Myth of the Indie Fail (or, three topics that sorta go together)

19 11 2007

Posted a stub last night so as not to lose my thoughts, poked at a draft, ereyar.

1. The Myth of Replayability and Game Length: Why It’s Damned Unfair To Expect 40+ Hours Out Of Every $60 Title You Buy

2. Happiness in Indie: Why I Haven’t Migrated To Pro Game Work Yet

3. What Do You Mean, You SHOULD Have It By Tuesday Morning: Gamecrazy Teeters On The Brink Of Fail Once Again

1. The Myth of Replayability and Game Length: Why It’s Damned Unfair To Expect 40+ Hours Out Of Every $60 Title You Buy

The most common complaint I’m hearing about “next gen” games is how short and unREplayable they are. Bioshock’s a prime example that I’ll use for purposes of this debate… moment to moment it’s like a prime cut of sirloin steak, tasty and rich and delicious. And then it’s over. And for some folks, it wasn’t worth $60 because it wasn’t a sprawling, epic masterpiece… it was just a masterpiece. Oh, and let’s not forget, it’s not “replayable” because it has no multiplayer component. I’d say there needs to be a readjustment of expectations.

On length… I’ve always been a proponent of the theory that Stories Are As Long As They Have To Be. No More, No Less. Bioshock’s story begins, develops, ends, done. It is as long as it should be. How do you make Bioshock longer? The Copypasta school of game design, where you just backtrack endlessly (and it already has some of this!) or go through a series of identical corridors (Halo 1)? Neither is a good method. Any more story than the core presented would be padding just to satisfy the marketing people.

As for multiplayer… what would one expect out of Bioshock? Victorian deathmatch? Splicer Kombat? Neither suits the mood or the atmosphere and are as useless as the deathmatch element was on the original halflife… suitable only for modders, not a game anybody would seriously play for weeks on end. This is not Teamfortress 2, where the entire game’s reason to exist is to provide user-generated endlessly varied content (not mods, I mean Other Players). Multiplayer Bioshock, if it was going to be anything more than a bolt-in, would have to be like TF2’s Orange Box… a pair of fully realized games with their own dev teams. Which costs BIG MONEY.

Speaking of money, let’s say you have a massive story concept, one that you COULD tell for 40 hours without it getting tiresome. Great! Now, do you have the budget to develop all that original content? Because as we’ve said, you can’t repeat content, that’s the big sin. What? You say a next-gen game, even one with graphics reviewers would call “passable”, is a ridiculous moneysink and you just can’t make 40 hours of new and engaging scenarios and NPCs and effects without taking out a seventh mortgage and working for four years? Damn. But that’s reality. Things have gotten to the point where even mediocrity is expensive as hell. The only games that get away with the mega-hour load are RPGs because, surprise surprise, they REPEAT CONTENT, in the form of random battles with the same monsters over and over, reused NPCs, and corridor crawls.

In conclusion, it’s unfeasible to make a Homerian epic you can play repeatedly and never get tired of by creating a modern game. The money and time are not there, the story can rarely support that amount of gameplay, and extraneous online features just to make it LOOK like it’s replayable are laughable.

What’s the solution? Reasonable expectations. Not lowered expectations, mind you, just reasonable. Bioshock is amazing, delightful, tasty, and then over and that’s that. The fact that you won’t be playing it for weeks and weeks does not make the time you spent on it any WORSE, and anything they did to make it last longer would likely sour the milk.

Note… I’m not even considering the “Okay, so I’m cool with how things are, but what about the PRICE POINT?” issue here. That’s a whole other bucket of worms. Once you’re happy with a high quality game that happens not to last as long as the hundred years war, then you have to decide how much you’d pay for it. And then we get to the problem of how to deliver even a mediocre next-gen game without charging $60 for it, with publisher overhead costs, distribution costs, etc, etc. That way lies madness and another blog post.

2. Happiness in Indie: Why I Haven’t Migrated To Pro Game Work Yet

Someone asked on my previous thread “If you hate your job, why not go work for Bioware?”. I get asked this a lot. I ask MYSELF this a lot. And while I always have a lingering fear of letting opportunity go by and ending up a miserable old wreck who looks back on his life with regret and loathing, dying alone and wretched and unhappy… then once that harrowing vision passes, I consider the actual reality of the situation.

My job can be annoying, yes. Frustrating, at times. But the upsides are tremendous. Good pay. Good health. Great hours; never any overtime. Convenient to travel (for now) and near my friends and family, notably my “health power base” of doctors and helpers when my disability becomes annoying. In fact, every single aspect of this life situation is wonderful… except for the work itself being an occasional irritation.

