Some Games Should Have Fewer Features

Some Games Should Have Fewer Features

While reading Nathan Grayson’s assertion that Batman: Arkham Knight should have borrowed Shadow of Mordor‘s “nemesis” system to use with the various street toughs Batman fights throughout that game, I had a horrifying vision, one I don’t believe he intended to elicit. I imagined this gameplay system being piled on top of everything already present in Arkham Knight.

There are many reasonable complaints you could make about that Batman game, but a blanket “there’s Not Enough Shit in this game” statement is not one of them (as opposed to “it should have had this specific thing,” which is fair). It so faithfully follows the common mantra of blockbuster game sequels — “everything from the previous game, but also more and in a bigger world” — and open world games in general in the Age of Assassin’s Creed that it’s sort of a nightmare to deal with and comprehend if you are in fact trying to do so. Some individual aspects of the experience are good, but when taken as a whole it’s a mess. So when I imagined the Nemesis system thrown into that maelstrom of game features, I felt a strong impulse to run for the hills, so to speak.

This Batman game is of course merely representative of the problem, a symptom rather than the cause. The cause is the industry’s embrace of feature creep. In software and tech, feature creep is considered a bad thing because you have to make sure first and foremost that the product’s core features do what they’re supposed to and do it well — when you add features beyond that core it can turn the whole into a confusing mess for a lot of users. An easy gaming analogy is gamepads; an old NES controller was so simple that pretty much anybody could pick it up and use it, but a non-gamer is unlikely to be comfortable with a DualShock 4 even playing a game with a simple control scheme (like Knack, for example) because it’s intimidating to look at.

This is a sentiment I’ve seen leveled at Arkham Knight pretty often in the past week, that the game tosses you into the city with many of Batman’s gadgets, and it’s intimidating at first and by the end when you’ve unlocked everything it transcends intimidating for a lot of folks (though others like it that way; fair enough, though accessibility is still a question). Personally, even as somebody who plays 60 or more new games every year, I find myself regularly feeling daunted by open world games that are very full of Things To Do. Like in Dying Light, when following the prologue missions you find yourself in a safe zone surround by exclamation points. Or in Dragon Age: Inquisition when I glance at the map in the war room and see a dozen questing areas to unlock. Or in The Witcher 3 when I encounter a questgiver and/or bulletin board seemingly in every small town I ride my horse through. Or whenever I look at the map at all in Assassin’s Creed Unity. Having too many choices makes me anxious, even if the question is largely meaningless like “which sidequest should I do next?”

There is such a thing as too much in a video game, and I’ve been pondering this in the past week not only because of my experiences with the Batman game. Yesterday I Spirits of Xanadu. That game is a fairly standard package on the surface — a starship is inoperative way out in the far reaches of the universe and you have to go fix it and figure out what happened — with a twist. Though it does have bad guy robots trying to shoot you, you can switch the difficulty to “peaceful,” which just turns off combat and lets you explore the ship and experience the story at your leisure. It’s still creepy and weird and unsettling, and since the shooty bits mostly seemed to be there just because they could be I found the peaceful mode to be the best way to play.

The murmurs about Mafia 3 this week also got me thinking about Mafia 2 again. Mafia 2 was that impossibly rare open world game that had no side activities of note — people complained about this but I found it endearing. 2K Czech built a virtual city that served as a setting rather than a vessel to fill with #content that tries to pull me in a million different directions at once. It was a standard linear and focused narrative action game that just happened to take place in an open map, and it was good! I can’t honestly say why Mafia 2 turned out that way (game development is weird), but I like that it did. And considering feature creep is something companies like to avoid because it is prone to cause delays and budget overruns, I imagine 2K might have also been OK with that.

The best argument for streamlining might actually come from Rocksteady’s Batman games themselves. They began with Arkham Asylum, which back in the day was hailed as “finally a good Batman game!” It also was simply a good game, action adventure and stealth in a contained environment with a clear throughline and side activities that didn’t didn’t come off as #content. From there Arkham City and Arkham Knight have been all about going bigger and having more Stuff. And not more of the stuff that made Arkham Asylum good, but more Other Stuff. The series began as a simple and contained and easy to digest stealth-action detective game, and it ended with flying drones and Batmobile tank battles and Alfred urging you to prevent some bank robberies while the city is under occupation by a mercenary army.

I’m not trying to create a new law of game development here or demand every game be like I say it should be. But I am saying that bigger is often not better. Simplicity is accessible. Focused experiences are great. Quality over quantity. Every AAA game doesn’t need to aspire to be the only game core gamers ever will want to play. In other words, let’s take one thing at a time, Batman.

You can yell at the author of this post on Twitter at @philrowen


  • I love your phrase #content. So accurately describes what’s wrong with a lot of modern games.

    Also you mention Asylum, City and Knight, but not Origins. Did this game actually come out? Did I imagine it? Am I being gaslighted?

  • This is why Asylum is still my favourite. I’ve never been much of a fan of open world games, I think it ruins their pacing.

    Everything in Asylum had its purpose. All the gadgets were well defined, all the areas were well used.

    The electric gun in City exemplified the game for me. It was utterly pointless. We already had ways to stun enemies, so it didn’t add anything to combat. And repeatedly using exactly the same shoot-motor-to-open- door mechanism really doesn’t count as a puzzle. You’re just wasting my time.

    • Open world games are awesome when you make sure the content and side-quests are killer (everyone needs to look at The Witcher 3 when making side quests), but that almost never happens. Not in Skyrim, not in Dragon Age, not in Just Cause. I have never actually played the Arkham games myself aside from an hour with Arkham City, but I did watch most of Asylum being played and i remember loving how focussed in scope it was.

