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Why Do You Play Video Games? A PBS Game Show Response

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Why do you play video games?

That question seems a bit absurd, I know, but I ask because every once in a while, I find myself in the thick of a quantity vs. quality debate. It’s an important conversation to have, for sure, as countless games have been padded to manipulate our perception of value. However, these discussions often take such a disheartening turn, that I can’t help but feel like I’ve wandered into an alternate dimension, one that could only befit an episode of The Twilight Zone. Expectations of gaming are going to vary from person to person, sure, but there are certain arguments I’ll just never be able to wrap my head around. Jamin Warren, host of the PBS Game Show, is my latest source of bewilderment, because he’s making the case that video games are too long.

I was intrigued to see if Mr. Warren could produce a reasonable argument in his video segment, but it took less than a minute before my eyes had rolled to the back of my skull.

To showcase the extreme amount of time we, as gamers, have to invest if we’re to play through today’s hottest games, he begins by pointing a finger at Forza Horizon 2, which takes about 10 to 15 hours to complete. Personally, I wouldn’t classify that as a long game, but to each their own.

Next, he brings up the considerably longer Grand Theft Auto V remaster, which boasts at least 30-35 hours of gameplay. Acknowledging he’s already played through the last-gen iteration, he’s still willing to tackle the lengthy heist drama once more.

Now, this is where my head begins to spin. Not because he’s willing to invest up to 70 hours on a single title, but because he’s already invalidated his opening argument. A 15 hour game is, apparently, too much to handle… yet he’s justifying a 35 hour game – twice, no less – merely because he likes it.

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Of course, in the same breath, he has to go that extra sensationalist mile with Dragon Age: Inquisition, as he says the prospect of its 40 to 80 hour campaign made him ‘weep inside’.

So, one 70 hour investment is fine, yet the other is not?

But then things get interesting:

“Games are, far and away, on average, longer than any other medium on the planet. For example, during the 276 hours that this Tumblr user spent playing Call of Duty, I could watch every movie on the AFI 100, finish the works of Tolstoy, and listen to most of the major works of 20th century pop music.”

He goes on to explain that while video games are a wonderful way to spend our time, it’s hard for a responsible adult to squeeze in such drastic minimum completion times, as we still have to juggle family, friends, work, etc. As a result, at least according to him, this is why only 10 to 20 percent of people ever complete their games. I’d like to respect the correlation he’s making, because there’s undoubtedly a link between completion rate and the amount of time people have in their day-to-day lives, but I have to wonder how sincere his ‘games are fine’ asterisk is when he follows up his train of thought with:

“So I can’t help but notice when I feel like games are wasting my time.”

He immediately goes into some explanation about how other forms of entertainment don’t require your undivided attention. You can simultaneously listen to music and read a book, for example.

Subjective.

I’ll agree that music can be more liberating than other media, but it depends on the person. There are plenty of people who don’t just use music as background noise, but as something to become immersed by. As far as books go, some can deal with distractions, while others can’t. Also, the pace at which each individual reads should be taken into consideration. According to my Kindle, I still have 13 hours left on a Stephen King novel I’m reading, but I’m sure there’s people who could probably knock it out in half the time. Film and television are also ingested in a variety of ways. Point is, no one person is alike, so blanket statements need to be left out of the equation, here.

He then states that the medium is experiencing a ‘crisis of audience’. Games now appeal to most age groups, and naturally, they all carry a different set of expectations based on their lifestyle. They all want different things.

That’s a crisis? We’ve reached a point in time where games aren’t seen by most as children’s toys… and that’s a crisis?

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

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There has ALWAYS been a great deal of diversity amongst video games. You could seek what lurks in the dungeons of The Legend of Zelda, or collect fruit in the preciously adorable Bubble Bobble. Enter a castle dripping with atmosphere in Castlevania, or hop on a pogo stick as ‘Unca Scrooge’ in Ducktales. Get your face hacked off by Jason in Friday the 13th, or roam around in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Regardless of what someone sees through their rose colored glasses, there was a variety of gameplay at the ready, and not a single game was beloved by everyone. But, because video games have only become more diversified over time, there is something for everyone.

But, you know, that’s apparently a BAD thing.

Mr. Willen even goes as far to suggest that games come equipped with a story slider – very much like the ones we use for graphics and difficulty – to reduce or extend a game’s narrative. This would allow for any given game to adapt to what WE require, and not the other way around. For example, those who are turned off by the beefy Dragon Age campaign would now have reason to play it.

Now THAT’S a slippery slope if I ever heard one.

