Over the past few decades, games have grown from a small niche into a booming economy, with the opportunity for many people to apply their lives to developing and creating new experiences for people all across the world to partake in and enjoy. From the relatively simple origins of Pong, to the colossal masterworks of gaming like Witcher 3, games will likely only become an even bigger part of the world we live in.
But with games becoming bigger and bigger each year, we have to stop and ask ourselves:
Are they becoming too big?
Some of the first games created were built by only one or two people. Pong was created by two people. One person built Tetris. However, the work to create games quickly became significantly larger than the work of only one or two people. Pac-Man was created by a team of nine people. Super Mario Bros, led by Shigeru Miyamoto, was created by a team of 8 (including Miyamoto) programmers and artists. Games have only continued to become larger and larger works as the tools used to develop them have become more refined.
For example, games were originally only 2D. However, when the Nintendo 64 console released, and then not long after with the Playstation 2, three-dimensional games became a much larger part of the video game landscape. Adding that extra dimension exponentially increased the complexity in creating games, from managing the programmatic aspects to the amount of time and effort it took to build 3D models for each and every character, and even after that, to fully animate and make those characters believable in a video game.
In some ways, three-dimensional assets for games could arguably be said to be easier to create than straight two-dimensional assets, especially as the desire for 3D art increased from the increasing prevalence of animated movies, and the continual growth of games. New 3D modeling tools allowed animators to speed up their workflow quite a bit. However, the complexity demanded for a quality game grew at the same speed, if not even faster, than the tools which allowed developers to build those games. Almost every five years, games would make a huge leap forward in terms of graphics, and the amount of effort needed to support those leaps only grew as games became more popular, and the possibility of profit from a popular game reflected that growth.
The jump between Final Fantasy IX and Final Fantasy X shows this difference quite a bit. Whereas Final Fantasy IX had animated sprites overlayed on a background, Final Fantasy X built the actual environments characters were placed in. Characters had to be fully modeled and animated, and capable of interacting with the environment around them. As the franchise continued, the idea of sprites on a painted background was completely abandoned for the pursuit of three-dimensional environments. Final Fantasy 12, 13, and 15 were all games set in a fully-realized 3D world. Final Fantasy 11 and 14, were, too, but they are MMOs ([Massively Multiplayer Online games in text on screen]), not a true part of the mainline Final Fantasy series.
In effect, over time, games have become more and more of a realization of a different world which players actually influence rather than a two-dimensional, interactable cartoon. This shift has led to an increase in the amount of money and time needed to develop games. And it might even be ruining them.
One of the easiest ways to gauge quality is by comparison. Is this bigger than that one? At a glance, it's probably better. Bigger numbers. Bigger maps. Bigger budgets. Bigger is king. Right?
At some point, it's too much for us to handle. A person only has so much time, attention, interest, and opportunity to put into games. When games continue to hunger after the desire to be Bigger, eventually there comes a point of diminishing returns.
One of the biggest examples of this can be found in the Most recent entries in the Assassin’s Creed Series. I have been a fan of the Assassin’s Creed Games since Assassin’s Creed III. I immediately loved the franchise. The idea of being an assassin in an ancient order, and sneaking your way around to take out your target fascinated me. Besides, that hood looks sick. I continued to play every game after until syndicate (and by then I think I was burned out). When Assassin’s Creed Origins came out, claiming to take the series in a new direction, I was excited to try out the franchise again.
So I played the game and - wow, was it BIG. The world was huge and there were tons of things to do, there were loads of side quests, gear and weapons to find, upgrades to craft and secret tombs to discover. I did manage to finish the game,(the main story at least) although it took me circling back a year later to finish it up, and I didn't complete all of the side content. However, origins was merely a preview of what was to come. The next game in the franchise, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, was enormous. The Map was over 2x bigger than Origins as well as doubling the amount of content. While it was fun to explore the different islands and see the different characters and stories that unfold, there was soo much that it almost felt overwhelming. There were also a number of new systems, such as a mercenary system, an arena to progress through, ship upgrades, skill trees, armor upgrades, crafting, cultist tree with a whole clue system built in, legendary animals, bounty system, wars, etc. At first glance this sounds great, more content is always good, right? However the sheer amount tends to cause the player to get burned out before finishing. Rather than a game that explores its mechanics and ideas to completion, constantly building on them so they become better versions of themselves, you end up with a game that instead just keeps adding more and more shallow systems that seem to not be fully developed. This results in overwhelming the player with new systems, never allowing a player to master a system before moving on to the next.
