[ From the June/July 2013 issue of Game Developer Magazine… which was that remarkable publication’s final issue. I landed the honor of writing the final Design Of The Times through nothing more than blind calendar luck, but it was an honor I was glad to have ended up with. ]
Argument: As a game designer, you are more free when crafting your ending than you are for any other piece of your game.
First of all, having an ending at all is your choice. Don’t want one? All good! Games are loops, and if you want to leave yours closed, you will be in good company. No one has ever “finished” poker, or football.
But for games that do have an ending, only a small portion of your players will ever see it. We are, as an industry and as a culture, still confused about this. We are dismayed at the low finish rates of our games, and a player who puts down the controller before reaching the end is left with a vague sense of having dissed the game team.
Yet, the choice to stop playing whenever the player feels is inherent in the form! This is not a bad thing; this is a good thing. It is part of the game design landscape. And if you learn to worry less about insisting that everyone who starts finishes, and put your attention on the advantages this fact of gaming gives you, you will not find a more personally liberated moment in game design than in designing your end.
The question is: How will you use that freedom?
Learning to Dabble
For several years back in the late 1990s, I lived with an eccentric friend named Dylan. Dylan was a carouser, a lover of swords and theatrics, a collector of experiences… and he was an avid video game starter.
Dylan played dozens, maybe hundreds of games per year, and this was before the Internet, so they mostly came from the store. But, for all his passion, I don’t know that I ever saw him put more than an hour into a single one. He would buy them, try them, love them… and then set them aside forever. This was a man who stopped playing Diablo after an hour or so (!!). Even more weirdly, he was always perfectly content with his purchases, never showing a single hint of regret at not seeing the end.
He never did this with movies or books. Ever.
Watching Dylan’s weird relationship with the games he played taught me that it is absolutely not required to finish a game to appreciate it.
Not A Bad Thing
Last year, you may remember that CNN published an article by Blake Snow that regaled the Internet with the news that only 10-20% of gamers actually finish the games they started (http://bit.ly/q1ezhV).
No argument. When we see game finish rates over 30-40%, we sing the praises of the team and pop the bubbly. Numbers like that imply that we managed to make some seriously compelling content, and smooth out all the bumps along the way. Precious few games reach that goal.
But, I have a beef with an unspoken assumption in this article, and in many articles like it. Here’s how the article’s author put it:
“Let [this] sink in for a minute: Of every 10 people who started playing the consensus ‘Game of the Year,’ [Red Dead Revolver] only one of them finished it. How is that? Shouldn’t such a high-rated game keep people engaged? Or have player attention spans reached a breaking point? … Who’s to blame: The developer or the player? Or maybe it’s our culture?”
My beef is with the idea that failing to finish a game is a bad thing.
Putting down the controller somewhere before the final climactic scene in a video game is not a sin. It is an intrinsic part of our art form.
I never finished the first BioShock, yet it remains a game I thoroughly enjoyed. Grim Fandango? Never finished it. But I sure as hell use it as an example in design discussions! I have never finished a single Final Fantasy, but, man, they are fun (usually).
There are a ton of games that don’t even have endings. Most arcade-style games and most MMO’s don’t have real endings. The Sims doesn’t have an ending. Poker? Chess? Football?
In fact, a broad majority of the world’s long-standing favorite games are specifically designed to never be finished. One game of Sudoku leads to another, which leads to another…
In game design terms, even putting an “ending” into your game is, clearly, optional. We know this. It’s self-evident. So, then, why to we gnash our teeth and tear out our hair when only 20% of players reach the end of our (story) games?
Not A Movie
I believe that the idea has its roots in our beliefs about other media. There is an implicit rejection that is present when someone walks out of a movie, turns off a show on TV, or sets down a book unfinished. For those mediums, the message of this action is clear: “I’m not enjoying this story enough to continue.”
When someone stops playing a game, however, the possibilities are far, far more varied:
“I’d love to keep playing, but the time commitment is too high for me.”
“I enjoyed the beginning, but now it’s getting sort of grindy, and that’s not for me.”
“Love the game, but I’m weary of the player culture, so I’m going to hang out somewhere else.”
“My friends stopped playing.”
These are not necessarily sins of the designer. Gaming is as much a lifestyle as it is entertainment, and if a game doesn’t fit into an individual’s life, they are going to put it down. That’s not a tragedy. That’s a feature of our design landscape.
So, instead of looking guiltily at our completion rates and fantasizing about a world in which 99% of the players who start our (story) game reach the final scene, let’s flip it around and see what we can do to take advantage of this fact, instead.
