Have Our Games Become Too Big?

I’d like to first start off by saying that I’m not as young as I used to be, well I guess the same could be said by everyone, but recently I’ve noticed that when it comes to games my patience is beginning to dwindle and it could just be that I’m getting older. It’s not that I don’t like big games, I love big games, and for a long time the bigger a game was the more I enjoyed it. It’s not as if all games are becoming bigger, there are still plenty of smaller enjoyable games, but “Triple A” titles nowadays seem to be growing larger, and many of the problems associated with being so large are beginning to bother me.

Games used to be on the fringe, some people played them, but most didn’t, and there really wasn’t any mainstream crossover appeal. But thanks to games like the massively popular World of Warcraft or the simple and fun Angry Birds, games are officially now part of the mainstream which means more users, more exposure, and more money. At first this was a good thing for gamers and the industry, and it still is to some extent, but this new found success has created a whole host of new problems for games. And while many feel that these problems are simply a cost of doing business, I think that the industry itself doesn’t really know what to do with all of this money.

When was the last time you saw a trailer for a game you didn’t know existed? When was the last time a trailer convinced you to purchase a game? Earlier this year Bioware released the teaser trailer for Mass Effect 3 and it had all the qualities of a Hollywood summer blockbuster; dramatic music, an unstoppable evil, a seemingly hopeless scenario, etc. It was well done and I don’t have any problem with the quality of the product, just the purpose. A trailer is designed to create hype and raise general awareness about an upcoming launch within the community. I get it. But don’t fans of the series already hype the game and raise general awareness on behalf of the company? Even if it’s cool looking or fun to watch, isn’t a large and probably expensive trailer just a silly waste of resources?

Fans of the series already knew the game was approaching, so to them a trailer is nothing more than eye candy. Those that didn’t know about the game most likely aren’t going to purchase it without playing the previous ones, or at the very least catching a glimpse of some gameplay footage. My point is that a big expensive trailer tells me nothing that I, as a gamer, didn’t already know. I understand that reaching out to a community is important, but there are many cheaper and more effective ways to do so. It almost seems as if they had extra cash lying around and, not knowing what to do with it, did what the movie industry does. But really, should companies spend resources on hype when fans are willing and capable of doing it for free? I’d rather see those resources spent on the game and not on hype just for the sake of hype.

As games grow larger, so too does their stories. Not necessarily better, mind you, but bigger, always bigger. I can’t count how many times I’ve been humanity’s last hope, stepping into the shoes of a hero who is destined to save the land, as long as I finish my chores first. There’s always some sort of ominous, and ambiguous, enemy force that’s threatening to destroy life as we know it. Snore. Can’t we get some variety in larger titles? Saving the land, world, galaxy, and universe are all pretty much the same thing, and yet somehow I’m supposed to think the story is more epic because of the scope. An epic story comes from believable characters and a compelling plot, and not from the number of enemies I kill or planets I save. You would think that more resources would mean better quality storytelling, but for the most part those resources are spent on making stories bigger, not better. Sorry Mario, the princess is in another universe.

It’s Tuesday, time to save the universe.

So the game you’ve been waiting for has been hyped. There’s been some leaked gameplay footage, staff interviews about revolutionary new gameplay, and even one of those epic movie-like trailers to get you all excited. You’re on board, you’ve pre-ordered or plan to, and the release date can’t come soon enough. Then you see that dreaded press release, the one all fans fear; the game has been delayed. Normally it wouldn’t be a huge deal, games are delayed all the time, development is complicated and these things happen. But you’ve been hearing about the release of this game forever, bombarded with ads and trailers and now that you’re finally invested the game is delayed. We’ve become way too accustomed to this and we shouldn’t be. Delays aren’t bad for us per-se, there really is no harm in waiting, but it does show a lack of planning on the part of the developer, as well as a broken promise to a fan eagerly awaiting a title. These days the larger a game is the more likely it is to have been overscoped which means the developers have bitten off more than they can chew development wise. All it takes is a few missed milestones and that June release is now set for Christmas. Delays aren’t bad by themselves, but usually the problems that cause delays are the same problems that cause bugs and exploits. This leads me too…

This is what happens when you Google search for game delays

Patches, another thing we’ve become accustomed to and shouldn’t be. It’s gotten to the point where almost every large release feels like a beta for the first few weeks. You would think that having the ability to patch a game through some sort of broadband connection would give us better, more polished games, and it has to some extent, but more often the opposite is true. Patching is used just as often if not more so as a crutch for buggy releases. Since developers know it’s available it’s as if they spend their pre-release time making games bigger by adding features, worrying about patching bugs during the week or so after release. I’m sure no developer would admit this, and yet it happens all the time. Just because the capability to do so is there, doesn’t mean it should be relied on to do things that should have been done in the first place. More resources should mean more polished games; instead it means bigger games with more problems. If a developer isn’t able to manage a release without bugs then that means the game was crammed full of features without enough testing. The possibility for bugs and exploits rises rapidly as a game becomes larger.

They’ll all be cool if we take three weeks to fix this, right?