Probably one of the best examples of the antithesis to this would be the game Portal. Portal is a puzzle game that is built entirely around one system, the portal gun. You use the portal gun to solve a number of puzzles as you progress from room to room, each room exploring a new aspect of the portal mechanic, or adding together previous aspects. This allows the player to gain a mastery of the mechanic and allows the game to not get old or stale, because you are building on the main games ideas piece by piece, creating a clear, deep and connected experience, as the main mechanic has been extensively developed and explored.
In contrast Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and the following game Valhalla, just keep introducing the player to new systems, never stopping to explore them to any extent past the most basic form. Which results in a cluttered experience in which the player ends up doing the same shallow game loop over and over and over again. While this can be fun for a time, eventually it will get old. I have started both Odyssey and Valhalla and have come nowhere close to completing them. Not only due to the repetitive gameplay, but due to the fact that when choosing a game to play, it slides down the list because of the long checklist that I know I will inevitably be pulled into.
I know a big argument for this is “then just don’t play the repetitive content.” The issue with this is that the repetitive content is needed to progress through the main story. Worse, some of the most repetitive parts of the game are the primary gameplay loops, which have little refinement or variety provided over the course of the game. Odyssey and Valhalla have been developed to stretch the story out as much as possible, leading to odd pacing, and also leaving players that can only play for a few hours at a time feeling like they really have not gotten anything accomplished. And with the sheer amount of games that are following this approach now, there is even less time to put toward each game if you want to play multiple, making this issue even worse.
The games are designed like this specifically to promote the use of microtransaction boosts that you can buy to help you progress faster and save time. This almost becomes a necessity for people that have limited time and want to enjoy the entire game, thus requiring them to shell out more money to spend on a game they already spent $60-$70 on.
Before, it only wasted your time. Now, it threatens to attack your wallet. In these games, leveling up is by far the best way to overcome a challenge. However, when experience is scaled explicitly to push the player toward spending their money to gain that experience, the game begins to feel less like a game that provides the player an opportunity to enjoy themselves, and more a game where the game is actually a cleverly disguised tool to fool the player into feeding the wallet of whatever company made the game they are playing. Just like a casino is a shiny bauble meant to make you want to experience the thrill of winning, an interesting game built with microtransactions as a fundamental part of the experience may have only one primary goal: ensuring the house always wins. Instead of a TripleA game becoming a good investment for someone with little time, something they can work through fully over a long period of time and still enjoy throughout that period, it instead becomes a tool to ransom your money for time and enjoyment.
This size increase leading to bloated games isn’t anything new, though, and the early start of it can be seen all the way back in the beginning of the series. I, too, was a big fan of the Assassin's Creed series. I played through the Assassin's Creed 2 Trilogy (AC2, AC brotherhood, and AC revelations) and loved almost every moment of it... until I hit a brick wall in Assassin's Creed Revelations. The gameplay had some points of difference from previous iterations, but the highlights there were mostly minigames. The primary gameplay loop itself was more or less the same, and it really felt like all three games set in the Ezio era were really just one gigantic game released over the course of several years. At the time, I thought, well, I'm just burnt out on Assassin's Creed. It's time to move on.
Unfortunately for me, the same dissatisfaction I had with Assassin's Creed began to creep into a lot of other games I played. When Far Cry 3 came out, I enjoyed it a lot.. for a bit. Then, possibly halfway through the game, my attention died. I began to be bored with the constant need to go hunting animals for upgrades. The traveling and exploration was uninteresting, and every section of the game felt like I was doing the same thing over again. The game was too large for the gameplay it offered. It felt like I was chiseling a giant stone, but there was no beautiful work of art at the end - just another tower to climb.
The repetitive gameplay became grating, but the gameplay itself wasn't really at fault. The real issue was that the game was extended so much more than the gameplay could make up for. In some respects, you could say it was absolutely the gameplay at fault. However, let's assume the gameplay is fine. From that perspective, there is only a finite amount of variation and depth that can be mined from a certain type of gameplay. Then, if there's only a certain amount of interest that can be gained from gameplay, then there becomes a point at which gameplay is no longer a worthwhile addition to other content, such as a larger map. Effectively, the same gameplay becomes boring because it is used too much.
This is the primary issue with Far Cry 3. Eventually, the gameplay is sucked dry because it is given *too many opportunities* to express itself. The gameplay of Far Cry 3, with its pseudo-survivalist-hunter-shooting mechanics simply do not have the breadth, or depth, of interest to fit the entire map provided for the player to mess around in. Eventually, hunting for crafting materials becomes a grind. Climbing towers just to be able to see points of interest on the map becomes a tedious task rather than an interesting climb with an opportunity to enjoy the gorgeous view. Capturing yet another area is less of an exciting encounter than another checklist item, and this is compounded by the fact that the following releases stick to the same formula, but continue to grow in size.
