Open-World Sandbox Devs: Fewer Side Dishes, More Meat, Please

For the record, my biggest pet peeve is gamers who whine incessantly about “bang for your buck.”

These are the morons who, upon the release of every new single-player-oriented game, ask: “Yeah, but how long is it?” They generally have a fixed number in their heads, too, and if the title falls below that number, they immediately dismiss it. It’s beyond idiotic.

Our enjoyment of the hobby – of any hobby, in fact – is not entirely reliant upon length. Of course, the cost of admission versus the amount of entertainment received is always a factor, as it should be. But any fool who won’t play Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End because it isn’t a zillion hours long is just that…a fool. That’s the best $60 you’ll ever spend in this industry; you can’t ask for much more.

The problem is, due to the pervasive nature of this argument, alongside the fact that far too many narrow-minded critics heap a ton of importance on length, we’ve seen developers react. And that reaction hasn’t produced better games. It has certainly produced longer games but that doesn’t necessarily translate to more quality. In fact, most of the time, it translates to precisely the opposite.

The reaction to this constant screaming for more content (for a cost of admission that, by the way, is exactly the same as it was thirty years ago, only then we had far less tech and extremely short games) has taken its toll. Now we’re seeing developers produce so much extra/optional content in their big open-world games, that the extras actually comprise the majority of the experience.

I just got around to finishing Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s my favorite game of the year so far and I invested a good 78 hours into it. The Platinum Trophy might be mine eventually, too. Loved this game. Even so, when you add up the number of hours spent doing optional stuff as opposed to story-based missions, the result is actually shocking. Of that 78 hours, I’m not sure I spent more than 20 following the narrative.

And that’s just plain wrong. Sure, some of the side missions were appropriately interesting and entertaining. And it’s always nice to have some variety. But, as is the case with all open-world adventures these days, there were simply far too many superfluous escapades that effectively serve no purpose. And with a level cap of 50 and a skill tree that’s finished all too soon, these sides really DIDN’T have a purpose.

If you can advance your character as far as s/he can go and still have about 25 side offerings sitting around, there’s just far too much superfluous content. It doesn’t really enhance the narrative at all and it doesn’t gain you nothing you need, or really even want. It’s even more obvious than in other games, like Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, which also boasted far too many irrelevant side missions.

This infection has plagued just about every great sandbox game. My favorite title of the generation, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, suffered from this phenomenon as well, though it did a better job of variety and pacing, I think. In Horizon, you could feasibly spend the entire game (after you reach a certain point) doing everything not related to the story and frankly, I don’t even think that should be an option.

Developers, I know it’s annoying to hear gamers and critics constantly freaking out over length. The multiplayer boom, in which people will play a single game for literally thousands of hours, hasn’t helped the situation. But don’t just cram your games full of easily crafted and ultimately ho-hum optional content for the exclusive purpose of upping the game length.

Yes, you can go into your interviews with journalists and say “our game offers over 100 hours of gameplay” and then you can get some encouraging headlines to help your title. But I think most gamers are starting to understand what that statement means these days. Pretty soon, you’re going to hear a follow-up question from journalists in-the-know: “You say 100 hours, but how much of that is content entirely unrelated to the main narrative?”

Unless you can figure out a way to make each side mission at least mildly compelling, or offer a larger variety of extras, don’t keep cramming it down our throats. It’s so blatantly transparent that such content only exists to pad the end-result number, the one you can boast about when it’s time to market the game. I know people will still whine about not including extra content and then releasing DLC they have to pay for, but please remember the definition of “extra.”

As usual, we’ve strayed too far from the path. We wanted longer and longer and bigger and bigger games. It was a great trend for a while. But when you reach a point where the optional vs. mandatory ratio is completely out of control, it’s time to reevaluate and reign things in. Long story short:

Don’t make content simply for the sake of making more content. Thank you.

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