Games are Learning to Focus Again

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For many, the ubiquitous Ubisoft tower has come to represent stale design philosophy in modern blockbuster games. From Assassin’s Creed to Far Cry to The Crew, the mechanic has been used ostensibly to both gate and entice exploration of the game world. For me though, it’s never been the towers themselves that felt so rote and stale. I always enjoyed the vistas showcased at each ascent. Rather, it’s the more practical design purposes these towers served that always bugged me – side quest cannons built to spew icon barf all over your mini map.

Now I’ll admit I’m not the biggest fan of so-called “sandbox” games to begin with. I had to stop playing Skyrim after about 15 hours because the sheer amount of stuff to do and distractions I kept encountering on the path to any given objective began causing me genuine anxiety. Lots of people, however, love this free-roaming, exploratory nature of the modern open world game, and I’m not denying its appeal or success in many well-made titles. My problem is more with the put-in-everything-you-can-think-of mentality the genre has come to embody.

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Because here’s the thing: when you try to do everything, you do nothing well.

Somewhere along the line, video games lost focus. The transition from linear level-based, closely guided games of old to the renaissance of player agency heralded by games like Grand Theft Auto III has been a healthy development for the industry as a whole. Somewhere around the 2009 or 2010 mark, however, this new approach of openness and freedom started showing diminishing returns.

With games like the later Saints Row titles, Assassin’s Creed: Revelation and its successors, and even into later titles like Grand Theft Auto V and Watch Dogs, the doctrine became “if we can, we should.” This was the era of petty escort missions and unoriginal mission design. Many of the games that fall into this grouping are excellent games, and I’m certainly not trying to argue otherwise. But in a world as fun and wild as Saints Row the Third, I had no interest in performing repetitive side tasks for cash after the first few hours. I wanted the freedom, yes, but I also wanted more of the wacky, original content the core mission offered.

Nor did I ever want to play tennis in GTA. I entirely lost interest in the Far Cry series because the philosophy had become more instead of better, always trying to add another combat technique or mission type instead of asking of anything there already was any good. The novelty of optional mini games and trite, copy-and-paste side missions lost any allure after the PS2, and despite repeated critiques of these conventions by journalists and fans, for years it seemed like no developers were interested in refining their approach. Quantity was supplanting quality on many blockbuster fronts.

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Fortunately, games are learning how to focus again.

Take Doom and Hitman, two of the most acclaimed releases of 2016, and both reboots of longstanding franchises. These games succeeded because they showed a degree of focus that had largely been lost, while still fleshing out the existing content in great depth. I’d hope no one who played Doom would complain it was too limited in scope, or didn’t offer enough options and diversity in the gameplay. Doom selected a single goal – murdering demons in linear first-person maps – but it elaborated so much on that one thing, the thing you really care about, the reason you’re playing in the first place, that it never felt stale. It dived deep instead of spreading thin.

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Hitman comes from a fairly different place, as previous entries in the series celebrated player agency and different approaches, rather the more traditional linear style of previous Doom games. Hitman shows that player agency is a good thing. In fact, it’s a very good thing, primarily when it’s built around a honed and focused gameplay model. Hitman has perhaps the most focused objective possible: kill one specific target. It’s that fine-tuned frame work that makes the games inherent freedom work so well.

The mistakes come from confusing freedom with a lack of direction.

This I think is where so many games have gotten it wrong, and where many are starting to get it right again. It’s the reason (or at least one of them) that No Man’s Sky was such a huge disappointment: when you tell someone to do anything, nothing feels worth doing. Games like Minecraft work because in their own inherent lack of direction, there is a direction of sorts: dig, craft, survive.

Player agency is a powerful tool for games, and should be used as one. The medium is no longer limited to pixelated platformers spanning nine screens, and while there’s something to be said for smaller projects and nostalgia trips, big budget games shouldn’t be operating within restraints they’ve outgrown. Titanfall 2, Uncharted 4 and Dishonored 2 all succeeded by fleshing out a tight focus to great effect. I’m not preaching the demise of the open-world sandbox, I’m simply saying that a greater sense of direction and purpose in such titles, like the distinctive atmosphere and storyline of Mafia 3 or the ridiculous world and hacking abilities of Watch_Dogs 2, are more satisfying then the cluster-bomb method of sub-par side content.

2016 was a great year for games, and it signaled great things to come. I only hope developers heed the precedent last year set and continue building replacements for the Ubisoft tower.