Mittwoch, 23. April 2014

When games become "saturated"

UPDATE [24.02.2017] As of Minecraft version 1.11.2 much what is described here does not apply anymore. For example, survival and exploration mechanics were balanced and it has become quite enjoyable for me.

Recently I stumbled upon an interesting comment on youtube. It was about how adding too many features may spoil a perfectly fine game. Unfortunately I didn't save the link to this comment, as I would have never thought I'd ever pick it up to create an entire post about it. As I started to see the same pattern on other games, it indeed made me think about how some games progress as a product and subject of design.

I will describe in my own words what this comment was about and give examples. Please note this post should not be taken as "you should change this immediately". This is merely an analysis/opinion people may learn from (or not).

During a game's alpha phase, it's fun to see it grow and develop, each update adding more content and creating new experiences for the player. However, after a while some games start growing beyond the point they are supposed to be growing.
This state I'm talking about is reached once the developers begin to add more and more content which "disrupts" the original idea, feeling or atmosphere of the game. To a certain degree, change is necessary and part of the development progress. However, many "disruptive" changes may result in a complete (intended or not) reinvention of existing game design, atmosphere, or experience. This is where you, as a developer, have to ask yourself whether you are still developing the game you wanted, or still making use of the atmosphere and creating experiences the game is supposed to create.

One example that was mentioned in the comment was Minecraft. I absolutely loved playing this game when I bought it in alpha, in fact I still have some ancient maps, including the first world I ever started. I still remember well when cake and sandstone was added to the game, and those little add-ons I perceived as a pleasant addition; same applies for breeding. A lot of features you can keep yourself busy with were added. But sometime during the 1.4 update, I started losing interest in this game. So what made me stop playing?

One main reason was that I simply burned out on it. The other main reason was "flawful" game design thus making me lose interest. The mistake Mojang did was adding plenty of stuff to Minecraft that - in its entirety - was difficult to unify in one game to the extent it can still be called "good design". Minecraft offers mechanics such as survival, building, mining, breeding, logic (redstone & pistons), exploration, boss fights, but it really excels at neither. Survival is easy even on hardest difficulty once you managed to build a nice shelter and get some animals or a farm (at least for "older"/adult players). Building (including redstone) gets boring after a while once you build everything you wanted to build; at least for me adding new materials will not change this on a long term. Exploration tends to be repetitive, possibly due to procedural generation. The boss fights aren't too special compared to boss fights in other games, unless you're playing with friends maybe.
In fact, I find myself lost in the amount of features I could possibly use, and I am not even using half of them, either. I realize people may have different experiences or opinions about this, however one must still question whether this is a sign of "bad" game design or not.

A while ago, with the Adventure Update Mojang added multiple features that still somewhat fit to the game (villagers, temples...). With the most recent update they added realms. While I acknowledge the importance of the former, what is the point of the latter? At least I know I'm not going to use this feature at all. The main reason I bought this game years ago was survival, mining and building. Since survival has become easier and easier with every update (breeding, farming, enchants to obtain even more gems etc.), what is the point of playing this game for someone looking for a challenge? I assume this is the reason why Minecraft mods and alternative minecraft-like voxel games are so popular.

During Minecraft's existance, more and more building blocks have been added, most blocks possessing slightly different appearances, but similar or even the same properties to existing blocks. If one block can easily be substitued with another, diversity is not substantially changed as new ones essentially do not add more functionality; other than looking pretty/different perhaps. Alpha Minecraft had a distinct look, but with all the new block types (that often don't even look good or too different to already implemented ones, i.e. stone brick) I think it kind of lost that charme it once had.
But what about texture packs? To be honest, adding texture packs only allows you to bypass the mistakes the developers are held to be accountable for; it doesn't get rid of the root of the problem, it doesn't make the original game design better (maybe better in the sense you can change the looks of it).

What makes this situation worse is that plenty of Minecraft mods exist for a wide range of purposes. For example, if you want to go crazy with factories and extended materials, you install yourself Feed The Best to enhance your crafting/building experience.
Minecraft does not need to add more features; instead it should improve the game mechanics it already utilizes. One step towards this goal would be to implement effects to food, for example. Or put more detail into the survival aspect by introducing energy, temperature, seasons. Then again, the fact that there's probably a mod for this purpose already leaves the developers in a mess.

So what we have here is a "oversaturation" of game mechanics, a lack of diversity; too many substitutes that serve the same function that - in my opinion - has changed the game's "spririt" to the negative as it matured. For further thought, you may ask yourself when the point is reached to stop adding content to your game, or when a mechanic starts changing your game to the extent it's completely reinventing it.

It seems that similar circumstances apply to the game Don't Starve; since I unfortunately did not play the recent versions I cannot really judge; but just by the looks of the new trailers, this game seem to have a similar tendency. Let's hope it will not fall victim of the oversaturation.

So developers: Do NOT over-develop your game. Once it reached a certain "feature-saturation" it is not necessary to add anything more. Focus on one or two large gameplay themes and do them well!

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