Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Are You Getting Full Value From Your Video Games? (1 of 3)

This is the first of many follow ups to my earlier post about the value of entertainment. Actually, noodling on this is what inspired my earlier post - I wanted to lay a basic foundation before I started digging into some of the areas more specific to video games.

So, my basic observation is this - of all the entertainment media that I personally interact with, the one format I'm most likely to not get the full value of is the videogame. What do I mean? Well, once I start watching a movie, I'll probably finish the movie (unless it's really bad). It's a relatively small investment in time. Video games, though, require heavier investments in time, and tend to have less well defined periods of play. They may also require, to be frank, some skill on the part of the person playing the video game.

Defining Completion

Some games are story-driven, and have natural arcs. These games tend to have natural conclusions to the story (even if they are open-ended to leave room for the inevitable sequel). If gamers are not following through with the story, does this mean the game was not compelling? Does this limit how likely game designers are to try to tell compelling stories? Do you have to be playing an RPG to get a story?

Other games are more gameplay driven (or focus heavily on multiplayer, for example), and may not have the same kind of natural arc. These games may have an end goal of reaching a certain skill level in the game, and often require heavy investments in time, performing the same tasks and perfecting certain skills. These are generally not the kinds of games I enjoy, even if the gameplay is otherwise excellent.

Short games can be "beaten" in 5 hours. Others may take 80 hours or more. Some games have no real notion of what "beaten" even means. I tend to favor the current trend towards games which last about 10 hours to complete the main experience. That's long enough to enjoy the basic ideas and story, but not too long to require a lot of time, especially if you don't have endless hours to sit around and play games. I like co-op games, too, since it becomes more of a way to spend time with the kids. I recently finished Halo 3 and Gears of War with my son, and that was a lot of fun - it's not clear if I would've bothered to play through those games completely if it wasn't for the co-op. I did beat BioShock by myself, though.

Measuring Achievements

So, how can you evaluate whether you are getting the full value of your games? One way is to calculate how many hours you are spending on each game, and divide the cost by the number of hours, as I did in my earlier post. Not all games will take the same amount of time to enjoy fully, though. It's also a bit of a nuisance to try and track your game playing time down to the hour.

Xbox 360 games provide an alternate means of determining completion: achievements. Each game is (typically) worth a total of 1,000 achievement points, broken down into (typically) 50 or so goals. You can rate your completion percentage either in achievement points, or simply the number of achievements earned. Looking at some sample games, I believe measuring percentage in achievements is a closer measure of the game's completion - many games tend to stack up later achievements as being worth more points, to provide a juicier reward for earning them.

I tend to broadly group achievements into four categories:

Core Game: Core game achievements occur naturally as you progress through the game. You don't need to seek these out, you just need to move forward. Typically, there is an achievement for "beating" the game, however that is defined. There may be different sets of achievements for different difficulty levels of play.

Side Quests: Side quests are achievements for things off the beaten path. In Crackdown, you can get achievements for juggling cars with explosives, or performing a variety of optional stunts. These achievements are most effective when you know about them, so you have a goal to shoot for - they encourage you to explore the game more deeply, but can be ignored by people only looking for the core experience.

Online Play: Since Xbox Live is a big part of the 360 experience, many games have achievements that specifically relate to online play. This encourages people to get online and work with (or against) other players. People who do not have online accounts are often unhappy that these achievements are effectively unreachable for them.

Mad Skillz: Basic achievements that are rewarded for particular excellence in game play. These require mastery of the game in question, and will only be earned by dedicated players.

The above categories can be combined - for example, Online Play Mad Skillz achievements may require you to win 1,000 online matches.

Different games will combine these categories in different ways. For example, King Kong has very few achievements, all of which are earned simply by playing through the game. Geometry Wars effectively only has Mad Skillz achievements - despite many attempts, I still have failed to earn a single achievement in that game.

Side Quests can either be easy (perform a specific unusual but simple task), or almost impossible (collect all 300 orbs hidden across a city). Garnering points for the latter is a task only for the OCD gamer. YouTube videos can help track down some of these. For my money, extremely difficult side quests, like collecting all of a group of hidden items, work best in combination with some way to get clues about where the items are. For example, in earlier Spyro games, you would get clues late in the game to help you find secret gems. Without these clues, or an online guide, I have very little interest in completing such quests.

Proper use of achievements can increase the entertainment value of a game by providing clues on how to play the game. Not in the sense of "move this box, to reach a higher platform", but in the sense of "try exploring different combinations of weapons", or "try playing in cooperative mode". Badly designed achievements fail to encourage or reward the player appropriately - often because they are either too easy, or too hard.

In my estimation, achievements work best when you can get approximately half of them by completing the core game, with a reasonable number of basic side quests. An additional 25% can be alloted for online play, and the final 25% divide between trickier side quests and mad skillz. For the most part, I don't care if I get %100 of the achievements for a game, but I do like to get a reasonable reward for beating the basic parts of the game.

Next up, some more detailed examples.

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