Let’s say they did this. Let’s say Dragon Age: Inquisition offered a ‘story slider’. If you abridged the story, you’d have to alter the game mechanics too, wouldn’t you? I mean, how could that even be done? The entire game would have to be re-invented multiple times to suit multiple types of gamers. Keep in mind the devs spent at LEAST three years to bring this game, as is, to retail. To ask that they retool EVERYTHING to appeal to whatever YOUR schedule dictates, would seemingly add a lot of unnecessary time – not to mention cost – to the development cycle. That means MONEY, Mr. Willen. Where would the cost of extra time and resources get passed down to? You guessed it. The consumer. Do we really need to give publishers another reason to inflate the overall cost of games?

Now, as far as game length is concerned… well, that’s nothing new, either. Many classic platformers can be beaten within a couple of hours, and there wasn’t much accommodation. Many of these games had no saves, no passwords, nothing. Just you, the controller, and whatever the game had in store. But we also had Final Fantasy VI (Final Fantasy III on the SNES), in which the primary quest could take 35 hours. Including side quests, you could easily have a 40 to 50 hour game on your hands.

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And besides, even the SHORT games could chew up lots of time. I mean, you can technically beat Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts in less than 2 hours, but personally, I’ve NEVER been able to beat that game legit. I still play it to this day though, and I’ve probably invested well over 100 hours of my life to it.

So, who cares if Dragon Age takes 40 or even 80 hours?

I understand that life doesn’t leave much time for gaming. Most nights I only play for an hour or two, and sometimes not at all. Does that mean developers should compromise their vision to appease me? Absolutely not. It’s no secret that Dragon Age, or many of the other lengthy games out there, require a substantial investment. If you don’t want to invest the time, then don’t. Don’t buy a game if you think it’s too demanding for your lifestyle. That’s the beauty of having so many diverse experiences available in the marketplace. If one game doesn’t meet your needs, there’s plenty that will.

As a side note, despite my lack of time, I still play really long games. If I want to play it, I see no reason to skip it. Sure, it’ll take an extremely long time to beat them, but I’m fine with that. I mean, what’s the rush anyway? To get it out of the way so I can move on to the next? Personally, if a game is fun enough, I’ll see it through to the end. Know when I will step away? When it stops being fun. Otherwise, I’ll be content knowing my $60 investment could last for MONTHS.

Anyway, Mr. Willen argues that even if you DO have a lot of time on your hands, it’s still a precious commodity that shouldn’t be wasted on side quests.

Again, subjective.

Who’s to say what should constitute a waste of time for ANY of us? Some people really like the side stuff, and for a variety of reasons, at that.

One person cannot judge how valuable a game’s content is, or isn’t, for anyone else. Same goes for our tastes in books, music, and film. Some think The Lord of the Rings – as written by JRR Tolkien – is a literary masterpiece. Others believe it’s needlessly padded with an overwhelming amount of detail. Some people prefer listening to single songs, while others prefer the experience of a complete album. You can’t please everyone, right? Right. So, let the artists bring their vision to the table, and let the consumer decide what’s right for them. There doesn’t need to be a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Choice is the spice of life, after all. But, hey, if that’s what you want, guess what? There’s plenty of games that already do that, and more are on the way.

Which reminds me that Mr. Willen conveniently ignores something else, though. If quick satisfaction is what you need, there’s already an entire market dedicated to you: Mobile gaming. If you own a tablet, phablet or cell phone, the options at your disposal are almost limitless. There are games that cater to those with only mere minutes to play. If you like the episodic style of Telltale Games, their titles are compatible with virtually every modern device. If you want truncated versions of major AAA console titles, mobile has that, too. Dead Space, Mass Effect, Battlefield, Hitman, Madden, Call of Duty, and Batman have all made the jump to smaller screens.

So, let’s address the elephant in the room: Is Mr. Willen even all that interested in gaming anymore?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying he needs his ‘gamer card’ revoked, or anything like that. But, what’s the most important part of any game? The gameplay… which is ironic, because this PBS Game Show host no longer seems to care about that aspect of the experience. No, he just wants to get in, get out, and walk away with a satisfying narrative… which is fine.

What’s NOT fine, however, is that he’s asking for a complete overhaul of the industry mold, and he’s doing so without considering the repercussions. I mean, let’s say developers around the world began catering to the ‘short and sweet’ crowd en masse. Polygon’s Ben Kuchera – who tends to agree with most of Mr. Willen’s argument – implies this could lead to consumer savings:

“A shorter game can be made for less money which leads to lower prices which means more people buy it… and so on.”

