Lionel Rainaud, Executive Vice President of Creative for Ubisoft’s Canadian studios, shared via a blog post an interesting, albeit not novel idea, for games. The aim is to end the disparaging of resources that is the finite game experience: as in, the game that you experience once or twice, but that once you’ve seen the campaign’s completion and finished all the end content, goes back on the shelf never to see the light of your interest again: all the development time (measured in years) and effort (and dollars) for what amounts to an 8-hour experience (or less). The goal, then, seems to be to take online experiences to a whole new level, where a game’s content can be constantly updated so as to keep the credits from rolling.
“(…) the will to not give finite experiences. The idea was that you have this conflict, and the resolution, and then it’s finished – you’ve killed the bad guy, for instance. We build a strong nemesis, and the goal of the game is to kill him or free the country, we’ve done that a few times in our games. But when you succeed, you have to leave the game, because there is nothing else to do. So the goal was to break this, and say that you will be the hero of a region or population many times, not just once. And if you get rid of a dictator or an oppressor, something else is going to happen in the world, and you will have a new goal.
At a high level, this seems like an interesting idea, if not a novel one. This has been done time and again in the past with MMO games – WoW, anyone? More recently, it is being explored, arguably badly, by Destiny 2 – and will likewise be too by BioWare’s Anthem. The idea for an infinite experience with constant content drops isn’t a new one, and is the holy grail of today’s revenue schemes for games: microtransactions, cosmetics, and downloadable content. I get giddy thinking of the promise of a game like Destiny 2 done right – a breathing world, with constant quests that advance the storyline unfolding organically with in-game events, single-player DLC drops that are essentially a new game, a new campaign – I’d love for Halo Infinite to be something of the sort, if it was done right. Reduced development times? Yearly campaign content drops? Yes please.
But at the same time, I’m unsure. I’m unsure because game development is a business, and as a business, they (developers/publishers) will look to leverage the maximum amount of profit they can. And there are multiple ways to do that in these experiences.
Take Lionel Rainaud’s quote, for instance. If there’s one thing I value is closure – story arcs that unfold and end organically, that have a beginning and an end – a challenge that is met by us and the characters of these worlds, the struggle to defeat conflict, and then the consequences of said conflict. There’s such a thing as wanting to have an impact in the world – at least in these 3D ones. It’s empowering. It feels right. Now imagine finishing Far Cry 4, defeating Pagan Min… And oh but wait. Now there’s another one dictator taking his place. And then another one. And oh now there’s a warlord vying for control. And now another one. There’s such a thing as desensitization. If done right, the story has to move forward at all times – not be frozen in time with these cheap, almost automatic artifices and systems. The Nemesis system used in Middle Earth: Shadow of War is great in an enclosed campaign, adding a personal conflict to Talion, and for us, gamers, to surpass. Can you imagine a game that surpasses being finite by constantly throwing a new warchief at you? For me, that might be cool for a while, but it’s tiring, and depressing – what am I doing with my time? There are infinite orcs here.
Another very important measure, and perhaps the most important, because it’s the most likely: industry stagnation. A game that has no end and can (theoretically) last the entirety of a console’s shelf-life with mere content drops, without the need to revamp the graphical engine or the games’ systems, will likely stagnate not only technology, but also the entire development of the videogame market. If games have extended “online support” periods, and if studios can keep using their tools to just build and build on top of the game, they’ll do it. If after a game is done, it will last for years, and most of the world has been built, then there’s no need to retain as many developers in the team – a skeleton crew will accomplish that just fine, and increase the bottom line at that. At the same time, since there’s no longer a need to push for the best-looking games at such a regular basis – what counts is the amount of time you spend in the experience, doh! – it’s likely graphics and game systems’ development would take a hit as well, and slow down the new generation of hardware.
Like everything, this approach has in it the potential to be amazing for the games medium and the industry… Or the exact opposite. I tremble, because most times, the smartest business choices aren’t the best ones for gamers, developers, or the advancement of the medium. That is usually ruled mostly by the good old greenback.