Where There's a Whip

Where There's a Whip
But I Thought Games Were Supposed to Be Fun!

Peter Robinett | 4 Jul 2006 12:00
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There I was, blasting through corridors full of mercenaries and rampaging mutants, almost to the exit of the complex, when I hit a tricky spot in Far Cry. After repeated failures, I resorted to cheating in order to press on, only to soon realize that the gameplay I had liked was long over, and the game was no longer interesting - I was bored. I have found myself getting bored in the middle of many games and finishing few. Am I alone in my plight? What does it all mean? Is this a sign of mild attention deficit disorder on my part, or is it something in the games, in their respective designs? Could you even say games are (inadvertently) inherently boring in parts of their design?

It seems counter-intuitive to say an entertainment form can be boring, yet it obviously happens, because everyone's tastes are different. But do we have an epidemic on our hands? This is obviously a difficult thing to quantify, but an economics-influenced approach should point us in the right direction. First, games are an investment of time, effort and money, and people want a return on their investments. Thus, it's safe to assume that people will seek to change the situation when they stop having fun with their investment. Obviously, people can return or sell games they don't enjoy, but there are a variety of other methods, like purchasing products to make the game experience more fun. One option is to use strategy guides and walkthroughs to solve difficult challenges or find the most efficient way through a game. While players use strategy guides to make a game less difficult rather than less boring, boredom enters into strategy guides' appeal; getting stuck in a game for hours isn't fun. And with sales figures of $90 million in 2004 and $67 million in 2005, it's hard to deny that strategy guides are an industry serving a real demand.

Cheat codes are a time-honored component of single-player games, but the demand goes beyond that. Witness the long-running success of products that modify console games' memory - in effect, hardware-based cheating. The Action Replay was the first of such devices, first on the Commodore 64 and then on most subsequent game consoles. Similar products include Game Genie, now defunct, and GameShark. While these devices can help a player deal with a boring game, this is just one of their uses, according to Action Replay's maker, Datel.

Ian Osborne, a Datel PR representative, said they view their product as one that allows users to unlock content (such as new characters or racetracks), in addition to something that lets people cheat. If hardcore players tend to find games less challenging, the fact that most of Datel's customers are hardcore gamers would imply that exploration and re-playability are the main reasons for purchasing the Action Replay, not boredom. As Osborne put it, "Consequently, demand is spread across genres, but focused on the games hardcore gamers buy. For example, there's more demand for cheats for a GTA or Tomb Raider game than a Disney title."

So, perhaps people are cheating and unlocking features, not because they're bored but because they're enjoying the game and want to extend the experience. But if players are not content to play through a racing game to gradually unlock racetracks, isn't that a sign that there is something boring or frustrating in the basic game design? One would think unlocking tracks would give players enjoyable objectives that represent progress in the game. However, there is a significant group of people who disagree.

How could this be addressed by game designers? One idea would be to alter opponents' difficulty levels (a much-touted feature of the recently released SiN Episodes game). Additionally, changing the prerequisites to advance such that the goals don't become unattainable and the process isn't frustrating would keep people interested in playing the unmolested game longer. But this doesn't help players who dislike the unlocking pretense at its core. Many games alleviate this problem by offering two modes of play, one that lets people bypass stated progression goals to play the bulk
of the game immediately and one that gives them the opportunity to advance more traditionally.

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