next-gen title to date. Bungie promised a game that would be built on and added to for the next ten years, marketing the game as a massive open world cooperative RPG experience. The reality was, they launched a game with less content than they originally intended, and took pieces of the campaign out in order to sell it later as DLC. So in Destiny you end up with a similar but slightly different problem than Watch Dogs. The campaign is short, shallow, and boring. Bugs and glitches are almost a non-issue until you get to the exploited and patched mess of the two current raids. The game truly looks and runs as smooth as glass, but the repetitious nature of the game combined with a chopped up, bland, and empty campaign left many gamers scratching their heads and others infuriated (here’s lookin’ at you Angry Joe). While the problems with respect to a lack of content take a different shape and feel in Destiny, I believe they are symptomatic of the same problem: the vision is bigger than what is delivered. Let’s briefly think through how to fix this…
Death by hype
Think about the last game that really surprised you and made a lasting impact. It was probably a title that snuck up on you with quality and fun as you played it, or maybe you just bought it because it sounded like a new and fresh idea and you felt it delivered on that promise. I will use the first Borderlands as an example. The franchise now has a huge following and community, but was initially a mostly unheard of or misunderstood game. My friends actually needed convincing when I wanted them to play it. But the more we played it, the more we enjoyed it. Now, we didn’t buy it and start playing it because of some insane level of marketing and movie quality commercials, we bought it because the genre and idea appealed to us: Diablo with guns.
The solution for better quality games, or at the very least games that are better received, is keeping the vision focused so that what is promoted can be delivered. Then you let the gamers enjoy the game as they experience it rather than playing with unattainable expectations. In other words, you let the game win them over instead of the marketing. One of the main reasons gamers are so consistently unsatisfied is because they are promised something they feel they never receive. They unfortunately tend to take this out on the developers and creative staff, who are not to blame for over hyped marketing efforts. And to a certain degree, the marketing efforts aren’t to blame either. If the marketing team and the development team are given the same vision for a game like Destiny, the marketing we have seen makes sense. Those efforts to promote the game, however, became disconnected from the final product due to content being removed, but also because the process of development is always going to change the outcome. More on this in a future post about types of development, but for now I think a simple way to put it is this: let the finished game drive the marketing.
We live in the most overly-stimulating-media-saturated time in the history of the world, so the deck is already largely stacked against game makers to achieve something that feels truly new and innovative. The best way to do this is to hook people with the idea, a sharp focus, something simple that peaks their interest, and then let the game shape and form their impression of it. Destiny would probably be a much more satisfying game had they not promoted and advertised it as something that it quite simply is not. Watch Dogs probably would have received less criticism had it just whet the appetite of gamers with a hacking open world game, instead of this massive next-gen experience they never seemed able to or even intended to deliver (again the marketing got disconnected from the finished product). Game companies already realize that massive profit can be made by adding content to an existing game. The engine, world, and servers are already in place, so expanding on that is a lot easier than creating a whole new game. You also have an active community, so a $10-20 sale is a much easier win. That extra content, however, is far less likely to sell if the game feels like a slapped-together-bland-mess, instead of the polished-existential-dream-like-experience that was advertised. Win gamers over with your game and ideas, not your marketing. Then future content will sell in better ratios and will better ensure the longevity and success of a given franchise.
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