This issue is not solely limited to Ubisoft games, nor to games like Far Cry or Watch dogs, which are primarily shooter games with some exploration and progression mechanics tacked onto a story. Another game I ran into this issue with was Witcher 3. I never finished Witcher 3. I hope to, someday. I played it for maybe 80 hours, which I'm sure sounds like a pittance compared to all the true fans of the Witcher. I loved the world. The stories it told were amazing, and at the time it raised my bar for excellence in games. Probably nothing will ever match my love for the Witcher 3 in quite the same way.
And yet I couldn't finish it.
The Witcher 3, at the time it came out, was one of the 'largest' games that had ever been created. Even just one of the areas given to the player to explore, at the quality of detail it had, would be enough for some other games in its entirety. However Witcher had those and more, with each area absolutely filled with locations of interest, quests, monsters, and areas to explore. It was amazing.
Bit by bit, though, I realized a lot of those points of interest didn't matter. I wanted to experience the entirety of the world, so I kept exploring, but most of my explorations were unrewarded. The combat felt simultaneously like I was either constantly overpowered, or perennially underpowered. There was no feeling of reward for overcoming a strong enemy - just a promise that coming back later would be a better idea. Every time I ran into a bandit camp in the forest, my interest in the game world of Witcher 3 died a little. Every time I found a small stash of supplies, I realized the game only had so much to offer.
The game was beautiful, it was large, and there were so many things to do. However, it spread itself thin trying to ensure that there was always something else to do, until the player had literally sucked the life from the game. Ridiculous though it may seem, the game actually had *too much* and eventually the novelty of exploration, combat, and the beautiful sights waned. It became a chore. Like so many other games that have been made larger than the game itself can actually support.
This phenomenon of a game becoming a chore has worsened over the years, partially, or perhaps entirely, as a result of the increasing demand for high-quality, lengthy, worthwhile games.
Gamers demand lots of value from their games, so the gaming market tries to respond by providing lots of things to do. This simple supply and demand relationship actually hurts the development of games, though, because games now focus on simply providing more, like a bucket of candy for someone who hasn't eaten for days. There is little quality in much of the stuff added to a game to ensure it meets the expectations of length that the consumer demands. Perhaps it's actually not even an issue - consider, for a moment, someone who buys a new Far Cry game and plays it only for an hour or two, at most, per week. To this person, perhaps the long breaks in between each session ensures the game stays fresh for an incredibly long time to come. But for the one who has the time and opportunity to enjoy a game as much as they want - an admittedly dwindling percentage of the population - games such as these, which have excessive amounts of content and nothing cohesive enough to make the player stick to it through any dulling moments, or the repetitive grind of working through all of it, simply become mundane.
The increased demand for games that simply have excessive amounts of activities best described with the boringly mundane word of 'stuff' is also a part of the increased need for increasingly larger teams, larger budgets, and larger development times. Instead of purposefully removing parts of a game to ensure it encompasses a vision better, unfinished aspects are awkwardly jammed in, or left to play little importance. The many little item caches found in the Witcher were interesting for the first one or two or ten finds, but after a while they became grating, an obvious example of something added solely to guarantee nobody could complain that there was nothing there.
The overwhelming success of mobile gaming and microtransactions as a trend in gaming only shows that this is exactly what ensures the growth necessary to meet the demands of the majority of gamers. The Gacha genre, mostly prevalent in mobile gaming, where players can generally unlock new, and often possibly the objectively most powerful characters, through bought microtransactions (which are of course only slot-machine-like opportunities to get those characters) shows how insane these trends can become. Let us also take a moment to emphasize the irony that the Gacha genre sounds like some company saying Got'cha, then taking your wallet.
All of this leads up to a single question: Have games become too big? Are the games themselves too big, and they need to take a step back and cut the chaff, leaving a more cohesive, tighter game? Has the entire industry become too big, and now it's beginning to build itself into a titan of gaming you, rather than letting you game?
Thankfully, gigantic games with scope and vision only possible for gigantic corporations like EA, CD Projekt Red, Ubisoft, or the other mainstays of gaming, are not the only section of the market actually making games. The indie scene is thriving, and continually seems to be one area of the gaming market where innovation is still alive in a clearly meaningful way.
