This week on Extra Punctuation, Yahtzee discusses the cycle of a bright-eyed game developer promising the moon and a million new features for its video game, only to release something much more basic and sterile, as seen in games like No Man’s Sky at launch (or any game ever made by Peter Molyneux). Just stop over-hyping games prior to launch.
Extra Punctuation Transcript
Like most people who spend an inordinate amount of time on YouTube, I love drama. I mean, why else would I review Hogwarts Legacy? I’ve been hanging around various cesspits online since before the turn of the millennium, and as such there’s something about classic internet drama videos that make me very nostalgic. And I’ve been watching a lot of amateur documentaries on doomed overambitious game projects, lately. It’s not just funny to watch overinflated egos crushed underfoot by reality, it’s also jolly instructive for someone with a foot in game development.
But I’m slightly concerned and bewildered by how frequently the following scenario has come up over the years: an amateur developer pledges to make a game in which the player can do anything. They can go anywhere in a huge complex open world and maybe they could be a warrior or maybe they could be a blacksmith or own a restaurant or become a king or a general and order other players around. And you’ll play in a huge persistent always-online open world and there’ll be player-run economy, government and law enforcement. And there’ll be crafting and vehicles and farming and you basically won’t need any other games because it’ll have every game in it. And this will all be made by our team of two guys, one of whom was in earshot of Google headquarters once. We might not have the resources of a triple-A studio but we’ll make up for with it pure gosh darn passion.
And then, for some reason, people get hyped. Despite the fact that, in almost every documented case, the result is a fiasco. I really feel like this has happened enough times that we should all be immune to this particular hype monster, but apparently not.
It’s come up several times in the age of Kickstarter, now that getting a project greenlit and funded now relies largely on ones ability to waggle shiny objects for the amusement of cretins, rather than to convince actually smart, experienced people that you know what the fuck you’re doing. Google titles like Chronicles of Elyria or Dreamworld if you want specifics. That second one seems to have been written off as a scam, but honestly I don’t believe these things start out that way, because there are countless better ways to scam people that don’t involve putting yourself available for twenty-four seven harassment from your backers if you fail to complete the impossible task you have set yourself. I believe they start when an ambitious idiot with no cocking idea how game development works makes the usual mental leap that, since games are fundamentally simulations, then the hypothetical zenith of video games would be one that simulates as much of reality as possible. And all they need is funding and logistics now they’ve done the hard part and come up with the idea.
But it also predates Kickstarter. Back in olden times every now and again someone would show up on a gaming forum saying, hey, I’ve licensed the Torque engine and I’ve decided I’m going to make an MMO FPS RPG that’s gonna beat Halo and World of Warcraft somehow, who wants in on this project? I need volunteer coders, artists, musicians, designers and writers. I’m the idea guy. And they’d inevitably be laughed out of the room, after getting agitated over all the haters trying to kill their big dream with their reasonable questions and constructive criticism.
But don’t you start looking too smug, professional developers, you’ve done your fair share of this shit. We used to call it pulling a Peter Molyneux. Who is the prime example of someone who needs limitations to function. Around the turn of the millennium when the 3D open world was first becoming a thing we saw the “do anything” game promise coming up a lot from old hand developers who were giddy at the prospect of the new technology but hadn’t quite gotten to grips with the complications. So there was Molyneux promising the Earth for Fable, the disappointment of Will Wright’s Spore, oh and lest we forget, two words: Star Citizen, helmed by Chris Roberts of Wing Commander fame. The go anywhere do anything space game is one of the main subgenres of this kind of thing.
On that subject, let’s acknowledge a couple of the rare success stories. No Man’s Sky eventually sorted its shit out, as is well documented, but I’d argue it still doesn’t include the broadness of scope promised in its initial hype. And then there’s Elite Dangerous, but I wouldn’t call that a “go anywhere, do anything” game. It’s just a “go anywhere” game. What do you do? You explore, trade, and fight pirates. That’s not “do anything,” that’s “do three things.” And the same’s true of No Man’s Sky; you can explore, fight, craft yourself a base or follow the plot. And it works because it has those clearly defined gameplay loops for the player to flit between, not because you can do anything.
And don’t you non-developers look smug either because you’re the ones who are buying into this hype, time and time again. The audience supplying money and attention is the thing that turns an idiot harmlessly airing their daydreams into a prolonged online shitfest. You are the people I need to reach when I state the thesis of this video, which is as follows: Wanting a game where you can do anything, or pledging to make such, requires a fundamental misunderstanding of video games as a concept.
Let’s put aside the fact that it would be incredibly hard to make. Let’s also put aside that it’s impossible for a game to let us literally “do anything.” That much should be obvious. I mean, what if I want to move to Israel and set up a bus network for penguins? Oh, I can’t do that? Well so much for “do anything.” I guess you could probably do it in AI dungeon. But the point is, even if you could somehow create this game where it’s possible to do anything, and doubly unlikely, ensure its consistent stability, it still wouldn’t be much fun. It’s still not something you should want.
Unless you’re the most hardcore of roleplayers and more to the point have no life, most people don’t actually want a secondary electronic reality. There’s long been this science fiction notion of cyberspace where the future internet will somehow become this global communal VR experience, and the idea’s still going strong, there was that Facebook Meta video showing how maybe in the future you could order groceries by picking up virtual items in a virtual supermarket – that’s never going to fucking happen. Because the march of technology is driven by increasing efficiency. And putting on your VR helmet to walk down the virtual street and interact with the virtual newsboy is infinitely less efficient than just opening your web browser on your phone and going to BBC news. Most people have shit to do.
Same principle applies to the do-anything game. Most people play games for specific reasons. If they want an FPS they’ll seek out an FPS rather than a game that’s also five hundred other games, for the same reason they wouldn’t buy an entire microwave to read the current time off the digital clock. Do anything games always have an attractive pitch – you could become the lord of your own empire! A world of discovery awaits! But these are things that are very hard to appreciate on the moment to moment level. It’s hard to take solace in a potential world of discovery over the horizon when right here and right now you’re just some clot in a meadow with a default whacking stick and a pair of second hand underpants.
In other words, it’s the core gameplay loop that matters most, not abstract ideas of untapped potential. If you throw most players into an open world and say “Do whatever you like,” they’re more likely to feel paralysed by choice. We get enough uncertainty in daily life, we’re trying to have fun, here. It all feels so irrational that these game pitches keep getting people excited when the actual indie hits that cause a stir thanks to their inherent high quality and instant appeal are usually games like Celeste, Neon White, Hi Fi Rush, games that focus on doing one thing incredibly well.
But then, designing such games requires skill. And the real paradox of the overambitious do-anything game is that it’s a very lazy idea. When you say “Do whatever you like,” to the player, you’re asking them to supply all the mental labour of creating a fun experience. You might as well give them a sheet of blank paper and a pen and say “Now you can write the novel YOU want to read!”
All I’m asking is for people to stop falling for this promise. But as I say, we never seem to learn. I only just found out that Leslie Benzies and a couple of other former Rockstar bods are working on an upcoming game along these lines simply called “Everywhere.” Because that’s where you can go, I suppose. And what exactly the player can expect to do once they get there has been left rather tellingly vague.
Christ, that title so neatly encapsulates my gripes. Reminds me of that film, Everything, Everywhere, All At Once. Except in this case more like Three Things, Somewhere, Quarter 4 2027 at the earliest.