The Hard Problem

The Hard Problem
Unfinished Games

John Scott Tynes | 13 Aug 2009 17:00
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It's one of the dirty little secrets of the gaming hobby: a substantial percentage of players who buy our games don't actually finish them. An article by Bruce Phillips in a recent issue of Game Developer magazine provided some actual numbers for reference. Using completion of the main campaign mode as the test, and campaign-finishing achievements on the Xbox 360 as the measuring tool, Bruce Phillips demonstrated that popular, well-reviewed games like Gears of War 2, Call of Duty: World at War, and Grand Theft Auto IV are only finished by about 70%, 50%, and 28% of players respectively. Rainbow Six: Vegas 2's finish percentage was even lower than GTA IV's: 23%. And remember, this is just for finishing the main campaign, not the panoply of side quests, multiplayer maps, hidden trinkets, and so on.

This sucks. If you put down a book and never finish it, or turn off a movie partway through and go do something else, we call that a bad book or a dull movie. But gamers tend to rave about these games and yet still don't finish them. All those comparisons people trot out about how games are a great entertainment value because you get X hours of play for Y dollars should probably have their numbers cut in half. Do games still sound so appealing if we admit that many, many gamers will never finish them? How much does any gamer really care about story if they don't stick around for the ending?

The reasons why we don't finish the games we play are many. When one big game is followed soon after by another, the second game can divert gamers from finishing the first one. Plenty of games are just too hard for too many people. Some are too long or too boring.

That's a lot of hard problems to try and solve so I'm just going to solve one. I'm going to assume that if you bought the game, you intended to finish it and that your purchase will feel a lot more worthwhile if you do. Since you intended to finish it, I'm also going to assume that you care about what happens - not necessarily the story per se, but that you want to see all the levels, check out the boss fights, see the final cinematic, whatever. In other words, if you can't beat the game then you at least probably want to finish the content.

We've recently seen some interesting attempts at enabling players to finish games they might otherwise put down. The last Alone in the Dark game made it a bullet-list feature by making almost every level in the game accessible from the start through a DVD-style chapter menu. If a level was too hard, you could just move on to the next one. "Last episode" recap videos at the start of each scene brought you up to speed. As a sop to those gamers who do like to "beat" games, there were achievements tied to finishing each scene without skipping. So even if you skipped, you could go back and replay a scene in its entirety to get that achievement.

The recent redo of the arcade classic shmup R-Type took a similar approach. The entire game was sliced up into sequences and you could play with infinite lives. For each sequence, the number of lives you lost was tracked and you were rewarded for finishing each sequence without dying. You could restart a sequence as often as you liked and if you could just stay alive for the minute or two it lasted, that sequence would be marked off the big list. And you could attempt sequences in any order you wanted, so in effect you could "stitch together" a flawless run through of the entire game across many attempts.

Then there's Nintendo. Shigeru Miyamoto has filed a patent for a feature called Demo Play that would prerecord a walkthrough of the entire game which the player could start watching at any point and then jump in and take control when desired. There appear to be some curious restrictions on this feature, at least as described in the patent, in that it would be a separate mode where you could watch and jump in, but not save your own game state.

All of these approaches are interesting, but I think it's in the overlapping heart of this particular Venn diagram that the ideal solution lies. And it occurred to me while I was playing Alone in the Dark.

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