Play, Create, Meh

With budgets and team sizes on the rise across all of gaming, it’s no surprise that outsourcing has rapidly grown in popularity. Why not offset costs by shifting some of your workload to a studio dedicated to make that kind of content (and perhaps in a country unburdened by pesking things like labor laws and minimum wages)? Snark aside, I have no fundamental problem with the practice- with costs the way they are, it’s the only way some triple A titles could get made. There are risks involved, to be sure. Deus Ex: Human Revolution owes its subpar boss fights and Aliens: Colonial Marines owes its shoddy… everything to the dangers of outsourcing. It’s not that the studios did a bad job (necessarily), it’s more that they were not properly communicated with, and didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing. The quality of your components doesn’t matter if they are combined badly.

This trend is bigger than you’d think, though- we’re not just talking studios anymore. No, the big thing now is outsourcing to players. When LittleBigPlanet came out, I prayed that it was not the start of a trend- a prayer that went unanswered. As fantastic as its creation tools and presentation were, its core gameplay (the platforming) was trash. Floaty, unresponsive, clumsy, and janky- bad feeling to play and imprecise to control. The industry as a whole gave it a pass because of the power of its tools, and that wasn’t the wrong decision. The innovation in console level creators deserved to be lauded, and raised up on a pedestal.

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LittleBigPlanet was just a high profile example of an already ongoing trend, though. For years before it, developers were having a love affair with the unnecessary open world game- titles made open world as a bullet point rather than in actual service of the gameplay. As much as I loved Jak II, its open world was wholly unnecessary- empty save for a scant few collectables and a handful of boring side quests, it was ultimately little more than distance to travel to your next mission. Assassin’s Creed, on the other hand, had a fascinating world that was fun to explore… but in their focus on creating a compelling, open setting, the developers apparently forgot to make an engaging game. There are even more examples post-LBP: Mafia 2, No More Heroes, (one more example), the list goes on. Games whose attempts at an open world did them no favors.

Even the kings of open world, Rockstar, aren’t completely immune. Grand Theft Auto V had both a fantastic open world and a great story, but at times the two felt at odds with each other- two seperate games put together because Rockstar felt that the game had to be open world. It’s still a great game, but even the best of the best can’t always get this balance right. It’s not enough to create a good world, it needs to make sense in the context of the game.

To be clear, I have nothing against player creation tools or open worlds. Games like Red Dead Redemption, Saint’s Row, Red Faction Guerilla… these are my wheelhouse. I’ve been known to spend many an hour in map makers as well. But the implementation is, frankly, something of a bitch to get right- any time you put the onus on the player to make your game fun, it’s dangerous. There is a reason that Blender modeling software isn’t considered a game, and if you create a program that offers players “tools to make their own fun” without offering any guidance yours is no different.

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If you look at a creation in Minecraft, its visual style is distinct to that game (unless it’s one of the pretenders that have popped up since, borrowing from Mojang’s style liberally). The way the structure was created is distinct, requiring mining of resources followed by careful placement of each block. And the way it works in the world is distinct- wood burns, lava flows and can harden, redstone conduits electricity. On top of all these elements, though, there is a game- monsters and rare resources, perils and treasures. The optional mode with no monsters and unlimited resources bores you within a couple of minutes.

I’m not saying every game needs to be Minecraft, but you have to think of your game as a single, cohesive work. Every part should work together to form the whole, or why are they even there? This is real danger of player outsourcing- by placing responsibility on the player to make it all work, you risk the whole experience feeling disjointed. There’s no need to account for players trying to break the game, as they will always be able to do so- if a person wants to ruin a game for themselves, they can. But there are plenty of people playing these games, and just feeling paralyzed by the responsibility. Where do I go? What do I do? I don’t know what to build. I just came here to have fun, but this game is offering me no guidance and it’s stressing me out!

I once heard a man say, “Don’t you know better than anyone what is fun for you?” I’d like to turn that on its head: do you really think you know better how to make a fun thing than several dozen guys who have degrees in making fun things, and years of experience making fun things for a living? Freedom is grand, but a good authored experience is the one that truly sticks with you. An authored experience is where the true genius lies.

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The good news is that there’s no reason an open world or player creation can’t remain an authored experience. Scarface feels like a rather standard, if well executed open world crime game… but the world conforms to its main character. Tony Montana didn’t shoot people the face for no reason (though he sometimes shot people for not very good reasons), so you can’t randomly gun down pedestrians. The game neglects lazy open world filler like races and scavenger hunts because it doesn’t make sense for the character. The Fallout games go the other route, as do many western RPGs, keeping information about your character minimal in order to let you do whatever in the world, and have it fit in context. Cohesion is the name of the game.

I want to be clear that I’m not criticizing players here. When a player grabs a game, they have no responsibility to play it the “right” way. You paid your sixty bucks- do whatever you find fun! No one sensible could object to that. But there are right and wrong ways to direct players, to guide them, and it’s the job of a developer to ensure that the product plays in a way that makes sense, and doesn’t contradict its own themes. If people have fun screwing around and breaking the game, that’s great, but those players who just follow the guidance and do what the game is directing them towards should feel the consistent tone and message the game is trying to present.

Open worlds can have amazing results, and creation tools can inspire players to make some truly astonishing things. As a developer, when you succeed on that front, it’s absolutely something to be proud of. But we must be ever vigilant against lazy, me-too game design that copies whatever bullet points are in vogue. No one ever made a great work of art by slavishly following focus groups and fads. Pursue what makes your game original, and unique, and don’t be afraid to limit player freedom or creativity to get your point across. Doubt is greatest foe of a mighty vision.