Most importantly… the upshot of this job is it affords me the free time and the life stability I need to, get this, develop video games. Right now I’m sitting on a four figure income from my independent game development, and that’s without doing any contract jobs whatsoever. That’s raw sales of games I wanted to do for myself for whatever reason. Second Life gave me a platform for expressing myself AND getting paid for it, too.

And you know what? Even if I wasn’t getting paid (See: NWN mods), I’d still be doing it because the day job is awesome enough that I can spend hours developing a FREE game, or a free story, or anything I want creatively without worry I’m wasting my time. I can chart my own path, pick my own poison, I can choose my own metaphors. And when a month like this hits, where it’s more about PLAYING games than making them, I can do that because it’s all free time and hobby in the end. Heck, being able to afford those games to play is also in the cards!

But would I enjoy doing pro game work? I suppose I would. It’s satisfaction incarnate, and having a wider audience to please would be nice. (Nice, but not required. I enjoy doing it for its own sake. I love feedback but I get about enough to satisfy.) And I likely will regret one day not going for the brass ring, in some ways. But overall I’m not miserable, despite the occasional out-of-focus moments where things look bleak and nasty. It’s just a matter of realizing that my situation is actually really quite good, good enough to get me through the stormy times. And I deliberately set it up to be that way.

Working example: Last night, someone IMs me saying they’d like me to develop a Brunswick-authorized contractually developed Second Life bowling alley. I considered it, and said no. Ye gods, why would I turn down such a wonderful professional opportunity?! Well,

1. SL’s physics is getting overhauled soon and may very well break horribly
2. I’m not that interested in bowling and wouldn’t enjoy making a bowling game
3. Even if it was a sizeable check, I’m not hard up for cash, and my time is too valuable to me.

That’s freedom, boyo. Tastes good.

3. What Do You Mean, You SHOULD Have It By Tuesday Morning: Gamecrazy Teeters On The Brink Of Fail Once Again

First, they almost canceled my order because I only had $20 down on Rock Band instead of the mandated $25. Thankfully they decided to let the order stand because, I dunno, I’m a valued customer or something.

Now, when I call up to ask if I can pick the game up on Tuesday, they say, “Uh, we should have arriving in stock on Tuesday morning…”

Retailers all over the country have it in stock NOW. They’re sitting on it until street date. This is not just a boxed disc, this is a huge kit of various bits of apparatus and that takes time and manpower to ship. If you don’t have it by the day you’re selling it there’s not a sure shot chance you’ll get it at all. Odds are GOOD, don’t get me wrong, but this is concerning considering so many of Gamecrazy’s rivals are already Good To Go… and they’ve got nothin’.

I’ve railed against the lazy pawn shop bastards retail game industry quite a few times lately. Ever since I got Amazon Prime I’ve been shifting all my game buys to that, sacrificing that release day high for a more consistent and convenient approach to getting what I want. But this is something I’ve obsessed about for eight months and you’ve had to endure endless posts yammering on about… this is Serious Business.

So. If it’s not there when the day comes, the day I’m taking time off work to get to early enough… there will be much cutting and spilling of blood and possibly full scale nuclear deployment, provided I can hack the Gibson. You have been warn’d, o retail nutjobs.

Aaaand megapost done.

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16 responses

19 11 2007
jeffreycwells

Your thoughts on game design mirror mine on writing pretty much exactly. Which is why I, too, am still in the civil service. :)

19 11 2007
agermain

Obligatory Smartass Comment
But you get a Fender with Rock Band, not a Gibson…

19 11 2007
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

Re: Obligatory Smartass Comment
Well, it was either that or make a joke about about WOPR. Which do you think would go over better with the current generation, a snark on Hackers or a snark on WarGames?

19 11 2007
cmdr_zoom

Re: Obligatory Smartass Comment
A STRANGE SONG. THE ONLY WAY TO ROCK OUT IS NOT TO PLAY A NOTE.

