Games Over and I’m Not Playing Around Anymore
Tuesday, 1 May, 2012

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been playing Fez and Mass Effect 3. As I noted last night, I finished Mass Effect 3 with a bit of a whimper. And Rilla and I made it to something on the order to 196.5% in Fez, which was all the collectibles and one heart piece, leaving the two most insane riddles in the game untouched. We feel pretty good about having done that all on our lonesome, and having read the solutions to the two remaining puzzles I’m glad we didn’t try any harder on them than we did. Yikes. The other thing I’m glad about is that I’m not playing any games now.

And that’s a bit sad, perhaps, but a reality. While ME3 and Fez were in play they sucked up a lot of time, both in terms of moment-to-moment play hours and in terms of thinking about Fez‘s puzzles offline. Both experiences were fairly good, overall, and I don’t think I regret playing either game, but I kind of do wish I could have a few of those hours back. My game-making productivity took a pretty bad dive, for instance, and it’s taking me ages to put together the next game even though it’s insanely simple.

If I ask myself the cheesy but effective question about the ol’ death-bed, “what would you rather have done more of in your life, playing video games or making them?”, it’s a pretty easy response. It even gets dicey when I compare games to books, which feels like a form of betrayal to me, but true nonetheless. In fact, in many ways the best thing that comes from playing games isn’t the experience of play (which I’m prepared to admit is only ever fleetingly joyful or interesting and mostly a grind), but rather the experience of thinking about, blogging about, and discussing them after the fact. That is, any given existing game offers a chance to reflect on the medium itself, and that feels valuable.

But how many games do you need to play to stay fresh and up-to-date? Because I’d kind of like to play as few as possible, if that’s alright with you. At least for now.

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12 Responses to “Games Over and I’m Not Playing Around Anymore”

  1. chad Says:

    With the day off today, I thought I’d spend a little time finishing off Uncharted2, and, as good as it is, I feel I owe the sun god an apology.

  2. Harbour Master Says:

    If no one is around in the forest to hear the video game tree fall, does it really exist?

    My point being if you’d rather make than play games, it’s almost making a value judgement about the game playing. Which, in itself, sort of says something about your own players, your consumers.

    That wasn’t supposed to sound contentious. Plus I get the point that you’re really driving at the time sink problem. But still, what do you think?

  3. Rachel Says:

    I think you can tell a lot about a game by playing it for an hour, and sometimes I am okay with doing that for games I don’t want to play all the way through. Reading about video games takes a lot of time too, but I think I actually prefer it to playing all the time…

  4. Pippin Says:

    @HM – Yeah, no I think it’s worth being contentious about, it’s a serious aspect of the experience of games. The fact that it *does* feel like a value judgement is precisely what worries me about it. I mean, you can always sidle away with some sort of “well I’m not saying games are a waste of time, just a waste of *mine*” or something, but geeze, that’s pretty rough. Probably the heart of it centres on how damned long games are and the sameness factor. Mass Effect 3 literally *was* Mass Effect 2 again, which was Mass Effect 1 again, and I probably didn’t really need to spend however long it was (100 hours? Could it be?) relearning that fact. But we already knew all that. At best I might mumble something about at least trying to make games that are distinct from the kinds of games I find myself wanting to avoid?

    @Rachel – Agreed, though from a critical perspective it’s hard not to worry that what you see in that first hour somehow is a false impression that might even be reversed by further play… but that kind of thinking extends all the way to having to finish the full game. (And then on Hard? And then get all the achievement? And then become a pro online player?) I do feel, though, that I’ve had enough revelations about games through extended play that I kind of feel like an hour’s sometimes not “enough”, even though it usually is I suppose. And of course you can’t tell in advance or anything, unfortunately.

  5. chad Says:

    When I was exhibiting in galleries I would take the time to see a lot of artist’s work, but only really to be inspired enough to turn around, and go back to the studio to get working again. That’s also what I do with games it turns out. I play, spend the bulk of my time looking in detail at how the environment was made, and when I really like what I’m seeing I turn it off and start making.
    It’s not a comment on the work, or a value judgement, it’s a function of the work.
    There’s some odd machismo mixed in with how gamers are expected to game.

  6. Pippin Says:

    That’s a nice way of thinking about it! I will take that on as my own, too!

  7. Harbour Master Says:

    And now I start to see the edges of a future essay…

    It’s not what you wrote, but the idea I’m fumbling around the edges of here is the hypocrisy of saying games are a waste of time then making games and expecting other people to waste time on them.

    But that rather tars all games with the same infernal brush, and that is the flaw of the general statement above.

    So I will put it this way Pippin: None of your games eat up anyone’s lives. Well, let’s put The Artist Is Present to one side, okay? =) There’s no hypocrisy taking shots at “time sink games” as you work in a different space.