Many smaller, niche genres have been created through the indie scene that are still rarely represented by the larger companies making TripleA games. For example, the roguelike genre has slowly crept its way into the TripleA scene with Returnal, but in general can only be found in the indie scene. Games such as Hades, Dead Cells, Faster Than Light, Enter the Gungeon, Slay the Spire, The Binding of Isaac, and many, many more, all offer the particular gameplay styles found in roguelikes, and each offers an interesting and high-quality experience.
Ironically, some of these games feel as though they provide more value despite, on paper, requiring far less time to play than TripleA competitors simply because the game does not overstay its welcome and instead offers a quality experience for the majority of their runtime. Often, games that have large amounts of content baked in, for example via randomly generated content, don’t try to hook the player into finishing a long-term storyline, but instead leave the player free to return whenever they want to play more. This lets the player enjoy the game at their own pace.
In general, a popular indie game will have a refined, high-quality gameplay loop, rather than an emphasis on graphical fidelity and massive amounts of content. This is because indie developers, rather than huge mega studios, live and die by the efficiency of their development. Money is not guaranteed for a small studio, so success can only be achieved through a moderated development scope.
As a result, instead of betting on massive amounts of content, indie studios must instead guarantee that players will enjoy the game for as long as possible. This leads to a refinement on gameplay instead of presentation, and an emphasis on engagement and interest over something like a perceived volume of value that is seemingly overemphasized in TripleA games now.
Amusingly, it is this emphasis on gameplay that means that indie developers can instead focus on building tools to extend the amount of possible content without limit: this is why many indie games are now built with procedural or random content generation in mind. It provides a constant source of varied levels and challenges for the player to overcome using the game mechanics presented to them. This is the fundamental reasoning for most roguelikes, where gameplay is king, randomly generated content is expected, and those who love the genre tend to play for hours upon hours. Some games like this are Spelunky 2, Slay the Spire, The Binding of Isaac, or FTL Faster than Light. Each of these take a relatively simple gameplay loop and provide many different variables on each run, including different available items, ships, or cards, to allow the player to advance in a different way on each run.
Instead of building every part of the game into a setpiece, with weeks or months of development dedicated to a single scene, indie games tend to have a more directed focus on how a player plays the game, rather than how the player views the game. This is the difference between a game that can suck a player in far longer than the expected lifespan of a game, or a game that can’t even keep a player around to finish the main story.
An extreme emphasis on gameplay over everything else is also evident in the world of multiplayer games, especially those that have interesting and deep enough gameplay to allow competitive scenes to build. Games like Counter Strike Global Offensive, Rainbow Six Siege, Overwatch 2, Starcraft, League of Legends, and many other competitive multiplayer games focus almost exclusively on gameplay over story and visuals. While I am not advocating that we need more competitive games, it is clear that gameplay can be enough to attract a large audience.
Other games, for example like Factorio or Satisfactory, are quite light on story, but make up for that with the possibility for hundreds if not thousands of hours of gameplay in building a factory, automating production, managing production amounts and speed, expansion, and problem-solving. These games focus, not on presentation, like so many games by large studios, but with interaction.
But what causes this emphasis on presentation over interaction? Surely a giant game company creating a product with a budget of millions of dollars can figure this out better than some YouTube critic.
The answer is probably money. There’s more money in providing a beautiful vision for a game, something that lures players in, gets their foot in the door, and by which point a company has already gotten their value out of the market from their game.
I mean take me for example. The beauty and promises that Ubisoft gave with their Assassin’s Creed games got me to buy all three of the new ones, and Ubisoft doesn’t care if I complete the game or continue to enjoy the game because they already have gotten my hard earned cash.
There is little added value in ensuring a player continues to engage with a game past the point of sale, though microtransactions are a clear case of trying to monetize the actual gameplay in addition to the bulk cost of entry when buying a full game.
Gameplay itself doesn’t sell a game to everyone out there - eye-catching visuals, interesting characters, amazing storytelling - each of these will attract a larger market than the perception of fantastic combat or tough-as-nails-but-rewarding platforming. An emphasis on visuals and presentation also helps to bring in audiences that would otherwise never have any interest in a game. Someone who doesn’t play many games, but loves movies like Indiana Jones, may take an interest in the Uncharted series simply because those games are so similar in feel to the Indiana Jones series.
As the gaming industry has grown, the economics of putting time and effort into creating something has become increasingly important. The industry has to make money, otherwise games will wither and die. And games have grown a lot, and it’s become obvious that games will only continue growing. But perhaps games have grown too large, expectations too big, and eventually games will falter under their own weight.
What do you think? Have games become too big?