Thursday, April 12, 2007


Why It's Like This

Allow me to make a few generalizations, because I really believe I'm on to something here.

In the beginning there were arcade games. They followed in the footsteps of older amusements by working on a pay-for-each-game basis. You were expected to play a complete game in one sitting -- in fact, several complete games. The more the better! Keep those quarters rolling in!

Video games became more sophisticated. They began to have a storyline and distinct levels that differed by more than just difficulty level. Soon, it wasn't about the score anymore; it was about "finishing" the game. Savvy developers began to realize that their machines could make more money if they offered players a chance to continue a lost game by dropping more quarters in.

The trend spread to home game consoles. Players were offered limited continues. Passwords to mark their progress. Games became more sophisticated still -- the home market allowed for RPGs and adventure games to take hold. As the technology for home consoles improved, we saw the rise of video games with save slots.

And with that, the entire shape of the industry was decided.

What's the difference between passwords and save slots? A password is temporary. It can be lost or forgotten. Save slots, by comparison, are relatively permanent.

If the goal of playing a video game is to reach the end, then there's no reason to start over from the beginning when you have a save slot that already takes you to the end.

As more and more video games began to add save slots, we began to see a shift in players' attitudes. We would play through a game once and only once because, in our minds, there was no point in playing it again once it's been "conquered". We already have the save slot in case we want to see the ending again; why go through all that hard work all over again?

There was always a push for longer video games in the market, but now it had a reason to grow into an obsession. If you're paying $50 for a video game that you're only going to play once, then you want that session to last as long as possible. Developers like Square set the high water marks for hour-per-dollar payoffs. Gaming culture made a radical shift. It used to be that gamers would beg and plead for shortcuts to help them reach the end of a two- or three-hour game faster. We slowly evolved into a culture that balked at anything that didn't promise to waste at least 20 hours of our lives.

And as games got longer, losing was no longer an option. It was okay to die and return to the beginning in Super Mario Brothers because the game isn't especially long -- it won't take a week's worth of free time to return to the place where you died. But telling a player who's invested 49 hours of his life into a 50 hour epic that he has to start over? That would make too many people angry.

Having multiple lives became meaningless. It's stupidly easy to just save and continue your way out of any situation. The only complication may be the distance between save points, but even that's not much of an issue compared to starting an entire game over again. All it means is that we'll have to tediously replay the same stretch of game until we pass it -- we'll never have to see it again, and we won't want to because we just saw it five times in a row.

It used to be that players would derive more utility from a game by losing and restarting. But now that save slots effectively made the player immortal, players began to demand that the games become longer so they can get more utility from them.

So having save slots brought on a push for longer and longer games. Unfortunately, this really started to pick up steam at a time when game development was becoming a monumental undertaking. Home systems were capable of creating ever more finely detailed, immersive worlds.

The problem is, those worlds have to be designed. And designing free-roaming 3D environments takes a lot more dedication than designing simple 2D environments. We cried "More! More!" at a time when creating a single level in a video game was becoming an undertaking that could require the input of an entire team of programmers.

So we didn't get games with more levels. Instead, we started to get games that required us to do more in those levels.

Developers began to get good at reusing their levels. Games began to force us to backtrack, to cross old ground multiple times. Instead of having more levels, we were given fetch quests -- Rare-style platformers, where you have to collect hundreds of meaningless dodads in order to progress. The name of the game was keeping the player busy so that he won't think the experience is "too short".

We had to do more with less.

I think that this is close to the heart of the matter -- this vague feeling of dissatisfaction that the video game culture seems to be experiencing these days. We have so many truly incredible games, but we don't play them anymore because we feel like they're already completed.

Clearly, something should be done.

I'm going to call for a National Delete a Save Slot month. More as it develops.


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