19 11 2007
j_arcane

On #1, I am inclined to strongly agree. I am sick and tired of games that drag out well past their fun point really, and if I can have fun with a 10 hour game and actually see the end, as opposed to having fun with 10 hours of a 40 hour game that I never wind up beating, I’ll pick the former every time.
That said, I think there’s more ways to add additional replayability to a game than just multiplayer, but it sort of requires a focus and a style of game design that is rather counter to the story railroad approach. A good free and open gameworld, or just a game that allows a lot of different ways to go about doing things, ot just fun ways to mess around, can really bring a lot more to the table.
And I don’t necessarily just mean big sandboxy type stuff, though I’m always happy to see more of that, but sometimes just a flexibility in allowed game approach. For example, Goldeneye, all told, is like a 3 hour game, but I probably spent far far more than that, just finding different ways to go through some of the levels. I had the Facility down to a 35 sec speed run.
A lot of older games seemed to get this more than more modern ones do, there’s a lack of the kind of fun factor that gets people to still go back and replay all those old Mario levels over and over again. Instead, content and level design get treated like a chore, and the end result feels like a chore to play, and rarely is worth replaying.
And this: “Stories Are As Long As They Have To Be. No More, No Less.” Is pure Truth in bits. One of the best pieces of advice my former friend and writing mentor once gave me was that when someone starts rattling off to you about their 900 page novel, it’s a good sign that they’re not actually that good, and just don’t know when to shut up. I think the same principle applies to video games a lot of the time, especially Japanese console RPGs in particular. Sure it’s 100_ hours, but what you get for that 100+ hours is a rambly, incoherent, totally railroaded, often nonsensical, horribly cliched story, that could easily have been told in a fraction of the time if the writer actualyl knew what he was doing.
On #2, I kinda know where you’re coming from there myself, because I’ve been feeling the yoke of my creativity in the kitchen being hel back by someone else’s recipes and someone else’s constant meddling. Creative work is much more fun when you’re on your own, working for your own satisfaction first, and then hoping everyone else likes it too. I gotta say though, that I do hope to see more of your writing in a CRPG of some kind soon though, Penultima was brilliant, one of the best CRPG campaigns I’ve ever played.
And #3, leads me to a very slightly amusing story, in that the only GameCrazy I’ve ever shopped at regularly wasn’t actualyl a part of the chain. The guy who started the original GC stores had started another one in my hometown, which somehow stayed indie after the rest of the stores and name were sold to Hollywood. Frankly, I never liked the chain ones, they always seemed to be the worst of the lot, though I did wind up spending a lot of time at them demoing games, and they did at least still carry the older stuff. But yeah, they never seemed like a good place to do preorders from, because they rarely seemed to have actual new stock of anything.

19 11 2007
bikerwalla

Re: Obligatory Smartass Comment
Well, I idolized WarGames and never saw Hackers. But I’m hardly typical of your audience.

19 11 2007
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

Sandboxing (even if only in aspects) and speed runs are perfectly valid game expansion concepts.
I think Portal’s going to be the new speed run king, since while the story mode is short, it’s built around the idea of creatively using the portals to shave seconds off your run-times.
As for limited sandboxing, Dead Rising has this going on… there’s a story mode, but arguably it’s more fun just to run around finding new ways to dispatch zombies, exploring new areas, and finding new weapons. (Arguably, the story gets in the WAY of this. One of the most oft requested features is a pure sandbox mode, since at the start a large section of the mall is locked to you until you complete the first leg of story mode… and then later, cultists start showing and getting in the way of the fun… etc.)
RPGs are a great match for me since they focus on characters and story, but the actual “G” aspect keeps getting in the way. I tried and tried to provide new approaches to balanced combat and could never get things right. If I was gonna dive into RPGs again, I’d either ditch combat entirely, or come up with my own simplified/dramatic combat system. For instance, I’ve often said if I was gonna do HeX coda professionally with its own engine, it’d be a simple action RPG that lets you tactically order your team to bash through things with basic action game controls. Sort of a “Final Fight RPG”. By keeping things simple it’s basic, fun, and adds spice to the meat of the story and roleplaying.
GameCrazy is weaksauce, definitely a bolt-on (hah!) to Hollywood Video. The only reason I go there is because it’s ridiculously handy, right on my route from work to home with minimal fussing about. But with Amazon Prime and a little patience I’m finding I can bypass those jokers entirely… except for day-one goods I can’t wait for, like Rock Band. …and wouldn’t you know it, Amazon shipped their preorders out to arrive on release day. *sigh* This may be the last time I do the GameCrazy shuffle.

