So I’m starting honestly and saying I’m not good with finishing games. Not that they’re too difficult, but there’s a monotony. Maybe the story just doesn’t maintain my interest or I get bogged down in the minutia and have to drop it as a bad habit. Deus Ex: Human Revolution wasn’t that interesting once I got all the upgrades I had wanted, same for Bioshock. Ni no Kuni actually got finished as a reaction to that, I didn’t want to feel like I lost sight of following a story.
First though, our understanding of the problem: games are very expensive to create, they take a long time, and good boss fights like good dungeons often are completed later and moved to the earlier end of the game so that players experience some great stuff in the beginning, front-loading the expertise everyone developed on the property. Skyrim was an example of putting a great dungeon early on that expressed the style that players would come to expect, yet they still had a couple great dungeons left for later. Some developers leave that stuff for DLC. DLC adds another problem, if we can keep playing after the game is over does the ending really matter that much?
One of our first understandings of the ending is in a play or a novel, you have the conclusion and then the falling action. Maybe the hero punches out the guy whose stolen his girlfriend and the next couple of scenes they go back to a normal life, maybe the hero kills the guy and his girlfriend kills him, takes a few moments and ends herself, but we get a conclusion to the problems and the rest of the information gives some insight, if necessary.
Games are somewhat problematic in that your game might end almost immediately after the final battle, some game endings are less than a minute of story, and choice has created the issue of multiple endings. Worse still is the prevalence of this info being on the internet so gamers know what the endings are and purposefully choose one ending, achievements or trophies might also lead to players making decisions earlier to cause the end to be redundant. It sort of loses more meaning giving a player the ability to change the ending versus a strict ending they can know is waiting for them so there’s no reason to spoil themselves trying to game it.
But what is the last hurdle? And endurance contest against overwhelming numbers with weapons at their peak? A boss signifying combat with the ultimate? Getting out of the haunted house alive? Is it going to build on what the player has learned or is going to shift their perspective in the final moments? All of these? Some of these?
As I began to feel a lot of games began having less than stellar endings, cliche and meaningless I got tired of games telegraphing too much about what was going to happen. I didn’t think for moment that the princess in Far Cry 3 was going to really help the protagonist. I’ve read some of the articles and understand the writer thought he was doing something somewhat more hip that what the game really became, thinking it was more a commentary and criticism instead of what actually became the experience gamers had and what they took away. Similarly the issues that cropped up when Tomb Raider was getting rebooted and the teaser showing her dealing with assault-though the writer went on to say the game depicted Croft well, even super heroically she’s also gone to talk about the difficulty of video game writing. The writer, Rhianna Pratchett spoke at a TED talk and actually gave a troubling view of writing for games. So much is going on and being developed and changed the writer doesn’t have the same control they would in most other mediums.
But gaming isn’t really a writers medium, it’s never really going to be a writers medium-but if developers know how to get the most out of writing they will be better served. Story has to matter, the conflict has to matter and world has to matter. 15 hours in a world where nothing seems to matter, or make sense, will lead gamers to not care about the next 15. And yet just because you’ve had a great 15 hours doesn’t mean 15 more hours are needed-Dishonored is a great example here as each stage was distinct and full of possibilities and felt like it pulled you deeper into this world you wanted to know more about, and didn’t try to overstay it’s welcome. At the same time the things they telegraphed, the points you caught, they didn’t leave for the ending, they designed a game that played the cards when they needed to and left players in new territory instead of trying to get away with throwing in 5 more hours of game in the middle where the situation would become more and more apparent to gamers and lose any chance of that third act having any impact.
If there is a “final boss” there are tonal issues, once again something set up long in advance. There are several instances of games having drastically different final levels than the rest of the game, so much so it’s like they didn’t know how to end the game with the systems in place, other times games try to teach you some completely new mechanic. The worst, in my opinion, is the quick-time event. You deal with a tough boss, then have to reload because you didn’t click X then O when the game told you. (Funny I never tire of hating on quick-time events, it’s like they’re wholly unnecessary or something)
So the problem with a good ending to a game is more than just the last boss, or the final section itself, but in the connection it has to everything else-if a player doesn’t want to keep learning about this world, or feel like the story is progressing as much as they want it to, they won’t care to keep playing. X-Com suffers that problem, with little by way of story or character development the game lives and dies on mechanics-but they’re the same mechanics with new enemies pretty evenly spaced. Still, if the game doesn’t push you over the threshold by a certain point there’s not chance you’ll finish.
