The Contrarian: Feature Creep

When Shrek 2 hit theatres, there were no banners trumpeting “Now with more polygons!” or “Three extra jokes per minute!” Yet those are the kinds of back-of-the-box bullet points game publishers slap on sequels to excite us. And you know what? It’s a stupid, stupid idea.

The sports games were among the first. When you have to sell Madden yet again, the marketing department goes pale at the thought of ad campaigns trumpeting nothing but “This year’s stats!” or “Those annoying bugs from last year have been fixed!” Instead we get upgradeable mansions, manager mode, hot-dog concession price simulation, stadium design, licensed music and EA’s ridiculous Game Face. Marketers’ sweaty animal fear drives this style of development, and as more games get more sequels more often, we’re seeing this crap everywhere: Prince of Persia, Splinter Cell, Warcraft, you name it.

It’s called feature creep. Way back in the 1980s, there were more word processors on the market than Microsoft Word, and back then it was still possible to come up with a new feature that would quickly become essential. Once upon a time, younglings, there was no such thing as spell checking or smart quotes. Magazine ads trumpeted the dreaded feature-comparison checklists in which Word and WordPerfect would be stacked side-by-side, check marks pointing out the glaring deficiencies in the competitor’s products. “Better” became synonymous with “more.” If you’ve ever wondered why you spend half an hour turning off features after installing Word on a new computer, feature creep is the reason.

Over the long term, feature creep is the doom of gaming. Can you imagine someone new to this medium picking up the 12th iteration of Splinter Cell with the thought, “Hey, I’ll try that online multiplayer mode I heard about.” Jesus God. When Pandora Tomorrow introduced its asymmetrical multiplayer, it was a terrific idea with a lot of promise. By the time Chaos Theory hit shelves, that same game mode was ratcheted up with so many new features that only the hyperattenuated fans still playing Pandora’s version a year later could possibly enjoy it – because that was the market the developers listened to, the fools. The learning curve went from steep to moebius. Ten years from now, the entirety of Splinter Cell will probably be played in Sanskrit.

Games today are built by and for gamers who have at least a decade of play behind them, with all those hard-earned assumptions and skills. I’m not talking about people who live for Counterstrike. I just mean basic literacy issues, like knowing that shooting crates is good but shooting barrels is bad, or that weapons in first-person shooters usually have an alternate fire mode. Long-time gamers take that stuff for granted, and obsessive 12-year-olds with lots of free time catch up quickly. But if you aren’t a veteran gamer or a kid, there’s no front door to this medium. (Except Nintendo, whose new Revolution controller is a guaranteed system seller – for the Playstation 3.)

Recently, I picked up Namco Museum for the Xbox. It’s terrific. My girlfriend was a major Mario fan on the NES when she was a teenager, and sure enough, she blew three hours one night playing Pac-Man, Galaga, Rolling Thunder, and so on. She had a blast. And I had a natural thought: I should pull out another game from my library that she might enjoy, something current. She hasn’t played a 3D game before, and that’s a skill that takes some getting used to. Star Wars: Republic Commando? Fatal Frame 2? Halo 2? No, no, and no. None of those games are suitable for new gamers – and indeed, not much is.

Gamers and game reviewers alike demand new features. If a sequel offers nothing but more of the same, it’s considered a failure, even if that same thing was absolutely fantastic a year ago. So we get sequels of increasing complexity and scope, ensuring that only existing gamers will ever enjoy them.

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Feature creep can also screw games up. Look at Halo 2: Bungie normal-mapped the hell out of the graphics, and in exchange we got glitchy-looking cutscenes and no ending. Could the story of Master Chief and the Arbiter been resolved if Bungie hadn’t felt the pressure to ramp up the graphic technology so much? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say yes, the new graphics features cost us a real ending.

Then there’s Knights of the Old Republic 2. It’s a terrific game – assuming you’re a hardcore gamer – and it’s the first game I’ve played where I thought the voice acting was genuinely interesting and worthy of critical appraisal. All we really needed was a good story and good characters, more of the same stuff we enjoyed in the first game. What’d we get? The ability to break down and recreate almost every item in the game, allowing us to min-max every piece of gear, for every character, at every level. I did it. I’m not proud. Give me an obsessive, tweaky feature and I’ll fall for it like Popeye for spinach. But we also got a butchered ending, incomplete character arcs and an entire subplot about a planet of droids that abruptly cuts off partway through. Fans of the PC version even located the completed script and voiceover files from all the content the developers had to cut, still there but stillborn. Could we have had a complete story if we didn’t have that entire item-creation system? Maybe. Start cutting new features and, God forbid, there might be more time for new content.

Imagine the world we could be living in. What if, for $5 a month, you’d get a new Splinter Cell level to download? No new features, no new gadgets, no graphics upgrades. Just another level, another hour of fun with Sam Fisher. I’d buy that. Wouldn’t you? There are plenty of games I could keep enjoying for a long time with new levels and no new features. But parade that kind of approach past the marketing staff and they’ll hiss at you. Instead we get new weapons, new gadgets, new game modes, more complexity and less accessibility.

I’m not just going to whine about the problem of feature creep. Let me offer a solution. Don’t just make sequels. Make prequels. Prequels in the sense of stripped-down feature sets and easy-entry gameplay at budget pricing. Call it Splinter Cell: Training Ground. You can sneak, shoot and grab. No gadgets. No funky bullets. Sneak-or-shoot multiplayer. Twenty bucks. After six months, you give it away free in magazines, pack it in the console box or do an AOL-style mass mailing a month before the next sequel ships. Imagine an Xbox 360 that shipped with ten prequels like this on the hard drive, everything a new gamer would need to get up to speed with the state of the art in racing, shooters, fighting, football, stealth, squad tactics, you name it. Simple, fun, accessible. Every year you refresh the prequels with new levels and no new features.

Then, when the budget prequels start outselling the hardcore sequels, you can tell marketing to shove it. And my girlfriend will finally have something to play that isn’t 20 years old.

What a wonderful world it could be…

John Tynes has been a game designer and writer for fifteen years, and is a columnist for the Stranger, X360 UK, and the Escapist. His most recent book is Wiser Children, a collection of his film criticism.

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