I didn’t want to pick on any one game in particular because these are all systemic game production problems throughout the industry, but one example wouldn’t hurt (Sorry I’m picking on Bioware completely by accident). By all accounts Star Wars: The Old Republic was one of the largest and most expensive releases in the history of gaming, according to the LA Times “800 people across 4 countries spent nearly $200 million dollars creating [SWTOR].” That’s pretty damn big, and in being so large it’s full of examples of exactly what I’m talking about. There was enough hype to choke a Sarlacc, even though an MMO in the Star Wars universe doesn’t need much help getting noticed. There was an epic (ok, ok and awesome) trailer for the game which didn’t tell me anything about gameplay. After all the hype it was delayed converting many fans to the dark side, aka the forums. The story was generic, with The Empire and The Republic at it again, fighting for control of the galaxy, again. And, in an effort to make things bigger and more epic, lightsabers were handed out like candy to every wet-behind-the-ears cadet from here to Alderaan. They even rushed a patch to include some features to their non-existent end game pvp which lead to countless days of laggy mayhem on the planet Ilum. I’m not saying the game should have been perfect, no game is. But they had an enormous budget, and instead of using it to make a polished MMO with a gripping story and realistic characters, they added every feature they could think of leaving the fixing of bugs, exploits, and design problems for future patches. There was so much cash available for development that anything and everything was allowed to stay on table. I dare say the game would have been better if they had fewer resources to work with.

Again, I’m getting older so maybe it’s just me, but I don’t want my games bigger at the cost of quality. A big budget is fine, so is a big game, but only if the developer can handle it. All of the problems I talked about come from a lack of being able to control the scope of a project, which is usually what happens with a large budget. So far no developer, with the exception of a few, has shown any real proclivity for handling large projects without creating more problems. As gamers, we shouldn’t be happy with the bigger is better approach when the reality is that better is better.

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  1. I have a huge problem with patches, especially in cases like battlefield 3. Testers play the game over and over again to get balance just right. Then a couple of crybabies start in on the forums stating that such and such is overpowered then two weeks later said item gets nerfed.
    As it stands now if you have a decent helicopter pilot then you are pretty much unstopable where as if you happen to enjoy tanks well then you might as well be sitting in a red wagon with a cardboard box around it because thats what they have pretty much been reduced to.
    Ohhh and dont get me started on this “rent a server” shit either. What happened do giving players an option to host rooms themselves for free? BULLSHIT! Fuck E.A.!

  2. I’m trying to think of a game that’s big but yet has worked well, and the only ones that spring to mind and Fallout and Skyrim, and those were hardly free of bugs.

    However, in contrast to the theme of the article, look at GTA IV. They scoped the game down a lot compared to San Andreas, and whilst I appreciated the extra polish this gave to graphics and gameplay, I missed driving down motorways (sorry, highways) and biking through forests and saving hippy communes armed with a trusty combine harvester.

    Whilst yes, I agree that some developers are making things bigger for bigger’s sake, and rushing through buggy products, but I don’t believe that shrinking back the size is the problem. I love my big expansive games, and would instead fully agree with you that big budget trailers and buggy games are some of the real problems that should be addressed.

  3. Great article! You’re spot on with your observations regarding how the vast amounts of money being spent on games these days is being poured into making games “bigger,” but not necessarily better. While there is much to love about many of the big “AAA” titles of this generation, I have a feeling that the experiences that are going to stick with me the longest are those I’ve had playing smaller, more focused “indie” games like Limbo, Journey, and Braid. Here’s hoping that your article helps spread the word, and that developers start to realize that not every game needs to be “everything to everyone,” that the most important thing they could do with all the resources they have is take the time to plan their games and maintain focus on the end result, rather than simply throwing every idea anyone has into the game and hope something sticks!
    Oh, and iron out the wrinkles before the freaking games hit stores!

  4. You make a lot of great points. I have to say I don’t really mind trailers, but beyond that I pretty much agree with you. It is very shoddy to treat the first few weeks of your game as basically a beta. I also have to say that I also am losing patience with games. I’ve always been an RPG fan, but some of the latest RPGs just take a little too long, or more accurately, just have too much fluff. Both Kingdoms of Amalur and Mass Effect 1 & 2 have way too many sidequests in comparison to their main quests. When I was a teen, I didn’t mind but I find that I’m starting to mind now, especially because I have less time to game then I used to. Seriously, they couldn’t have thought up some more story to populate this absolutely gigantic universe of theirs?

    I don’t know if I’d say that games shouldn’t be “big” in the sense of “big business” or “popular”. Like you say, the extra money should theoretically help them create a better project. Say, hire quality voice actors and writers to go along with the quality programmers and developers. Unfortunately, the industry still seems to be figuring that out. Honestly, I wonder how long the current model will keep up. With free to play games and more casual (also cheap) games coming on the market, we may see less big $60 titles. Potentially, this could be a good thing as that would mean more wheat, less chaff. We’ll see what happens though. Lots of great thoughts and points all the same, thanks for writing this article.

  5. I think you are missing the forest by looking too closely to the trees. This blog has covered the perils of DLC and the emergence of that model. The pay as you go for content is the gamer’s pending battleground; this needs all of our attention. The required active connection when playing a single player game is sure to follow.

    Arguing size versus quality is subjective due to some publishers being able to do it right on either count.

    Big Games are not the problem. Cute bugs are not a problem. WoW was super buggy when it first went live. You could hop up walls, fall through the earth at certain places; that was part of the appeal. Plenty of gamers love finding glitches to exploit. Gamers are a curious lot by their nature; regardless of how much time a game spends in development a gamer will find a way to tilt the scales in their favor if they can. The glitches uncovered may not be a result of lack of testing and development, but of gamers becoming better at finding loopholes.

  6. Well actually I have never played either of the first two Diablos yet when I saw the trailer i went out and bought it right out. I love it. Same for Mass Effect 3. never played the other two, but i went out and preordered it. enjoy the hell out of it. i am a new fan to both franchises.

  7. And yet Dragon Age 2 exists…smaller scope, modest map, and it was probably the worst sequel I’ve played ever (I wouldn’t call it Dragon Age 2 if it was me…)

    @Ryan: Well, Mass Effect 3 was great in term of gameplay but really, really lacked in the side-missions that gave nothing in the game. I’ll also spare you of what I think about the ending.

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