Technology is a relentless beast, careening forward at breakneck speeds. Hell, when I first activated my iPhone, I immediately received a text message from Apple letting me know that there was a new model coming out later that afternoon.
Gamers know this all too well. Particularly when it comes to software, we find ourselves drenched by a constant deluge of new titles. Even an enthusiast, with nothing but time to play games, cannot play all of the latest and greatest that our favorite hobby has to offer.
Combine the overabundance of new releases with the eternal need to “keep up with the Joneses”, and you have a recipe for constant pressure to leave games unfinished. Players are constantly quitting games before reaching the end, simply to be able to say that they experienced the next big thing.
How has this trend influenced the course of game development? Follow me over the jump to explore how game resolutions continue to be one of the medium’s greatest failings and opportunities.
I’m not a completionist by definition, but I am very adamant about seeing games through to the end. The cranky old man in me wants to chastise these capricious gamers who leave their plates half-full; Don’t they know that there are bored gamers in developing countries who would kill for the gameplay hours they’re wasting?
While it pains me to admit it, I really can’t mount a compelling argument against gamers who don’t finish what they started. As a player who has to see things through to the bitter end, I can say with certainty that they’re really not missing out. The ending to 95% of the games out there are unfulfilling, terribly executed, or simply non-existent.
When it comes to bad video game endings, I clearly remember my first close encounter of the truly disappointing kind. I’ve never been the best player of shmups, but I faithfully sank hour after hour into beating the 1984 NES release of the arcade port of 1942.
After working furiously for weeks to master 32 torturous levels of bullet hell, I finally conquered my foe. Ecstatic from victory, I waited to be regaled as the victorious hero. Imagine my frustration as a nine-year-old boy when, after all that effort, I was greeted with a black screen where a single word appeared.
In the arcade era of gaming, it made sense to focus design on keeping players from finishing a game, in order to maximize the number of quarters that gamers were feeding the machines. But, jump forward in time 25 years to the console age, and, sadly, very little has changed. Games continue to lack the payoff that players crave for their efforts. Even games tailor-made for storytelling regularly fall short.
Obsidian, the developers for KotOR II, got handed a fish-in-a-barrel style opportunity. They had an IP rich in story, and a fine example to follow in Bioware’s critically acclaimed Knights of the Old Republic.
Despite receiving good reviews, the game’s ending was widely panned for being incomplete and rushed. So much so, that gamers took it upon themselves to fix the ending to KotOR II to their satisfaction. If you doubt that game endings are truly important to gamers, I encourage you to google The Sith Restoration Project.
With the proliferation of XBL, PSN, and Steam, tracking progress and achievements has become much easier. Developers now have more data than ever available to analyze how gamers are playing through their titles. After the release of Half-Life 2: Episode One, Valve ran some numbers and determined that only 50% of players even reached the final level of the game. This statistic is very telling, given that HL 2: Ep. One averaged around only 4 hours to complete.
Game studios, armed with this knowledge, now feel freer than ever to play fast and loose with their development cycle. If a huge portion of your audience isn’t playing the ending, a fully fleshed out and satisfying resolution to your product can rapidly drop down your priority list as you progress into crunch time. From a financial standpoint, it’s hard to blame the industry for frontloading their titles.
Chicken or egg time: did developers continue to ignore crafting solid endings because gamers don’t play through to completion? Or, did gamers stop playing a title to the end because they learned, over time, that only disappointment awaited them?
It’s my contention that the latter argument is more true. In discussing this topic with other gamers, the argument arose that the lack of solid endings is really just a subset of the overall lack of well-implemented storytelling in games.
Sure, storytelling overall needs more TLC from game developers, but even this point doesn’t account for the massive amount of fail present in the back-end of countless games. Even a revolutionary title like Bioshock, which has done more to push forward storytelling in the FPS genre than any game in recent years, fell short in its resolution. The experience was mind blowing, but in the end, 2K Boston still left the money on the nightstand and snuck out the back door.
Gamer feedback is overwhelmingly positive when a developer goes above the (perceived) call of duty to give the total package to their audiences. Even though they are the exception to the rule, there are a handful of games that stand out.
Persona 4 is a wonderful example of craftsmanship in game resolution. Regardless of which ending the player achieves, the level of closure present in the storytelling is phenomenal. The player can visit with each of the characters they’ve grown close to over the course of roughly 80 hours of playtime, sharing final thoughts and expressions of sentiment.
In my youth I moved around a great deal, and had to periodically say goodbye to friends and acquaintances I had grown fond of. Persona 4 captured this emotion perfectly, and the feeling that I had upon finally leaving Inaba is one of the things that immediately comes to mind when I think about the game today. That’s an important component of a gaming experience. The greats in any medium are mainly defined by the degree of feeling we experience when recalling them.
More recently, Dragon Age: Origins is another title that illustrates the strength of this approach. It is similar to Persona 4 in that the player gets to interact with all the major characters from the story and commiserate about how their journey has impacted them.
After this, the game concludes by informing the player about how their actions have shaped the world they travelled in. Every major plot point is explored, providing insight into the new direction that the land of Ferelden has taken since the gamer left their mark on it.
This sense of a persistent world even after you’ve turned off the game is powerful. It keeps the story alive in the gamer’s mind, and also encourages multiple playthroughs. With rampant complaints about how the used-game market negatively impacts developer profits, including satisfying resolutions that entice the player to revisit the game, is a useful method for convincing gamers to hold on to their purchases for longer.
The importance of strong game resolutions is most apparent in the RPG genre, but it is worthwhile to note that nearly every genre of video game stands to benefit from an increased focus by developers in this area.
A great ending promotes a higher level of gamer affection and loyalty. A great ending reduces the impact of the used-game market on profits. A great ending creates consumer demand for sequels, and an increased likelihood that gamers will take a chance on new IPs from the same developer.
But most of all, a great ending…