    I do wonder, though, about developers that work on life-churning epics but don’t play such games themselves. The responses on Twitter suggest developers not having time to play games is the norm.

  8. chad Says:

    “..and expecting other people to waste time on them”
    You don’t have to be making your work for anyone, especially an audience with consumer rights and gamer expectations.

    “I do wonder, though, about developers that work on life-churning epics but don’t play such games themselves.”
    What is it that you wonder?
    The developers that I’ve been surrounded by play a lot, but perhaps not as much as they’d like or as they once used to.

  9. Harbour Master Says:

    Chad, I’d argue that there’s plenty of ego invested in games and most developers are creating for an audience, particularly those working on larger projects.

    Pippin’s mentioned several times that making games is more fun than playing them and this post triggered some thoughts about something I’ve been mulling over for awhile. Do developers have a responsibility not to squander their players time? It seems even more poignant when those developers are acutely aware of their own time constraints. The question of responsibility has been thrown up in different quarters: it’s at the heart of the Zynga hate, Jonathan Blow brought it up in his talk at Rice university, and its deeply integrated into the gamification/exploitationware debates.

    I think I’m going to retreat out of these comments soon, I’ll end up writing my essay here instead of where it should be… =)

  10. Pippin Says:

    As you said earlier, HM, we need to be pretty careful about the semantics of “game” and “game developer” here – there’s all kinds, after all. I’m guessing the more arty/indie people may feel at least somewhat less audience-oriented, and thus more at liberty to opt out of mainstream games more often; whereas the large-scale mainstream developers probably just *don’t have time* to play games more often than they manage.

    For the producers (and perhaps critics) of games, in the end, there’s the tension between play and creation, and the question of their relationship, particularly, as Chad said, the idea that play is a kind of functional research for creation.

    For the audiences, well, I guess I hope they can find what they want and play it. Not all that clear to me that developers should feel responsible for time wasting… the market has spoken and all that? A cheap answer, but not necessarily untrue… we can all opt out of Mass Effect 15 and do other things, but people’s wallets seem to be saying Mass Effect 15 is totally awesome and they’ve preordered Mass Effect 16.

    Those of us finding the interminable repetition of mainstream games and their insane scope a turn-off seem to be in the minority, in short. In that situation, the best response is most likely the obvious one: make something different or have a critical voice in the mix.

  11. Harbour Master Says:

    Okay, I will take it on the nose that, yes, some developers are not making things to please an audience in the focus group sense. Although I still hang on to point that a game is to be played, implying players, implying a relationship that the developer initiates. Look at that, my fingernails are still clinging on to the ledge there. Screeeeecccchhhhh….

    I don’t think the market is a great arbiter because we’re dealing with Skinner boxing and Pavlov and all that, so the question of misusing player’s time is more ambiguous. That’s what made Blow’s talk so contentious, because he proposed an almost a nanny state vision of developer responsibility vs “but I was enjoying that, you ass!”.

    And you betcha even though there’s howls of protest about Mass Effect 3′s ending which has been construed as demeaning the time invested over the entire series (caveat: not played, have no idea what the fuss is all about), that a Mass Effect 4 would probably still make a killing. It’s how the 80s reboot of Star Trek survived for such a long time, even though it was stuck in the plot recycler and banal character generator for years. Its reputation rather than pleasure kept it alive.

    My comments are thoughts-in-progress. I’m not exactly sure where I sit on these issues yet, but I can’t close the book on them that easily.

  12. Pippin Says:

    “A game is to be played” seems basically fair, it’s not like I don’t give *some* consideration to what it might be like for someone playing one of my games, it’s just more in the sense of “will they get the idea?” rather than “will they think it’s rad and fun?”

    The behaviourist ideas behind games as an argument only goes so far and pretty much assumes that all players (and I suppose humans if you want to get down to brass tacks) are a bunch of total idiots. Specifically, it totally disregards the choice not to play at all. Obviously if you’re all like “I am going to play FarmVille” then you’re likely to succumb to its devious ways, but you’re also entirely free to say “well, this sucks and takes too much of my time, so I quit!”. Something like FarmVille is a bit more nefarious in that it intertwines you with other people’s games, as I understand it, so it might be harder to extract yourself, but that’s certainly not the case with, say, the Mass Effects. There’s no reason you *have to* play them in the first place, and if you start and don’t like where it’s headed, stop. It’s pretty condescending to have this image of players as helplessly in thrall of games and it being the developer’s responsibility to look after them.

    The other idea is simply the age old “good art/bad art” debate where someone says “all these other games are shit and it’s irresponsible to make shitty games and waste people’s time!” But that’s a whole other thing revolving around the qualities of media and people’s choices of what to consume.

    I’ll have to see or remind myself of the Jonathan Blow talk, I feel I saw it but I’m not so sure right now…

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