But does that even remotely echo reality? Mr. Willen’s specifically addressing AAA console games, but would publishers like Ubisoft, Activision and Electronic Arts REALLY reduce the price of their games if they cost less to produce? Of course not. One needs to look no further than Call of Duty, an annual franchise featuring 5 hour campaigns and a minimal multiplayer experience out of the box… unless you buy a season pass, of course. And yet, this game has the same MSRP as the time-consuming behemoth that is Dragon Age. If anything, I think these companies will stick with the $60 price tag regardless, and bank their savings from development to improve profit margins.

And since we’re talking about money, EA’s fiscal 2015 third quarter earnings call held some intriguing info about Dragon Age: Inquisition… You know, the game allegedly too daunting for the masses:

“Dragon Age: Inquisition captivated fans and critics worldwide as it launched in November, and it quickly became the most successful launch in BioWare history. More than 113 million hours have already been spent exploring the depth and detail of the single-player experience in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and more players are joining each day. Named “Game of the Year” by 32 media outlets around the world, including IGN, Game Informer and the Associated Press, Dragon Age: Inquisition is a true masterpiece from the team at BioWare and a game that is sure to be played for a long time to come.”

“In particular, Dragon Age: Inquisition had by far the most successful launch in BioWare’s history, exceeding our expectations. In addition, game sales for last-generation consoles were also much stronger than we had anticipated.”

“Outperformance versus our outlook was driven by the record-breaking Dragon Age: Inquisition performance.”

Not that there’s a strong correlation between game sales and game quality, as hype can go a long, long way… but Dragon Age is a well-established franchise. The devs themselves even more so, thanks to their success with the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur’s Gate, and Mass Effect series. People knew what they were getting into.

More than anything, I think this shows that Mr. Willen doesn’t truly understand what gamers want… just what HE wants.

So, in retrospect, maybe the question isn’t why do YOU play video games – since we see the kind of a response that elicits – but why do WE play video games? As I’ve gone through painstaking detail to point out, there isn’t a simple answer for that. Never has been, never will be. We ALL have our preferences, and as we grow and mature, those preferences are likely to change. As a result, self-inventory should take a large role in our internal conversation, especially if you’re echoing the sentiment that games are too long, wasting your time, and find yourself rushing through them ‘just because’. Games should not be, as Mr. Willen puts it, a chore. Yes, some games are needlessly padded, but this happens across all mediums.

At the end of the day, it’s up to the INDIVIDUAL to decide what’s best for THEM.

It’s a ‘Control’ Issue

Debating consoles over the years has been equal parts intriguing and frustrating.  I mean, there are so many aspects of gaming to dissect and so many different opinions to take into consideration, that you’re guaranteed to never have the same discussion twice.  There’s the hardware comparisons, the evolution of gameplay from platforming to the third dimension, which games are the best of all time, the importance of story versus gameplay, if video games can actually be considered art… and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  That being said, there’s one aspect of these conversations that have been very cyclical for me, and I’d like to address it – Controllers.

Controllers have changed a lot since the beginning, haven’t they?  I mean, the Atari only had a joystick and a single button, yet we managed to make it out alive.  NES introduced a groundbreaking control scheme with its directional pad, as well as ‘B’ and ‘A’ buttons which were entirely separate from ‘select’ and ‘start’.  All of a sudden, it was possible to do pretty much anything.  The SNES controller further refined our gameplay experience by adding more buttons for our right thumb to access, and placed some bumper buttons up top for our index fingers… after all, our fingers weren’t doing anything up there before, so let’s put them summabitches to work, amiright?  AMIRIGHT?!  Today, we have more buttons, triggers and bumpers, and more.  Still, there’s one thing that can’t be denied – The influence of the SNES controller is evident in almost every design we’ve seen since.  There are some exceptions of course, but gaming might not have been the same without the SNES pad around for inspiration.

But much like every other aspect of gaming, I’ve come across a varying degree of opinions in regards to which control scheme is best.  Everyone has different preferences, but those who seem to prefer the ‘unique’ controls of the Wii-mote or the Gamecube controller always have the same thing to say… and this is the only aspect of ‘game talk’ that I seem to relive over and over again – “Well at least they’re trying to do something different, instead of copying the SNES/PS1 controller”, and they say that like it’s a bad thing.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but since when was the SNES or PS1 controller considered an abomination to mankind?  Who EVER had a negative thing to say about their experience with such hardware?  Nobody… and you know why?  Because they just worked, that’s why.  They were mostly comfortable AND intuitive, and allowed us to make the most out of the games that were coming out at the time, if not ever since.

