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The average gamer supposedly plays 7.8 hours a week. That’s an ESA study so I think they rounded down to make gamers seem less crazy. Other studies show more like 20-30 hours a week, which makes more sense to me. For us hardcore gamers, I’m sure the number would be even higher.

So while we waste our life away playing video games, it has become painfully apparent to me that, like most products in our corner cutting capitalist society, video games have a lot of filler. A video game, especially an RPG or MMO, is graded on how much of your time it takes to beat. In most cases, a game with short playtime is over quickly and generally unsatisfying (much like sex with me). Longer games are considered better. One of the first questions people ask about a new RPG is “how long is it?” It’s an important benchmark.

Game developers often choose to provide filler, as opposed to costly and time consuming quality content. Filler stretches out a game, giving you something to do when you’d otherwise have moved on to something else. But why you ask, would you ever want to play the stupid part of an old game when you could play a new fun game?

Gamers are generally OCD. Really OCD. Through exploitation of this, typically amplified with a rewards system to the core game (weapons, armor, hidden side plots, etc), game designers have pretty much nailed the recipe for adding useless crap to a game you’ll play anyway to stretch it out. This filler isn’t what we’d logically want, but much like a pile of French fries next to your 16 oz porterhouse steak, we can’t help ourselves.

Mmm, fries.

Meaningless tasks are not new phenomena to games, especially RPGs. If we go back to FF6, we can remember uncursing the cursed shield in order to get the Ultima spell (since everyone turned Ragnarok into a sword and then traded it for the Illumina in the arena). The Final Fantasy series took this to a new level by forcing you to dodge 200 lightning bolts in FFX in order to get Lulu’s ultimate weapon.

Perhaps searching every nook and cranny is your thing. Have fun in Kingdom Hearts looking for all 101 Dalmatians. Fortunately as pack animals, they like to hide in groups of 1-5, but nonetheless, that’s a lot of dogs. Personally I’d sell them to the race track instead of bringing them home, but that wasn’t an option. Stupid linear gameplay. Perhaps the king of OCD filler content is Disgaea, with item worlds and combo tiles that are guaranteed to consume your soul, or at least your free time.

Non parent genre mini-games exceptionally irritate me. If I buy a particular genre–don’t force another type of game into the mix. One example was the almost Sonic style snowboard game in FFVII. This phenomena isn’t just in RPGs. Recently I picked up Sim City 4, expecting to show my amazing city planning skills and inherent Jew money collecting talents. Imagine my surprise as I learned that I could drive a bus around the city picking up passengers–if I wanted a mayoral approval rating bonus, that is.

Uh, hello? Do I look like a bus driver? Did you see the big nose? It says banker. Not blue collar bus driver. And especially not a blue collar bus driver in a silly mini game where I drive using the arrow keys and space bar. And can’t run over pedestrians.

Suikoden 3 gets it half right. The mini-games give decent, but generally not unique (and definitely not overpowered), armor and weapons. However, did you want to unlock a hidden character? Be ready to compete in a game of card chance where the computer cheats. And honestly, not all mini-games are dumb–some of them are addicting like cocaine. The card game in FF8 was probably the best card game of any FF, and arguably better than the game itself. I enjoyed the RTS style game in defending Mt. (insert the name of the mountain where you get phoenix material) in FF7. However, I realize this enjoyment is simply because I like RTS games. Others might hate the RTS game as much as I hate snowboarding games.

The common thread is that people pick up a game in order to play that genre. I buy a Final Fantasy game to play an RPG. I did not want to play an RTS, or a snowboarding simulation, or whatever. And this would be OK–except for the fact these games often attach high quality rewards to these mini-games, forcing you to play them compulsively if you’re an OCD min-maxer, which chances are, you are.

I want a warning next to the ESRB rating to describe what I’m getting myself into. “Warning: This RPG may contain Platformer mini-games with unique, mandatory rewards.” Or perhaps “Warning, this game includes item evolution battles that are longer than the game’s plot content.”

Variety isn’t bad. I’m very glad that game developers want to spice up their game play. The theme of the new century in all fields is multi-disciplinary approaches. It’s happening in the business world, in science, and in gaming, and it’s wonderful. But there are two common flaws that most game designer are often guilty of.

So awesome Square decided to release it as a standalone game.

The first is making mini-games and fillers mandatory or near-mandatory. For the love of god, don’t give out critical or unique rewards from mini-games. Not all of your population is going to love them. A solid portion may despise them. Games should never be un-fun, or perceived as such by a significant proportion of gamers. If you’re going to have an ultimate weapon, make two versions. Make one achievable via insane mini games, and one the core game mechanics (special boss, quest, or whatever). The real OCD gamers can get both, but don’t cock block sane gamers who want to enjoy the core gameplay.

Second, don’t make games based around mindless repetition. The item worlds of Disgaea, or dodging 200 fucking lightning bolts only rewards those who have a dedication that is best described as idiot-savant-like. Again, feel free to create these things, but don’t make them even vaguely mandatory or unique. Dodging 200 lightning bolts is not fun. It might be rewarding at the end, but it seems suspiciously like work. You should have to work at a game to succeed, but it shouldn’t be monotonous droning. Retail jobs that so many of us work do that. Sure, you feel accomplishment after you succeed, but it’s more like Stockholm syndrome from rationalization rather than real achievement.

Video game rewards should feel like the victory of winning a competitive event, a feat of skill and perseverance, rather than the grim satisfaction of fucking a fat chick so your friend could sleep with her hot roommate. Games should be fun, not boring. Always. And creating a game design environment where repetition is perceived as challenge, and this repetition rewarded is sloppy and unsatisfying.

The author would like to thank the videolamer staff for many of the game examples used in this article.

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2 Comments

  1. Christian said on June 18, 2007:

    Aww shucks, the one article that discusses a topic I’ve alluded to endlessly, and I never got to chime in :( At least Golden Jew will be pleased to know I’ve been gone in search of high paying, full time work.

    Anyway, I agree 100% with this one folks. My stamp of approval if you will. OCD, completionist game design ruined Soul Calibur 3. It puts a slight dent in KOF2006. It now pops up in genres that have no right to have RPG elements in them. And yet a certain sect of gamers crave these things, and so they are forced upon us. I don’t know why Kingdoms Hearts finds it prudent to differentiate between a Flame crystal, flame shard and fame jewel, but it does, and it is not what we should aspire to copy. Let me play the game, let me succeed via skill, if I can. End of story.

  2. Matthew said on June 22, 2007:

    Etrian Odyssey is good !

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