Aug 02 2012

The Value of Less Restrictive Gameplay

Published by at 10:00 am under Editorials,Video Games

How many hours of gameplay does it take to make a game worth $60? 20 hours? 30? Before buying a game like Dead Space, Bioshock, or any other linear one-way titles, I usually ask someone who played it how many hours they spent with it before they packed it up and put it on the shelf. Maybe it’s me or perhaps it’s just these rough economic times, but I like to know that I’m going to get my money’s worth. But games these days are changing, sometimes making this type of old-school cost benefit analysis obsolete.

Gameplay is becoming more open, allowing players to not just play games, but play with them. While some titles such as Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto, or Fallout borrow pieces of the old linear formula, combining them with a freer more open world, others like Minecraft and the popular Arma II mod Day Z kind of just drop you in a world of rules, simply saying “have fun.” There will always be room for linear gameplay, some of my fondest gaming memories have come from very structured gameplay, but games like this have a half-life, a cap, while more open games have the potential to last longer, cost less, and give players a chance to create their own content and their own fun.

Want to flood an Inn with cabbage? Sure go ahead. 

I love Telltale’s episodic The Walking Dead game, I consider it $25 well spent, especially considering there are three episodes left. But even though the game adapts to my gameplay decisions, it’s still very linear, meaning I likely won’t sit down to play it more than a few times. The amount of gameplay is finite. No matter how great I think it is, and I do, once I’ve done everything the developers have planned for me that’s it I’m done, there’s no room for me to explore or create any sort of content on my own.

Compare this to Day Z (a standalone could be on the way for those who don’t want to purchase Arma II) a vastly different kind of undead apocalypse. There’s none of the production quality that The Walking Dead has, no story, no characters, there isn’t even any dialogue, and yet by all accounts this lack of structure actually helps to create more gameplay, generated not by developers but by users. The lack of a clear path can be unsettling at first, there’s no quest giver, narrator, or giant arrow telling you where to go or what to do, but if you can get past that this simple mod has the potential to give players access to more varied and organic gameplay, gameplay that simply couldn’t exist in the more linear Walking Dead. 

An intense scene no doubt, but it loses something after the first time.

If money is no object then sure you could just buy both. But if you’re like me sometimes your wallet has just as much of a say in the games you purchase as do your personal tastes. If that’s the case, investing in a game that boasts open gameplay could be more cost effective than one with gameplay that’s subject to just what the developers give me. Again, that’s not to say I wouldn’t enjoy both games, but if finances are limited I would rather play a game that isn’t capped at 20-30 hours of gameplay.

It takes a lot of trust on the part of the developer to give its users the freedom to create their own content. Obviously a game like Minecraft is on the “do whatever you like” end of the spectrum, but even games that give users less freedom are able to facilitate unique and robust user generated content. Look at the Call of Duty franchise. There’s a very linear single player campaign that usually nets anywhere between 20-30 hours of gameplay and then there’s the more open multiplayer aspect of the game which gives players as much gameplay as they like.

Minecraft Spleef – a game within a game created by users

This isn’t an entirely fair comparison I’ll admit, playing with other people is always more fun, but I think it’s safe to say that players are more interested in the open multiplayer content of CoD than the linear single player campaign, even if the campaign is great. The amount of content is the same in both the single and multiplayer versions of the game, there are the same amount of weapons, maps, abilities, and yet throwing everyone together in a multiplayer setting with less rules allows users to make their own fun. Removing the strict hand-holding of the single player campaign greatly increases the game’s longevity, and gives those who wish to do 360 headshots or only use a knife a venue to do so.

I’m not saying that open gameplay is “taking over” the marketplace, but I do think that they devalue other games that are limited by a more linear structure. A $60 game with 20 hours of gameplay is a lot less valuable when that $60 can buy another game that doesn’t come with a cap. By giving players the freedom to play as they like, developers not only increase a game’s longevity, but also the value of the game itself. That’s not to say that a carefully crafted and structured gameplay experience can’t be fun, but when finances become an issue an open game that gives players a more open experience is simply more bang for your buck.





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5 responses so far

  • matt

    I for one have always enjoyed the halo games because of the custom games/custom maps, get together 12-16 random people/friends and find some strange custom games.

  • spazzle

    Sorry, couldn’t disagree with you more. Most of the “sandbox/open content” type games you are describing fit a niche – but by blanket declaring “its more content by trusting the players” you are missing the point. This only works in games where there’s so little content that the players are forced to come up with stuff to do on their own. Most of the games of this type severely lack a compelling narrative and I don’t really connect with characters in the game on any meaningful level. It’s trading one type of gameplay for another, and it’s wrong to assume that the net result is somehow “greater.”

    I’ve spent far more time in games like Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect (1&2) than I ever did in any of the sandbox games because they couldn’t hold my attention.

    For players who demand a solid story from their entertainment, there’s only one type of game that will satisfy them, and this is not it. So what you really are talking about is that you are looking for open gameplay and that pleases you – but don’t make the mistake that it will work for everyone. It’s like trying to convince someone playing Left4Dead or Skyrim that they are losing out because I could play Bejeweled for an infinite amount of time on a fraction of the budget.

    Content matters.

  • Snoowy

    I poured so much time into Just Cause 2. An absurdly large amount of time.
    I love the open world/sand box games just as much as I love the linear story driven games with a definitive reason to playing it.

  • Justin

    I think the answer lies in the middle. Imagine if you had a story as amazing as Mass Effect mixed with the openness of Skyrim. ME is is all ready fairly open in the sense you can choose which missions to do and which planets to explore, but it doesn’t have anything on the level of Skyrim.

    I do have to agree about pricing though. I refuse to buy any game that doesn’t give me at least a $1 to 1hr of game play (same with DLCs). With that said, it doesn’t have to be the first time through or even the second. I am also willing to wait until the games hit Greatest Hits or have a substantial dip in price. I enjoy them just fine but my wallet demands a decent return on investment.

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