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24 December 2015

The unwanted rise of lightweight videogames

This year has produced many games that ended up feeling lightweight, unfinished or superficial.

By Phil Hartup

It took me two hours to get bored of Rainbow Six: Siege. Not regular bored, not the sort of bored that can be cured with a short break, this was the overwhelming sense of dismissive disappointment that comes with the realisation that I had seen everything that the game had to offer within that first session of play and all there was left lay in upgrades and unlocks, hidden behind increasingly long and arbitrary time sinks.

The Rainbow Six series is a fondly remembered one, particularly for its first iterations, but its latest offering, stripped of the naturalistic mechanics and strategy of the original, felt about as substantial as a soap bubble.

Lack of depth is becoming an increasingly common criticism for games these days and Rainbow Six: Siege is by no means the only offender. Star Wars: Battlefront has also seen fans lamenting the lack of content above and beyond the most perfunctory game modes and earlier in the year we saw games like Evolve and Battlefield: Hardline, both heavily marketed but soon forgotten.

2015 has been a year defined by some truly fantastic games, but on the peripheries of greatness have been many games that just ended up feeling lightweight, unfinished or superficial.

The problem might be rooted, as so many problems are, in logistics. After all nobody sets out to make the barebones version of their intended project. Games take time and money to make, and as expectations have grown with the current generation of hardware it stands to reason that they will only need more money and more time as things progress. The Witcher 3, for example, took two hundred people working for three years with a budget in the ballpark of $80m yet by AAA development standards that’s not an especially big deal.

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The fiscal side of things was always going to be tricky as developers abandoned the last generation of consoles and the millions of potential sales there. As titles go it alone on the current generation the costs will have to be picked up elsewhere.

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This extra money seems to coming thanks to inventive new ways publishers have found to squeeze more out of players. If you want to buy a new game from a big publisher in its entirety, then you can expect to pay a great deal more than you would have had to just a few years ago. Between DLC, pre-order bonuses and a sneaky leg-up in the multiplayer there are plenty of ways for developers to make money with comparatively minimal effort. However this does not solve the problem of time.

Rushing a game onto the shelves can only be a bad thing and we can see the effects of this manifest itself in all sorts of problems. Sometimes a hurried development leads to a game that doesn’t work as intended, such as Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate which retained plenty of the bugs from the game before it, or Arkham Knight which was plagued with technical issues in its PC version for months. This is a problem that PC owners have started to almost take for granted over the years but has come as an unpleasant shock to console users.

Other times we see games having to cut back on features, such as Rainbow Six: Siege having no single player story and only a feeble cooperative mode. Lastly we can see it in games that pad out the play time with banal and repetitive digital busywork as typified in the laundry-list open worlds of games like Mad Max or Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (I enjoyed both games but I will forgive neither for their staggeringly tedious mine clearing missions). Creating entertaining, engaging content takes time, hurrying the process encourages the simple copy and pasting of generic activities.

One solution that seems to work for the Call of Duty series is having two developers working on the series, with each one releasing a game on alternate years. There are all manner of criticisms can be made of the Call of Duty series, but EA and Ubisoft could both learn a lot about churning out games from Activision. Of course it could be argued that most of us don’t want games that have been ‘churned out’ at all, but an extra year of work going in on the perennial franchises like FIFA or Assassin’s Creed couldn’t be a bad thing.

Other solutions have also been tried with some success particularly in the indie sector. We’ve seen the return of the episodic model, which in the past had seen some spectacular failures, but which now allows developers the time and resources to do longer form stories right. Early access projects have also yielded some gems with games benefitting from increased sales over a longer period, much more time to develop and an army of noisy, if not always helpful, testers.

For the more mainstream games it feels like the only options are to either lower our expectations for what any given game will have in it or accept that they are just going to take much longer to make and cost more to be fully feature-complete.