Coming into game production, this is a question that keeps circling me.
The popularity of open world games such as Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar Games) or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo) (just to mention the most popular ones in 2021) is undeniable and there are plenty of reasons for their popularity that many people have dissected. Their aesthetics, their characters, the stories – but oftentimes the amount of things available to do is highlighted when I’ve talked to people about these games. It feels as if there’s a seemingly endless amount of paths to take, people to talk to, quests to accept in these expansive games, yet, it’s rare for anyone to fully complete all of the activities available. And really, why would you? Why would you spend those additional 100+ hours in Breath of the Wild to complete all those, eventually, repetitive temples?
I’m sure that we could, and should, look into the research of prolonged interest in one medium at a time. Flow, sunk cost fallacy and emotional attachment are easily flagged as initial reasons as to why someone would bother spending so long in one game world at a time (really, even media such as TV-series can easily use those same reasons). But I think, as a game creator, the topic really comes down to a different equation.
As an indie creator, an up-and-coming, or even a full triple AAA studio it’s a matter of time and money, always. If given enough time and money, I’m sure plenty of people could come with endless little tasks for a character to do in an open world game. Talk to this person, stack those rocks, catch those fish. But if it’s not interesting for the player to do them, why even add those extra bits? Where do people really get their satisfaction from when it comes to content?
I want to compare two story driven single-player games that I have played, and thoroughly enjoyed. Only one of them I fully completed (all of the story, all of the trophies, and even then some).
Hades (Supergiant Games, 2020) is a roguelike game, which is to say, it is absolutely not open-world. You do not get to decide where to wander in the Underworld. But that does not mean that Supergiant Games hasn’t cared about making a lot of content. The randomly generated rooms, the gradual elaboration of character story lines and the additive combat stand out in my experience. It felt like the game was edging me on to complete it: Just one more run. It’s so fun to do anyways. I might do it faster next time! Ah dang, misstepped there. Oh well, I learnt something for my next run. Let’s try again!
It was so easy to create new, but small goals and feel accomplished and satisfied at each attempt. Eventually, I completed all of them. Eventually, some dialogues started repeating and encounters were incredibly familiar. But I continued playing, and would still pick it up again for a run now and again, just for that action-packed gameplay. Short, but sweet.
The other game I’ve clocked plenty of hours into, and had an ambition about completing 100% was Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar Games, 2019). I got to 90% before giving up on getting all of the trophies. I could not get myself to fish all those god forsaken Legendary Fish, since I despised fishing in the game (my thumb is not trained well enough to keep spinning the PS4 controller for several minutes, let alone continuously to get all 13 of the fish). Fishing aside, the game is absolutely a stunner and I have spent more time in it than Hades. And I don’t regret it. Running around in a Wild West simulator definitely has its charms. It’s beautiful, it’s exciting with the random encounters, and there’s a bazillion things “to do”. On paper, that is. Realistically, part of the immersion that felt so wonderful in the middle of my gameplay quickly lost its interest when I had completed the story.
Trying to complete all of the trophies in RDR2 after the story is finished leaves the player performing some questionable actions in the final of their emotional redemption story. Playing more, for me, ended up chipping away at my immersion because I felt less and less like I could defend the player character actions at the end of their arc. I’m a good guy now – why should I steal a wagon? To get some trophy? For money? I already have most outfits. I have no bills to pay. Just to experience combat? If I’m a good enough wagon stealer, I shouldn’t even have to fire a gun once.
In Hades, it’s your job to keep going, and it doesn’t feel questionable to continue to play. The better I get, the more I can raise the heat, the more I can challenge myself and still feel satisfied at my accomplishments – both as character and as the player.
Looking at games and their content after the main quest is completed is a fascinating question. With both Hades and RDR2 it would not be possible to complete all the mini-, side or additional quests before the end of the main narrative. Which means both of them expect that after the ‘main course’ is done, some players who wish to bask in the afterglow of their experience can continue to do so, until their interest eventually fully wanes.
At the end of the day, for me, I could get a full range experience of the gameplay in Hades in around 20 min, going through all the stages and experiencing a combat challenge, combining new god powers and complete mini collecting activities. Those 20 min in RDR2 could be spent just looking for a fish. Albeit in a world where I might get a random combat encounter, which I would attempt to avoid, since I’m a good guy now. The experience isn’t a continuation, it’s something else, and I feel restricted to participating in it due to respect for my original experience.
So. Is there enough content?
When is the content available? Is it before or after the end of the story? How does your player feel about your player character by then, especially in a story driven scenario?
Why is the content available? To further play time or to have a better game?
If you had a good enough experience in the time it took, shouldn’t that be acceptable enough? Must we tire players of the game rather than leaving them satiated? Even if it’s the best meal I’ve ever had, I’ll still feel sick if I eat nothing but that for days on end.
I think, as a designer and a player, I’d much rather have an experience that leaves me begging for more rather than begging it to stop.