      In racing games particularly, open world is death. Compromised tracks in the service of a world you can’t interact with at all, you’re experiencing it from behind the wheel and inside an impenetrable box. When you can only access tracks from the menu, the tracks are tightly created to be perfect for racing, you have a clear sense of what you need to do next, and the game seems more suited for bite-sized play times. All are perfect for racing games.

      Open world is giving people what they ask for instead of what they need. The consumer doesn’t know what they want, you need to, as the creators, make the decision for them based on expertise and solid theory.

  • I think darksiders fell into a similar trap when 2 was released. We went from zelda, where every new item was a quest in itself to access to diablo, where every weapon was something to vendor the next time we passed a vendor. Moving through the first game, everything had it’s place and in 2 there were a lot of open areas devoid of life

  • Spot on.

    This is exactly how I feel about the general length of games too. Everyone seems to want 60+ hours of content. I like shorter games too, like portal.

    • I agree but disagree. I like long games but they have to have a story that really justifies its length. And the story has to be broken up properly, that way you can just play a level and walk away. It’s something the Half Life series (really all Valve games) got right. Clearly defined, fairly short chapters in a world that felt open, despite being almost completely linear.

      • Yes, but not all games.

        Long games with good stories are pretty well covered. Where are the short, innovative games? The type of game that captures my interest, and I can complete over the weekend. For those of us who don’t have 40 hours to devote to endless questing, or wandering the wastelands.

        I realise I’m in the minority. I just get sick of never actually completing games (because I don’t have the opportunity to sit and play them for hours at a time). 1 hour on Monday night… another hour mid week. 2 hours on the weekend. That would be enough to complete Portal. But I’d just be at the beginning of half of todays AAA games.

        • I highly recommend you try There Came an Echo. Quite a new game with a short Matrix-esque story. The entire game is (supposed to be) controlled by voice commands. It sounds right up your alley.

        • That was alien isolation for me. Nearing the end there was plot twist after plot twist that did nothing to progress the story it just seemed they were trying to drag the game out longer.

  • I am more than happy with how Arkham Knight plays out in terms of opening the map up. A lot of which you CAN choose to ignore if you dont want. However the new gold standard is Witcher 3. Finally a game that that balances that over bearing Assassin-Creed-show-me-everything dilemma. When I first started playing Witcher 3 I was so unhappy with all the ? everywhere, then realised that not only did they not show you everything but things still remained hidden until you found them. In some senses the ? were just a different version of a fog of war (the show where you have been, not the where you can physically see side of things) Likewise all the side quests in Witcher are combined as good, if not better than the main story and by doing them in conjunction actually opens up the world even more, with repercussions and follow on rewards/problems.

    the problem is never about filling open wold with too much stuff, the problem is always filling it with stuff that below there.

    • Agreed about The Witcher 3. There are some quite small but touching side quests that tie into the idea that the open world is being torn apart by war and the encroaching Nilfgaardian forces, with deserters and bandits preying the vulnerable. The Little Red quest is quite out of the way in terms of where it is located in the game world, but is really worth playing, with shades of Seven Samurai and interesting moral choices coming into focus. There’s another quest called Empty Coop, which involves searching for something that’s been stealing an old lady’s hens. If you make a certain decision in that side quest you can come back later on and see how that decision affected the game world.

      The Witcher 3 (not having finished it yet, mind) combines a strong main quest line with some interesting and varied side quests, and only lightly sprinkles the game world with the standard “bandit camp” or “monster nest” type filler. I think it is one of the best open world games I’ve played in a long time.

  • I completely agree, especially with your points about the Arkham games. I still prefer Asylum because of it.

    But I don’t necessarily thing it’s Rocksteady’s fault. I honestly don’t know if they wanted to keep forcing their game (which was designed around a tight and defined experience) to be bigger and more explosive. Although there would have been a lot of pressure to do that. I think they may have also been trying to give fans what they wanted, climaxing in the absurd yet entertaining bat-mobile which fans demanded from them for years. (The car, not necessarily the observability)

    It just comes down to the fact that I don’t think that the Arkham game mechanics were ever a great’choice’ for an open world game. The experience became diluted because of flying ridiculously all over the place and having less of a connection to your environment, as well as being a less tightly knit environment. The city also had to be limited in scope and scale because of the way the levels were designed (hence never feeling like Gotham as much as Asylum felt like Arkham Island).

    They are still good games and show an interesting development of open world game design, with a compromise between linear game design and open world super hero gameplay. Like a mix of Spiderman and something like more like Killzone. But I don’t think we’ve struck a balance between the exploration and missions, causing each to compromise the other. Unfortunately placing more markers on the map isn’t going to solve the ‘problem’ (if you see it as a problem).

  • I thought the exact same thing, I like these new counter arguments we’ve been seeing lately.

  • My trigger finger has been itching lately.

    I’ve looked at the last few games I’ve been playing – each with over 3 days actual game time played. In order of play they are Sleeping Dogs Definitive Edition, The Witcher 3 & Batman Arkham Knight. I’m not so much a fan of the sandbox genre as I was when GTA3 broke new ground.

    Anyone could argue I’ve exhausted myself and it’s my own fault. Yesterday I broke; I had to stop playing Batman and finished downloading Halo ODST. I completely forgot that Nathan Fillion had a star role in ODST. After all the find your own adventure BS I’m also really enjoying the Mombasa City AI guiding me from waypoint to waypoint, shooting my way through.

    I’m eagerly awaiting DOOM and Halo 5’s release. Simple games that will at most have a couple collectables per stage as extra content.

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