19 11 2007
j_arcane

Yeah, on the RPG thing, I’m much more into the G part than you. In particular I think this is because I came to CRPGs largely from a tabletop perspective, and then wound up back into TRPGs again thanks to NWN, oddly. But I like the system monkeying stuff to some extent, and find that, if it’s well done it adds a lot to the gameplay for me, and also some replayability element as well, because it’s often fun just to go back through, say, Hordes of the Underdark, with a whole new character build.
I can see how you got frustrated with HeX coda though, because it really does seem to me like a module that needed it’s own ruleset, and NWN really doesn’t give one the option. The Firefly mod manages, but it’s based on another D20 system game, so it can get away with just hacking some bits on. HeX coda’s world concept though, goes a lot farther outside the D&D box than that.
Game store wise, I’m sort of lucky actually, because I have Fred Meyer. I don’t know why, or who was responsible, but somewhere in the corporate chain there, someone decided that, despite it being a relatively mediocre department store, they were gonna have a really badass game selection. They’re like the only chain store left in the NW US that still gives plenty of respect and shelf space to PC games, their stock is almost always good (though I still haven’t seen an Orange Box there. Grr.) They don’t do any of that preordering shit, instead, they jsut seem to hire dept. managers who actually know what the fuck they’re doing and how to order what the need. And since it’s just another dept. in a big store, there’s none of this special card bullshit, or trying to forcefeed my magazine subscriptions and useless warranties, or any of the other bullshit that goes on in most chains.

19 11 2007
raigne

On number one, I absolutely agree. Story is the major reason I play games, and because of this, my favorites have always been inventory based adventure games, ala oldschool Sierra and more recently The Adventure Company.
They are not replayable by any stretch of the imagination. And so I usually wait until they’re on the $10 shelf to play them. Sometimes I can’t. But I’m happy with them as they are. It bothers me to hear, “This game sucks, there’s nothing to do.” Play through the plot… that’s what it’s for. In MMO’s “How do I get to _____?” Follow the freaking storyline.
And number three. Oh god. I look for buy online options now. If I can’t download it, I’m not bothering to buy it when it comes out. I understand that this is not possible with Rock Band, and I would be going mad trying to decide if I really want it badly enough to spend an hour on the phone trying to find someone who has it. The stores here never have a game I want on the day it’s scheduled to hit shelves, even the game stores. May be an offshoot of the fact that I’m a PC gamer, but when Target is the store most likely to have what I’m looking for in stock, there is a problem.
Incidentally, I am in love with Target now…

19 11 2007
raigne

I found out Amazon did that with popular preorders when I decided to start getting the harry potter books for them. They’ll also refund a portion of your money if another major retailer is selling it cheaper, to meet their price.
It’s to the point that I check Amazon first when I want something… anything… and Prime would have paid for itself by now if I had signed up sooner.

19 11 2007
jengagne

See also: Jen and visual art!

19 11 2007
cmdr_zoom

Just one disconnected point while I ponder others:
For gamers my/our age, “40+ hours” is no longer so much a selling point as a warning: “This will take the equivalent of two whole days of your increasingly scarce/precious leisure time to see the whole thing. Do you wish to continue? (Y/N)”

19 11 2007
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

Amazon has been my Harry Potter crack dealer for the last four books. I appreciate the mojo they use to ensure you get it the same day you could’ve gotten it in stores, and I’m looking forward to having that same service on these big-deal annual game titles.

19 11 2007
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

AGREE TILDE BANG.
40+ hours has been a warning sign to me for many a year. Nowadays, when I read some reviewer bitching about a 10 hour playtime, I’m like, “Sweet! I stand a chance to finish that game!”. That’s why I was hesitant to pick up Eternal Sonata… and it’s why I have yet to finish it.
If I can spend $60 and be assured that I’m getting an absolutely badass short game out of the deal, I call that money well freaking spent. Bioshock was a godsend and the Orange Box is like an unending treasure trove of these small game experiences, complete with one unending-but-unfinishable game — Team Fortress 2. Nice thing about TF2 is you’re never “done” with it but it’s also never “unfinished”. It’s just THERE if you happen to want to play it.

20 11 2007
meagenimage

1) There exists a game that has near-infinite replayability and hundreds of hours of gameplay. It’s called Nethack. Of course, to reach this point, a few things had to be sacrificed… like a reasonable learning curve. Or graphics.
2) I have absolutely nothing to say here, but I’d like to take a moment to appreciate the line “I can chart my own path, pick my own poison, I can choose my own metaphors“.

20 11 2007
loopychew

Prime example of #1: Stranglehold.
Could you imagine 60+ hours of Chow Yun-Fat running down hallways, leaping over tables and onto rollcarts, guns ablaze? Because anyone who’s played Stranglehold knows that within the six hours it takes to get through the game, you’re already thinking: Thank God. While the first couple of hours are nothing but pure awesomeness, the adrenalin rush ends almost just about the time you hit the last level, by which time it’s just slightly overstayed its welcome.
Alternatively: Portal.
While it’s true that I could probably play Portal levels for the rest of my life and be happy, the narrative structure of the game (in which the first half is in the “testing” environment and the latter “behind-the-scenes”) means it’s gotta end sometime, and any longer in one section would mean you have to make the other section just as long. For the story contained within the game, it’s the perfect length.
Bring on more puzzles, though!

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