Feature Bloat in Blockbuster Games

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In recent weeks I’ve started asking myself if a game can have too many gameplay mechanics for its own good, or too much content. It’s come up because of how many blockbuster games these days have been thoughtlessly throwing in new game systems in order to lengthen playtime.

In and of itself making a game deeper so people spend more time on it is good, but I think too many game developers these days have realized this and started perverting the whole process. How many action games have you played recently that you felt included unnecessary systems for crafting, experience points, loot, collectible items, and side quests?

Let’s take Dead Space 3 as the latest example. I think it’s a pretty solid game, but two of those aforementioned elements have shown their faces. I actually think the side quests in DS3 are pretty well done — they feel like whole extra levels created for people invested enough in the game and I appreciate that. The new crafting system on the other hand has just about destroyed DS3’s difficulty curve. It no longer feels like a survival game when I can literally craft ammo and health packs. Hell, EA even admitted that they designed the game to allow players to farm resources. Also, the fact that you can play the game in “classic” mode which gets rid of all crafting shows how unnecessary the feature is.

Going a little bit further back you’ve got Far Cry 3. I actually liked that game enough to buy it at full price (that being the $50 for the PC version). Retaining Far Cry 2’s open-world nature and adding in the randomness of animal life has made for an entertaining action game. I even like the implementation of hunting animals. The crafting, experience points, and collectibles however all feel just thrown-on.

FC2’s problem was that it was too content-bare, and I guess Ubisoft felt they needed to pile on as much as they could for the next game. Maybe the XP system has a good explanation in the game’s story, but I feel like FC3 would work fine mechanically if that, the crafting, and random collectables weren’t there. That kind of stuff just felt like it was wasting my time, and didn’t give me the sense of fulfillment that those mechanics are usually supposed to.

Let’s look at collectibles for one thing. That’s a mechanic that I feel way too many games screw up — pretty much any open-world game these days really. A good example of collectibles done right might be, say, the golden Skulltulas from Zelda Ocarina of Time. Nintendo actually designed a small challenge around acquiring each one, an obstacle to be cleared. Each gold Skulltula in itself was a micro problem to be solved. Compare this to the feathers in Assassin’s Creed games or the relics thrown all over Far Cry 3.

To me what feels even more insidious about these kinds of things is that developers often know exactly which games to rip mechanics off of to throw into their own games. I was surprised when Ubisoft introduced the assassin recruiting mechanic in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, and based the character development system therein off of the clan system from Final Fantasy Tactics.

The problem is, that system felt quite shallow compared to its inspiration, and I never really felt like I needed to use it to get through the game. Maybe it could have become something had Ubisoft built the whole game around it; but instead, Brotherhood was a full Creed game with all the mechanics of the previous titles, plus this new system thrown in among others.

My guess for why these systems are thrown in games is for filler. Publishers hate it when someone completes their shooter campaign in five hours and trades it right back in to GameStop. So, on top of throwing in multiplayer they’re probably trying to find ways to make players spend more time on the singleplayer, and they seem to have found the answer — RPG elements.

The common factor in all the games that have this problem is that they’re action games trying to take on RPG elements that don’t belong, or they’re incorporating those elements without re-balancing the games around them. A part of me wants to think that publishers figured out how addicting things like crafting and experience points can be, and now use them as a panacea to extend the life and appeal of a product. Pretty soon they’ll start trying to monetize all that like free-to-play games do. Dead Space 3 already has microtransactions for crafting elements.

Games like Borderlands and Dark Souls also feel like hybrids between the action and RPG genres, but what makes them work so well is that they are designed to be so from the bottom up. The RPG elements of each game are a very core part of their design without which they wouldn’t work. They aren’t old action franchises with RPG elements bolted onto them as a substitute for creating more real level design or other legitimately rewarding gameplay.

I don’t know. Maybe when publishers start putting out more new IPs next generation they’ll start building those games up as action RPGs from the start and all these game-extending mechanics won’t feel so slapped-on.

BULLETS:

  • Teenage cancer survivor creates social gaming network for young people in treatment: http://flip.it/2gRSv 
  • As of right now, King of Fighters XIII is 50 percent off, from $30 to $15, on the PlayStation Store. I don’t know for how much longer though.
  • Pretty surprised that the 3DS version of Gunman Clive is now the top-selling version, over iOS and Android. I imagine this is because the game actually managed to get some exposure on the eShop while getting buried on Google Play and iOS.
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One thought on “Feature Bloat in Blockbuster Games

  1. Matt Mason says:

    I think publishers definitely load their games up with extra systems for longevity, but it’s up to the player to parse it all and stick with what they find enjoyable.

    For instance, I would use the crafting system in Dead Space 3 because I would like to have an edge. But I can see why people wouldn’t like it. And players are given the choice. It’s not unneccesary if someone enjoys it. It’s just not a guarantee to a publisher that someone won’t trade it in, like they’re hoping.

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