Why do we restrict content?
Dara O Briain presented Live at the Apollo the other night and, purely by chance, I caught a bit of it where he did a sketch on video games. As to be expected from him it was very funny, but two things really stuck out in what he was saying: how difficult games are to control and how games lock content. I'll look at the first issue in a future post and for now focus on locking content, his argument which was simply this: if he spends £10 on a CD, he can listen to it all. If he spends £8 at the cinema, he gets to watch all the movie. But if he spends £40 on a game, and he isn't good enough at playing it, he only gets to experience a small portion of it.
Purely by coincidence, half an hour previously I'd been playing the trial version of From Dust. I love God / creation games of old; I spent many an hour on Populous 1 and 2, A-Train, Sim-City and a game on the Amiga I can't remember the name of (you got asked by the AI "Can I be on your team?" if you were doing well...). I'm a veteran games designer with 12 years professional experience. Yet I can't get past the 3rd level in the demo where you're given a 4 minute time limit. Partly because my heart sunk as soon as I saw such a restrictive mechanic on a game that on the surface appears to be about freedom and player choice, and partly because the game rules didn't allow me to do what I wanted: create a dam further upstream and thus stem the flow of water down. But every attempt failed because the sand gets washed away.
So why do we do this? Why go to all the effort of creating all this wonderful technology and content, only to restrict access to it with rudimentary mechanics? Do we not trust that the pure act of playing a game is enough? Or are we too stuck in our ways to believe that there is a better approach out there?
I find the best way to work out how to make things better is to try and compare your current problem with something that you know works, and try and understand why that thing works and hopefully then apply that very same logic to your problem.
Which is a long winded way of saying I'm going to look at Chess. Chess is great, I've loved it for years - I was even Pendle Junior Champion back when I was at school, a fact which I've bored my friends with on countless occasion. This doesn't mean I'm any good at chess, just that I was lucky that year and the competition didn't turn up. But I enjoy playing chess a lot, partly because of the mental workout it gives me and partly because it's a nice feeling when you win.
And this is where video games seem to differ from pretty much every other type of game we play: single player video games rarely have a win condition. The reward is simply to unlock more content, to ultimately progress until you've exhausted it all.
So why not? Why do we make life so difficult for ourselves - content, after all, costs an absolute fortune to create (see my previous post about why, or Phil's recent post for alternative methods to making it all by hand). Surely we can become more creative with our mechanics and introduce some real win conditions, and expect that players will enjoy the act of playing the game itself to want to play it again? The best example I can think of is probably Sid Meier's Civilization. Can we apply this sort of logic to, say, a first-person shooter?
One argument for restricting content is because you're teaching players how to actually play your game. Peter wrote about teaching players a few months ago, and I don't want to rehash his points here except to iterate that gradually introducing your player to the mechanics is very important. It is a difficult balance point to find: too fast and you risk overwhelming them, too slow and you risk boring them. As a games designer I've spent a lot of time trying to weave tutorials into initial levels of the games I've worked on, and it's tricky. There's a definite pressure to make them integral to the story and not have just a separate tutorial bolted on before each new mechanic, even though if you don't highlight to player's that they're being taught something half won't pay attention.
Challenge is the other answer for why we restrict content - we want to keep increasing the challenge as the player progresses, so even if we did let them skip to level 10 they wouldn't get anywhere because they wouldn't be good enough at the game. This makes sense in a new type of game, or one where you have very bespoke mechanics. But in a first person shooter where, if you don't copy Call of Duty's control scheme you're instantly deemed a failure? (that's possibly a little harsh but remember this article on Cracked?) Everyone knows what to do, and could probably get by. They might struggle, but surely that's their choice? They've paid their money so why not let them? If I skip to the last page in a book to see whodunnit, I know that I'm cheating and could possibly spoil it for myself.
You'll notice that I've been careful thus far to highlight that the content unlocking applies mostly to single-player games. And a few of you have no doubt been thinking "we've already solved this, it's called multiplayer". And, to an extent, you'd be right. But at the same time, completely wrong.
There's a big line in the sand between the people that want to play single player and those that want to player multi. Of the 20+ million copies of Modern Warfare 2 sold, how many people actually play online on a regular basis? Those figures aside, the unlock process for the multiplayer is possibly even more content biased than the single player. Sure, the maps come round on rotation, but until you've played countless hours you can't get access to the best kit. I know there are mechanics in there to allow you to get a taste, but we've lost the old mantra that made Quake so brilliant: the maps were all about the item placement and knowing the best route to them, and knowing when to hide when someone picked up Quad damage. Today it's about grinding your way through the weaker weapons, getting lucky occasionally and finally getting on an even playing ground. I know we spend hours balancing the weapons so the later ones aren't too overpowered and you have a chance from the off, but the cool toys are usually reserved for the people that put the most hours in.
Isn't this just a rant?
Well, yes. It is a bit of a rant and I'll stop now. I don't have answers to the issues faced of content creation except that we need to improve our tools so that it's cheaper to create more. I do believe that we can create mechanics for both single and multiplayer games that rely on less content and more on the act of playing. It's not something that's going to happen overnight, and it's going to take a brave, high profile, game to lead the way. Hopefully a team somewhere are working on just that.