This is completely different from the way games open. Introductions are expected to spend a lot of capital getting gamers invested, all the best material possible has to pull people in to what will possibly be a long process of learning the mechanics of the game and learning to “read” the game world. Yet many games fail to deliver on this in the back end. Far Cry 3 has several missions leading to every mechanic involved in the game, and yet as the game continues the characters evaporate and the conflict evaporates as story detours and more trouble turn a great visual experience full of opportunity into something slowly becoming a repetitive mess of an experience and only the power fantasy story levels kept the momentum going against terrible side quests and quick-time everything.
The game dropped my focus at lest because several problems with the way different mechanics interacted but also how the story was pieced together and on to of that the genre mixing. While somewhat an open world sandbox and somewhat an RPG and somewhat a power fantasy game these didn’t all work at all times-at some points the game wouldn’t let you pick new skills until you completed more levels so you would do levels just to get the opportunity to place more skill points so running around would become fun again-just bad pacing of the challenge curve.
That might be the best understanding of how games fail at leading players to the ending and whatever the climax is. Every game has to have some sort of challenge curve so that players are learning new elements and then when they are ready learn more, or when people begin to find the gameplay might get stale something new is introduced. However, thinking gameplay is all that matters is where many designers fail since story and world-building do a lot to add to that experience. Playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution was problematic because the game supposedly could be played action oriented or stealth oriented. Fine, but stealth attempts gave something like 5 times as much experience, so it was obviously the most preferred way to go. However, this means the same track of space within the level might take 3-5 times as long. What could be a 15-25 hour game might also be 10 hours of trying to get through areas using stealth so you didn’t lose out on useful experience. On top of that the inventory system, grid based, sucked. Sucked. While I spent a lot of time trying to keep two bullet and 2 stealth weapons and divvy out the sparse upgrades along my journey I eventually had to cut down to 2 guns, one of each variety, so that I had room for the other items I needed. If I knew this would happen I would have been making very different choices, and by the time I made that decision I couldn’t go back, I had been on that path for like 20 hours and had to live with the consequences where neither weapon lived up to their end game potential. A bank would have been helpful, but instead the simple mechanic of not having space for resource management left me regretting a decisions made many hours earlier.
That wasn’t the only problem, while the game did have great challenges at times it just kept going, they had enough story for two games and just as many locations. Breaking into one more building so I could stow away on a ship to get me to the secret area one last time just became too tiring when I had done all those things 3 times before in one manner or another. In stead of figuring out how to use the idea one great way, or two great ways, they went with the same ideas over and over. I know someone reading this is thinking “it’s a stealth game, aren’t you supposed to be enjoying breaking into these places, that’s the fantasy you payed for, right?” Well there’s the rub: as we stated at the beginning games are very expensive propositions and sometimes they don’t want to waste what they’ve built.
All the story they’ve developed, all the levels they’ve worked out, every possible variation of a boss: it’s all money and time(lots of time) and that’s hard to just cut. While writers are not king of gaming they have a tool many game developers should appreciate more-the ability to cut and delete at will.
