Sunday, March 28, 2010

A New Update Draws Near

So today, I'm going to discuss a game's Longevity.

Longevity is a tricky virtue to apply to video games. Obviously, to sell your game, you will need to advertise some sort of 'replayability' factor: No-one will shell out full price for a game that can be completed in a week and have no further surprises in store. Some, but not all, video game reviewers will feature a "Longevity" score alongside their usual "Gameplay" and "Graphics" to emphasize the importance of this feature.

But longevity has its dark side. Because of its aforementioned importance, the developers will need to implement some manner of expanding their game's total playtime so it can be advertised gleefully on the back cover's blurb about containing "X number of hours of gameplay". Briefly (lol), I'll go over just some of the methods this expansion can be achieved, and discuss the relative merits of each.

1) Unlockable Difficulty Modes

Simple enough: Allowing players to unlock a harder version of the game AFTER the fact is simply stating "we weren't sure you were ready for this mode, but after completing the game, we're now fairly sure you are. I mean, unless you're chicken..." Provided the harder mode has, in fact, something to offer the player besides a frustrating time, it can be both the easiest and most effective way to give players a reason to play the entire game over.

2) Collectibles

This feature can be hit-or-miss. If there's a point to the collectibles (they might unlock bonus features like concept art, or power up the player's character in some way) then they can be a worthwhile pursuit during a quiet moment of any RPG or Sandbox game (where this feature is most common). Generally speaking, though, most people will prefer to use a guide to find these little MacGuffins rather than waste hours searching every nook and cranny themselves - or simply abandon the search all together. In this situation, it becomes a case of artificial longevity, and is of no use to anyone. The best instances of this feature usually give the players some way of finding them beyond checking everywhere - usually an item acquired late in the game that points them out on the map.

3) The Almighty 100%

Somewhat nefariously for those obsessive completists, a game will include an overall progress score somewhere in the game's interface. While a nice gesture from the developers to tell the player how close they are to seeing everything in the game, it's not always crystal clear what constitutes the grand total. It can mean different things for different games: Map Completion (Castlevania), Bestiary Completion (many recent JRPGs), Item Completion (JRPGs again), and Achievement Completion (any recent PS3/360 game). Sometimes it means leveling up a character or skill to its maximum: often a truly immense amount of time. Worst of all, there may be a few percentiles that were missed and will require an additional playthrough to chase down. And really, the only people who will dedicate themselves to this percentage are the die-hard completists - a regular player will probably not bother (or at least be sated with a lower number).

4) Mirror Worlds!

Oh fuck off.

5) Branching Paths

RPGs and Bioware in particular love this one. The usual format is to have a "good" and "evil" path, and strongly telegraph any choices a player must make that could fall into either one. Handled appropriately, the major decisions between good and evil usually boil down to a simple moral dilemma - though often, it's hard to tell which was the "right" option. Handled inappropriately, your character will often have the choice to give away large quantities of his money to a random hapless NPC, or tear their arms off, with scant middle ground. Unless the main character is a noted schizophrenic, this rarely comes off looking anything like a normal decision-making process and is therefore painfully obviously linked to the branching paths feature.

Sometimes the branching paths will simply be due to a random choice the player makes without them knowing the consequences of their decision, or indeed the significance of the decision when they made it. Mass Effect deserves special mention for having decisions made in the one game only come to fruition in the sequel (and presumably in the second sequel as well): It may well lead to a player having to play through the first two games to unlock a special mission or plotline in the third.

** Bonus Longevity Feature - Achievements **

Some lip service must be paid to this recent phenomenon - perhaps possibly the best recent example of a game-extending feature. Achievements are earned through various tasks, programmed into the game to recognize a milestone and given to the player to do whatever it is they like to do with their achievements. Gaze at them longingly? I don't know.

Generally speaking, they fall into five categories:
Progression - Kind of missing the point, since that's ostensibly what the person who bought the game intended to do with it - play it through to its end (or before then if they get too bored with it). Generally speaking, anyone who cares about achievements is someone who intends to play a game through to its completion.
Discovery - These are achievements, given sometimes effortlessly, that prod the player into trying something new. It can range from a special new move the player learns during the course of the game to a different type of game mode to any number of side- and sub-quests. The goal is, as stated, to raise awareness of everything the game has to offer and is therefore one of the better uses of the achievements system. It's usually the most common after the Progression type.
Collectibles - See "Collectibles" above. Usually a pain and often dealt with quickly with the help of an online guide, though some people love the scavenger hunt aspect of it all.
Black Holes - The worst type of achievement, these are rewarded for completing some huge target number of singular tasks. Most infamous would be Gears of War's 10000 online kills. Many games will feature a "Do X Y number of times" for no other reason than to keep the player playing for the length of time it requires. The Black Hole of the title simply refers to where all your time goes while completing these cynical attempts to pad out a game's longevity.
Whimsical - In my opinion the best kind of achievement, these are awarded for bizarre (and sometimes quite tricky) tasks. A prime example is escorting the gnome in Half-Life 2 Episode 2 to the rocket towards the end, or Borderlands' The Lonely Island shout-out "You're On A Boat!". They're usually very rare in Achievement sets and are often enigmatically hinted to in their descriptions instead of plainly explained.

Indistinct from the above, and falling into any of the five categories, are the Online-Only achievements and Secret achievements, both generally hated by most. Not all players have access to online content (or simply don't enjoy the anonymous hostility of online gaming) and Secret achievements usually have no point to their secrecy (with the one exception being to hide spoilers).

I may well come back to this article and add any other design feature intended to increase a game's longevity if I find any more. So you may have to come back from time to time to get the full caboodle.

(Heh, see what I did there?)