Thursday, 3 November 2011

Gaming: how much is too much?

Bigger is better. With a bigger game you get more playing time, and hence better value for money. More customisation increases replay value, and a bigger map means that you can discover things on playthrough number 7 that you never saw before.

However, I do think we’re pretty much at the limit, and going further might actually make games inferior.

Take map size. I’ve played a few free-roaming games, where you can go anywhere on the map, such as GTA: San Andreas, Oblivion and Fallout 3. The bigger the map, the more varied and interesting you can make the landscape, the more nooks and crannies you can put in to intrigue and delight exploring players and so on.

The problem is that if you make a map too big then a few things start getting worse. For a start, unless you have (and use) a fast travel system, it can be a pain in the arse to trek a huge distance. Secondly, it makes the work of a completionist (ie someone who likes to do, collect and experience every part of a game) almost impossible. Last, but perhaps most importantly, it makes a game’s production time longer, meaning that by the time it’s released it may be nearly or actually outdated by other releases that took years less to create.

Then there’s customisation, both in terms of character creation and options for variable gameplay (in Skyrim terms: the archetypes of warrior, rogue and mage and various mixtures between two or three of those). Would you want to play a game with 100 races to choose from? I wouldn’t, because the team making the game would have spent a hell of a long time fiddling with microscopic racial differences instead of spending their time on more important things. Likewise, a one-handed and two-handed (or blunt and blade) categorisation of melee weapons makes sense, but if you had specific skillsets for umpteen weapons (daggers, spears, halberds, maces, morning stars, swords, longbows, shortbows, crossbows, cestus, slings etc etc) character management would, for most people, become bloody tedious.

Whether a game is free-roaming, entirely linear or something in between (Skyrim, Final Fantasy Whatever The Last One Was and Dragon Age: Origins, say) also affects how big a game can be before it’s just become as fat and bloated as an oaf who gets a documentary made about how they have to be lifted in and out of bed with a crane. Skyrim (and its predecessor, Oblivion) will get away with being 300 hours long because if you play a character for 100 hours and then start a new one, the remaining 200 hours of questing, exploring and murdering poor people can instantly be got at with your new character. But if you’re playing Linear Fantasy 19 and forgot to do something important (I’d offer a specific example, but didn’t buy it and therefore cannot) in the 127th hour then your options are to play for another 173 hours of regret, or start a new game and plough through 126 hours of gameplay to do the thing you wanted to do, but missed.

So, let’s assume I’m right (no sarcastic comments, loyal readership!) and games such as Skyrim have pretty much reached the natural limit of geographical size and character customisation (there are 10 races to choose from. Any more would just be silly). That’s actually a good thing. Because instead of trying to make Black Marsh (or whatever the next Elder Scrolls will be) even more enormous the development team will be able to spend the extra resources they have on things that make the game better, rather than just bigger. Things like de-fusing trousers and shirts, for example, and making even more intriguing quests instead of standardised quests.

I wasn’t going to write any more Skyrim stuff until I got the game, but I did hear a snippet (it’s a non-spoiler) worth mentioning. Unlike Oblivion or Fallout 3 you don’t get to fiddle with your character at the end of the intro, so make sure you get everything right at creation, or you’ll have to quite and redo it.



  1. I'm a big fan of Fallout3 and, yes, the fast travel facility becomes useful very quickly. As is also (and I am a completionist too) the Unlock you can get about half way through to show all locations on the map. You only get the ability to jump to unexplored locations, though, after you have walked there once on foot. Which is fair.

    There's nothing to beat actually doing the walks though; and enjoying the varied terrain, the different lighting throughout the day, the nasties lurking on route and so forth.

    But as for playing time, I'd look elsewhere for my annoying issues. My main problem with F3 is the abrupt finish when you complete the game. And then the need to have spotted a point of divergence (and have an appropriate Save) along the story arc so that you can switch back and work towards a different outcome.

    There are many side quests which don't impact the final outcome and you should be able to continue to play after your triumph and close those off. Some of the games you've reviewed here in the past allow that and it doubles the playing life.

  2. I agree. I played Oblivion before Fallout 3, and the sudden end to the main quest was both unexpected and unwelcome.

    Not sure if I'll stick with this plan, but when I get Skyrim I intend to do no fast travelling with my first character.

    Did you actually fully complete Fallout 3? I liked the game, but not enough to even attempt that. (I loved Oblivion, despite its stupid levelling system, and didn't get close to completing that either).

  3. Yes, finished it off. And then sat back, watched the cut-scene and opened a bottle of wine.

    Rioja as I recall, but life isn't perfect.

    Pure stubbornness got me to the end, but that contributed to the anticlimax.

  4. Blimey. I had mixed feelings about FO3. I think it was technically better than Oblivion, but had less charm. I also prefer fantasy or historical settings to a world of post-apocalypse brown.

  5. I came looking for Mr. Thaddeus's first thoughts on Skyrim and found this thread instead.

    I am stunned that someone could play Fallout 3 and Oblivion and not complete either. Pure curiosity drove me onwards in both. Though in Fallout 3 I hit the end long before I wanted to and was miffed when the game suddenly finished; at least in Oblivion you knew you were heading towards the climax and could play on after.

    As for game length, in New Vegas I have racked up 530 hours on three play-throughs - the final one included three of the four DLC packs and is still open - its more fun to be able to pop back now and then and slaughter a few druggies than to actually finish the game. So, whilst I agree with you in terms of character building, number of races etc., I would be more than happy to see even bigger maps.

  6. Hey, I did complete the Thieves' and Mages' Guilds, and the Dark Brotherhood and the main quest, as well as most of the Fighters' Guild and all of the Knights of the Nine and Shivering Isles.

    Must be the first time someone's been surprised I 'only' played hundreds of hours on a game :p