I get the angle that some gamers just want new and inventive ways to play their games, instead of feeling like they’re doing the same thing over and over again, but I feel like those people are just trying a little too hard to distance themselves from a trend.  You know the old saying – If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  Well, Sony and Microsoft both apparently understand this in regards to their controllers.  The PS controller added more buttons up top and eventually a couple of joysticks.  They’ve had little need to change it since.  Microsoft originally released a massive controller for the original Xbox, but eventually scaled it back and then perfected their design with the Xbox 360.  In fact, I’d probably rate the Xbox 360 controller the best of all time, even though it’s D-pad sucks and isn’t really built for those quick, button-mashing fighter games, like Street Fighter IV and Mortal Kombat.

So, how is it that Sony and Microsoft apparently get what works with their gaming controllers, yet the original trend setting Nintendo, does not?

N64 – Let’s be honest, this wasn’t a great controller.  It worked, yes, and there isn’t a single N64 game that feels comfortable unless you’re specifically using this controller… but come on.  You had three handles on the damn thing, one of which was absolutely useless (hint: it was the left one).  Your left hand always had to use the center grip, because that’s where the essential joystick and Z-trigger had been located.  The A/B buttons in combination with the C buttons were just sort of awkward, and those pesky yellow dots weren’t comfortable to press.

Gamecube – I rank this one as the worst of all time.  I’ve had someone tell me that it felt so comfortable it practically melted in their hands… and you know what?  I’ll agree with them on that – When I was holding this thing, it was heaven.  Those triggers up top were magnificent and really helped to seal the deal.  That being said, using the buttons on this damn thing was an entirely different experience.  You had a usable stick on the left, but on the right was this short, nubby little ‘C Stick’, which was mostly awkward.  Next, the A button was transformed into a ginormous red panic button, and the X and Y buttons were made into almost rectangular shaped buttons that formed around it, so they weren’t comfortable to use either.  Nintendo wanted this controller to look fun, but actually using this piece of hardware was anything but.

Wii – Yayyy!  Motion controls!  Grand in theory, but a failure in practice.  I’ll give you one simple reason why – The nunchuk.  You could use motion controls, but you had to have a small handheld joystick for the other hand… which wasn’t wireless, but leached power from the Wii-mote itself via a cord, hence ‘nunchuk’.  It worked well enough together, but if they were going to go through all that trouble, they should have made the joystick wireless, or even go back to making traditional controllers.  But, oh, the fun doesn’t stop here, does it?  You can use a ‘classic controller’… but not unless it was plugged into the Wii-mote, which you wouldn’t be using anyway since both hands would have been on the classic controller!  GAHHH!

Wii-U – OK, this is actually kind of cool, but still rather silly.  Tablets are all the rage now, so OF COURSE Nintendo had to make their latest and greatest controller a freakin’ tablet.  There are some really cool ideas in its implementation, a major draw for me being the fact that you can have your kid play on the tablet while you can watch your regularly schedule programming.  Still… the thing is a TABLET.  It’s BIG.  It doesn’t really feel all that comfortable to hold, in my opinion.  Again, it just feels like another gimmick, and Nintendo… you need to stop taking advantage of stupid people by selling them a gimmick every time they get a paycheck.

My intention isn’t to pick on Nintendo, exactly, but it just so happens to be their controllers to have pissed me off over the years.  Anyway, my point is this – Just because something hasn’t changed much over the years (such as the controller designs used by Sony and Microsoft), doesn’t mean a decline in quality or performance.  If anything, these companies have found something that has worked VERY well, and instead of trying to change the way we control our games every other minute, they have instead focused their resources on refining what already works.

Controllers shouldn’t be the constant game changer from generation to generation… it should be the gameplay itself (amiright, AMIRIGHT?!).  How do you change the FPS game?  Look at the open world mechanics of Far Cry 3 or the upcoming Killzone Shadow Fall for inspiration there.  How do you change third person sandbox games?  Look at Watchdogs, which allows you to hack into pretty much anything with a small electronic device (in-game, of course).  I think there are plenty of people who think that gaming has gone as far as it can in the gameplay department, but that’s just bullcrap.  A devs imagination is the limit, is it not?  They are literally creating something out of nothing, right?  So why do people say, “This is it!  All we have our Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and Halo games!”  No, you’re just not looking hard enough.  Try something outside of the mainstream, folks, you may just realize that it isn’t the controllers that are providing you with better experiences after all….