So these issues seem to have a weird link in that games seem to be served best by encapsulating the best that is developed as compared to simply applying a kitchen sink approach, yet there needs to be an understanding of tone and story so that whatever is allowed to stay in the final product suits the end user. Something that worries me about gaming, and indie game culture, is play testing. I was playing an X-Box Live Indie Game called something like “Super Amazing Wagon Adventure”, it was a riff on the old Oregon Trail game somehow mandatorily installed on every computer by an unseen hand controlling our nostalgic reality. The person who developed “Super…” had some interesting elements, randomness, difficulty, parody, retro style, but the problem is they probably didn’t play test with enough different people. The game can apparently be completed in 10 minutes but any time you play many different options exist. I’d suggest getting the game, it’s inexpensive but remember my criticism: the game is very difficult, but it always starts the same way. You turn on the game and jump in and your in your wagon and start hunting, then bandits show up, then more bandits with better weapons, then a river your ford or jump(jumping possibly leads to space, fording possibly leads to a pirate ship) then you’re on the great plains dealing with buffalo. I’m not really sure what happens after that, you hit the buffalo and the game becomes almost impossible, though you get some better chances if you survive the buffalo. You have 3 people on the wagon and at some points people get off the wagon to go solo foraging or hunting, if they die they’re gone(sometimes you get malaria and just die). So you want everyone to survive the first section without dying, then the solo sections which are tough to master, then the buffalo, so that your hearts are refilled by a camp fire. Then you’ll probably meet a fur trader and trade for health or weapons but you won’t get more people, I think. The problem is I played the game a lot to get to that amount of knowledge. I played the opening bandits a lot of times to get that knowledge, the opening river, and the buffalo a lot of times. The game has randomness but its not that random. As far as I can tell the people who tested the game got better at this stuff and learned to get past it, or could skip, but I had not interest after playing the first part over and over. For a dollar it wasn’t a bad move, more fun than most things a dollar gets. From what I understand not having a diverse group of people testing your game leads to the testers just getting good at the game-something most people who sit down and play for the first time won’t be.
As great as the ending of any game may be the gamer has to actually get there. If a game is a cohesive whole, this should be every designers goal.
The game should create a sense of desiring to see that resolution that over-rides the difficulty spikes but has to maintain that holistic sense of story and world that lead to enthused players being able to complete the game. I know I’ve written before about my love of difficult games, though I don’t want to seem like that’s close to the majority of the titles I play, a well made difficult game has to be meticulously crafted. Dark Souls is an excellent game but there are several bosses that are not well designed, Bed of Chaos being the most apparent. While players do have the tools to defeat any enemy but the game has a bad system for describing an items stats and how that relates to your stats creating an obliqueness that leaves many would be adventurers either deciding to give up or use cheap methods to achieve their wins. If players beat every enemy in really cheap fashion it ends up cheapening their experience of the game. If a game relies on players having to spend time trying to get random items or equipment by farming this also cheapens the experience. An equation pops into gamers minds reading “if I am expected to farm for 20 minutes to get so that I have items to beat the next boss battle why not farm for 3 hours to get through the rest of the game?” 3 hours later the games in the box and under the bed with the rest of the games that are getting sold when the player wants a new game.
Is there anything that gamers can do?
I know spoilers are somewhat of a problem with modern internet culture, but I think it’s important that people have documentation of things. Maybe write some comments in the reviews of the game online after you beat the game, or give up, talking about the experience. If articles appear about the game after the review post comments there as well so that if someone is thinking about buying a game and read a review or two they see not just people talking about the game with just a few hours gameplay commenting but find a comment talking about the entire game. Gaming is a consumer culture and finishing a game should be like finishing a book-you really can’t talk about a book without reading the entire thing. Publishers need to know that people aren’t just going to make a stink about really bad endings or cliche plot twists or whatever but that people are going to talk about the general experience and whether the good is really worth the bad. If people don’t keep buying a game the conversation stops and the game isn’t worthy of a franchise which is an important thing currently. Or look at who made the game and their other work, try to get some info out that this person might be very good or very short sighted or whatever at their job. This is a consumer culture and people who have bad track records only keep making games because the other consumers don’t know they have bad track records (or vice versa).
The other thing is on web-sites with forums, or places like Gamefaqs orReddit, try to start honest discussions of your game experience with other gamers. No flaming, no hysterics, just real discussion about the merits of a game. When people are thinking about getting a game they put in certain search terms, you can probably imagine what they are so start a post that will draw those people to it. Though this is all useful for bringing up what’s bad in games it shouldn’t just be a tool of that means, try and make sure good games get exposure, and that flawed games get exposure, just try to be balanced and honest. A tough section isn’t worth starting 15 board topics on, but huge balance issue, terrible final stretches, etc deserve to be mentioned and talked about just as well great endings should be talked about albeit with very little spoilery stuff.