Flip It Around
More than half of your players are not going to finish. You know that going in, so think of it as a design constraint! What does that mean to you?
First: The deeper into your game your content is, the more likely it is that the players that are still with you have been having a good time. They’re in. They’ve bought it. You have earned a certain amount of faith capital with them, and they probably want to see what else you’ve got up your sleeve.
Second: Because your producers and various high-mucky-mucks have seen the finishing stats for other games, they know that dev time spent in detailed iteration on your ending is effort going to a small subset of players. They will prioritize the team’s time accordingly. They will thus be more likely, whether through disinterest or lack of time, to let your crazy idea for the end slip through the cracks.
Third: Players themselves already know that arriving at the end is a rare occasion—because they, personally, most likely don’t do it very often. Every player has put down the controller on at least a few games. If they do decide to complete the whole thing, they will wear that fact as a badge of honor (we hope). So, they are psychologically primed to receive some kind of acknowledgment for their effort.
Bright-eyed, with the end in sight, your players look to the designer expectantly, ready to interpret whatever you present as a kind of reward, while your producers turn a blind eye…
Tell The Truth
I only have one piece of real advice for you about this moment: Tell the fucking truth.
Whatever it is that is in your heart, whatever it is that has drawn you into making this game in the first place, do that with your faith capital. Spend it telling them that, somehow.
The first Modern Warfare had a great example of this: The final mission was the most over-the-top crazy, punishing, nearly-impossible-to-complete madness-fest in their game. It had almost no explanation, required none (“PLANE! TERRORISTS!”), and it was simply brilliant. The level was a celebration of the game that you had just finished, a self-referential guns-blazing cherry on the cake that was completely unnecessary, but became legendary.
One of the most satisfying endings I have ever played was the ending of The Darkness. It laid bare the truth of the fantasy they had created, and gave me full rights to punish an evil that I had come to loathe. The truth there was consistent with the story, but it was the play that they created that made that last scene true. I hated the villain of that game, and in the end the game did nothing to force my hand (beyond closing the door behind me). When I took my revenge, it was me that did it, and that act stayed with me.
But it is the ending of the first Metroid, perhaps, that best demonstrates the strange liberty we have with this moment. It could have ended with Samus Aran raising a blaster into the air in victory. That would have been satisfying, and it was an amazing game all the way through. Hero pose! Instead, Samus stepped out of the battle suit, demonstrated her gender, and shattered the 8-bit preconceptions of players everywhere. It is still one of the most celebrated endings in gaming history.
As An Example
Let’s say we were to apply these principles to this article.
You’ve stuck with me this far, so I can perhaps assume that you’re interested in what I’ve had to say so far. We’re near the end, so you are maybe starting to think about what you’ll read next, or putting down the magazine. Perhaps you are looking forward to the internal satisfactory tick-mark that comes from reading the last line.
How might I use this receptive state of mind? What is my truth about endings, right now?
Speaking of endings, did you know that this is the final issue of this here magazine? Funny story: through random luck, I’ve ended up with the honor of writing the final Design of the Times. That’s this article, right here.
You know, the first time I picked up an issue of GD Mag was back in 1996, in the offices of Hyperbole Studios. I was a late twenty-something, blown away to be suddenly making games after long years of professional wandering.
It was the existence of this magazine right here that gave me my first glimpse into the murky, somewhat-secret society of game developers. The magazine’s professional-looking cover and its interior pages full of post-mortems and dev tricks all were clearly aimed specifically at a readership made up of people who made video games. Flipping through the pages, I gradually discovered that I very much wanted to be part of that target market.
It’s much later now. We have Internets, game developers are meeting with Vice Presidents, and 99.9% of people under 25 have played video games. It’s a world in transition, and I cannot wait to see what happens next. But I, for one, won’t move forward into that future without first pausing and, maybe just for a moment, placing an affectionate hand on the magazine that was the warm face that greeted me as I entered this industry.
Thanks. Thanks for that, and for all the other stuff.
Endings Set You Free
That is my truth on endings: I mark them, I use them to reflect, and if I can get away with it, I give thanks to people who have had an impact on my life.
As a game designer, you are more free when crafting your ending than you are in any other piece of your game. So, in the end, tell the fucking truth. Tell as much of it as you can manage. Tell it as best you can. And see if you can give the world something to remember.
Jason VandenBerghe is a creative director at Ubisoft, which he has to admit doesn’t exactly suck. You can read his intermittent blog and various scribblings at www.darklorde.com. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.