All in all that’s the real problem to me, it’s hard to always find gamer opinion on the net that seems valid or balanced, trust me its hard to try and give it at all but it is more useful in the long run to the gaming community.
Now for Mass Effect 3’s ending: I honestly liked it, it fit the tone of the game and was a choice, albeit a somewhat shallow choice. Or was it? When the game first caught my ear, ME the first, I heard about this cool sci-fi game where you had relationships that were changeable and made lots of choices and decisions, getting the game only on the second installment I loved the title (though it was a huge mistake to try and start out on insanity difficulty that was stupid). When the third game was released I picked it up having played the demo and knew the tone was more epic, tougher. The second title had ended on a fairly strong and epic finish yet a massive pause could be felt knowing pieces of plot were moving but you didn’t know where. In the third release it was obvious this put “against all hope” out the window, things were tougher, the environments were all on the brink of collapse and the institutions holding together seemed in the same precarious situation. But there was a change, the previous game had always had red and blue choices, for some reason the third game switched to a new system-your choices still built your character’s, err, character but you weren’t necessarily penalized for nice or mean choices every time but were expected to be more fluid. The rules of how choices were made seemed to be freed up, something interesting. The story lead to what was about 10 minutes of great combat from which Shep seemed doomed but he continued. The story had developed from a guy controlling the situation with his choices to a guy in the middle of a massive melt-down beyond his control as much a spectator as the rest of the audience. But the Commander was given another choice. Maybe it was a bit of a remark and re-evaluation of the choice/choice-less dichotomy they created or maybe it was something where players were meant to puzzle over which choice really created the best ending. However, player choice is what got me to Mass Effect and it was how I left the game, choosing to appreciate my time in that universe and not to download the new ending. Sorry EA, I know you worked hard, but I accepted my finale. However there was a debate of sorts, a maelstrom, the internet was chock full of people incensed. I would be incensed too if I had to beat that huge game in less than 24 hours to get to that ending but I had taken my time since the word was the ending was nothing to write home about. That was a real change for me, I didn’t feel any push to finish since obviously the ending would just happen when it happened and I really soaked up every bit of atmosphere the game oozed out.
Though I think it is important people got their ideas out about the games ending they didn’t really do it the right way, that’s an understatement. They let their feelings about the ending goad them into hurting other peoples experiences basically spoiling the game for a massive amount of players. That wasn’t called for, though media sites didn’t feel like they had any role in respecting the ending and the experiences they affected spoiling the ending for more people every time they went over the “story” of “fan outrage.” As well all the anti-EA stuff running around, as always, and that basically became a textbook example of what not to do from everyone’s perspective.
When Borderlands 2 came out I started going to the Gearbox forums for the first time since BL1, my account still worked since I had been playing the game since only a year before the release of the sequel. The Borderlands community was unique in many ways, one was that the incredibly random weapon creation system had been worked out by people so they knew by looking at 2 versions of one gun which was better(even if each valued in at $99999999). These people had created an informed community what’s more the games original ending, not the best it could be on any level, actually was improved with DLC, possibly one of the best examples of DLC.
Though as BL2 began to get press it didn’t necessarily look like the crew understood what made the game successful for so long. When they “fixed” the ending it was because of a boring final boss. Borderlands 2 can be seen as that solution down the line, enemies were all immune to some type of element, enemies reacted much differently and the action of the game was generally better. But they screwed up the guns. You couldn’t get those random Great Guns as often. When you did get an orange “Legendary” weapon it often wasn’t that useful or just plane sucked for actual use. As well, because most guns you found weren’t good there was this weird thing where the amount of ammo you would need to use versus the damage enemies did meant you might theoretically not be able to get through areas without getting better gear-which was super unlikely. Some people reported having super difficult playthroughs of later areas or New Game +, but because it’s random others basically acted like pigs since they hadn’t had that problem. It sort of tore that message board apart. People were writing huge posts about how the game didn’t feel as fun since they weren’t running around with one of their favorite weapons from the first game, I’m talking 30+ page long topics. This wasn’t the worst thing for Gearbox who had incentivized DLC with a “season pass” where many people waiting on BL2 purchased the 4 pieces of DLC for a cheaper price. This was kind of insidious to me because you would have already got a piece of that DLC for free just for pre-ordering, so many had actually not saved any money but signed up to play this game for months on end due to knowing they were getting all these DLC. These people started watching news, reading Randy Pitchford’s tweets, they were now invested in this game at a new level. You would read these message board posts like “Randy Pitchford doesn’t get it” with copies of his replies to incensed fans about issues as diverse as the gun stuff to freezing issues and online problems as well as the random corrupted files(which in a game like BL2 where time is measured in rocking guns you’ve found can be a pain). I quit playing the game, quit reading the board as the environment got more toxic, people who got their guns being downright mean to those who hadn’t, other people compulsively trying to get meaningless heads and skins from rare bosses(all of which are now for sale as DLC, those poor pitiful fools did they get screwed thinking that stuff wouldn’t come out for sale). Still I don’t hear about this stuff in any press concerning the BL2 DLC, I didn’t hear about any of it. Pitchford had said once that only 35% of the people who owned BL2 had gotten to level 50, max level(maybe not anymore I couldn’t know). I never understood that totally, if the real Borderlands experience was to play through the game, get your good guns, then jump to a second playthrough and do it all again trying for better guns how did all these people not understand this was the idea? This was how the game was meant to be played right?
The reality is games are created to be sold, not necessarily played, they cost a lot of money to produce, they take a lot of time to make. If it costs too much to make a great all around game just spend more money on advertising and marketing, Pitchford figured that out on Aliens: Colonial Marines. Sorry, I just had to drop that one in, I don’t hate Randy Pitchford, I just feel like he’s out of the loop or something and doesn’t care about little things. But Colonial Marines was a disaster, I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy, they didn’t deserve that. But on the Borderlands 2 message boards everyone was waiting on Colonial Marines, it was going to get that Borderlands 2 gunplay and AI only with xenomorphs, awesome right? I just have this image of all those people who had the BL2 season pass and suffered through that realizing their Colonial Marines season pass was a true waste of money.
But now it’s not a question of finishing the game, it’s about selling season passes, since it’s expensive to make 3-5 DLC and fans get the word out pretty quick about downloadable material keeping other fans from wasting money on a subpar expansion or horse armor.
I think the future of bosses, of games that get people through to the end really is going to come from designers and writers working together to create good worlds, like that of Dishonored, which players really want to experience all that it has to offer. As well, it will be smart mechanics, and all around well made games without stupid problems that ruin the experience 20+ hours in. But DLC is another matter, I am now of the mind that DLC shouldn’t be mentioned while making the original content, seriously. Obviously they’re going to keep putting content on disc because it allows for more options on a DEV side, hooks and such, but I see too often games coming out with obligatory DLC, as well as season passes, but the entire thing is so expected now as a revenue source for companies they are obviously going to push resources towards that, since it’s such quick money. I have enjoyed lots of DLC, I kind of love when it’s done well, but that’s an entirely different subject for an entirely different day I feel like looking at something big. But if games are going to move more into interesting and unique experiences, the type with emotional resonance, tears and laughter, it’s going to come because of a generation of developers designing games well, not because a game is a great platform for a horde mode or zombie mode or great to sell multiplayer maps or weapon packs. They’re all fine, those things all matter, gaming is a huge space and the most important thing is always gameplay, but if people want games made that are worthy of playing through people are going to have to go out of their way not to just accept that a good game has come out but to praise it and make sure gaming news/review outlets know that said game is good and that real gamers are posting comments enjoying the game and playing the game through to the end, not just buying it.
That’s the true rub, games are expensive to make, they take a long time to create, and its hard to get across whether the ending sucks without spoilers.