Downtime is disappearing in modern games. Is that really a good thing?
Laughing at death in FTL
Just like everybody else on the Internet, I spent a fair bit of time playing FTL, the ultra-hot indie game that has you, a spaceship, and a crew of adorable little sprites jumping from place to place, running away from an impossibly huge threat and getting into adventures (read: fights) along the way. It’s called a “roguelike”, since it has permadeath and randomly generated systems and encounters. Like Rogue, it’s great fun.
Like Rogue, it’s also hard. Often impossibly hard. I’ve only barely finished it on “Easy” mode, and never did finish it on “Normal”. I’ll think that I’m doing pretty good, and then I’ll make one wrong move and my ship will be:
- on fire,
- filled with murderous mantis mauraders, or
- all of the above.
It’s a tough game.
What’s confusing, though, is that when I failed, I actually laughed. Every time! I’m not one to laugh at tragedy and I’m NOT one to laugh off dying in games. I’ve never broken controllers per se–seems like a waste of good money–but I’ve gotten as frustrated at repeated deaths as anybody. So why not FTL?
What eventually came to me was that I only get frustrated at dying in a game like FTL when I felt like it wasting my time. Like when you’re grinding levels in an RPG, exploring mazes in an FPS, poring over spreadsheets in a sim, or fighting a boss over and over again: that sort of thing.
Not in FTL. Sure, I died and restarted a lot. Every moment of play still felt like it mattered. Decisions were immediate. Choices had visible consequences. Not a minute felt wasted. Without that, in-game death lost its sting. It wasn’t frustrating anymore. Those glorious last stands and humiliating screwups became entertaining. So I laughed!
FTL isn’t alone in that respect. It isn’t even uncommon. Gaming as a whole is becoming direct and immediate. Year by year, genre by genre, “downtime” is going away.
So what exactly do I mean by “downtime”? In games, most of the time, you can feel like you’re directly accomplishing something. Your actions and goals are clearly connected, and there’s a constant sense of momentum. What I call “downtime” are those times when you lose those things; it’s progression, but it’s indirect progression. It’s often helping you accomplish your goal, but it’s not directly obvious how or why, so you don’t feel like you’re accomplishing things even when you are.
It’s simple enough to understand when you’re thinking about, say, RPGs or strategy games. You’ll often spend time poring over maps, charts, graphs, and inventory lists, in order to sort out how and whether you can move forward; in RPGs, you’ll also spend time “grinding” in order to make your character powerful enough to take on the opposition. It’s often necessary to master the game, but it can be tedious and painstaking work. It leaves players wishing they could get back to the “real” game, and back to that clear sense of real progress.
It’s also true for less cerebral and more action-oriented games. When you struggle to beat a difficult boss or platforming section, you’re indirectly accomplishing your goal. You’re learning needed skills and/or the “tricks” to move forward. Like a lot of skill-building, it’s often frustrating. The development isn’t obvious, but the challenge is.
FTL is different. It’s constantly moving forward. The challenges are live-or-die, and if you die, you’re done. There’s few “tricks” to painfully learn that will get you through all the challenges. the “best” choice is always changing: Missiles or drones might be superior in one play-through, but useless in another. Even shopping for ship’s equipment involves meaningful decisions, because once you’ve left a shop, you’re rarely able to go back to it. It never loses its momentum.
A lot of genres show this shift. It’s obvious in social games, noticeable in FPSes, and even changing RPGs. Games are becoming tremendously streamlined thanks to some serious economic and cultural changes. It seems good‒but this might say something really scary about us as an audience:
Games might have lost their indirect progression because we can’t just handle it anymore.
Social and Mobile: straight to the point
As the newest trend in gaming, the white-hot social and mobile game scenes are the clearest examples. They get straight to the point faster than anything else.
In most mobile games there’s no context, waiting, or strategy. You’re immediately running from demon monkeys or hucking spherical birds or slicing up fruit or landing planes. There’s often a learning curve, but it’s usually smooth and you are always directly engaged. Many mobile action games like Jetpack Joyride and Temple Run don’t even use more than one button, and mobile-focused puzzle games like Angry Birds or Cut the Rope give you immediate feedback and and near-instant repeatability. You barely have time to breathe.
Many social games are actually built around players avoiding downtime. Actual play of a social game like FarmVille is almost completely direct. Every action has a visible effect on the game environment. Once you’re done with direct play, you can’t switch to indirect play. No, you’re expected to turn the game off and go do something else. The only ways to get more direct play are by recruiting your friends or paying the game-makers cold hard cash.
There are some that do involve strategy, planning, and thought. After all, both Command and Conquer and Civilization hit the social scene. Yet both “social” versions are far more straightforward: C&C has no unit control, and Civilization World has no settlement and exploration. You aren’t even controlling a whole civilization; you’re just controlling one city, removing the grand-scale coordination and strategy that arguably defines Civilization. In fact, since multiple players are involved in a single persistent civilization, you don’t even have to PLAY to see things evolve. That’s streamlined.
Social and mobile are young sub-genres based on constantly-evolving platforms. They may become more cerebral affairs. Right now, though, it’s all about Angry Birds and FarmVilles…and those games are as direct as it gets.
Lost in DOOM
FPSes changed. Remember DOOM? It was the FPS genre for nearly a decade, and DOOM has a LOT of downtime. It has intense monster fights, but it also has painstaking searches for doors and keys inside gigantic mazes filled with hidden doors, passageways and traps. My playing DOOM always involved feeling like I’d “wasted” hours and hours running around in circles trying to find the right place to go. I hadn’t, it was part of the game, but it felt that way.
Even if I found where I needed to go, I might not progress further. I remember playing DOOM-style FPSes and getting immensely frustrated when I realized that I didn’t have enough ammo and health to be able to get through a section. I’d have to replay whole sections to have the health and ammo I needed. Sometimes I’d be set back HOURS if I wasn’t smart with my saved games.
That was frustrating, but that’s just how the FPS worked. You searched mazes for enemies, cleared them out, grabbed health and ammo, and moved on. The search lasted longer than the fights did.
Compare that to the current FPS standard-bearer: Modern Warfare. Like FTL, Modern Warfare has almost NO downtime. You never get lost in mazes: you travel in one direction down a series of linear corridors. You never search for health or ammo: health is constantly being regenerated, and ammo drops from the fallen. You never hunt for keys: doors are opened by your omnipresent squadmates. It’s constant momentum.
Yes, you’ll occasionally beat your head against setpiece fights. You still NEVER need to replay anything, though, and only pauses in the action are for in-game cutscenes. Players and writers alike still rage against them.
Multiplayer works much the same way. It’s not “linear”, but the maps are small, twisting affairs, specifically tailored to put players in constant conflict. Respawn times are fast, and the game’s best objective modes (like “Kill Confirmed”) ensure that players are constantly forced to keep moving, instead “camping” in one place. It’s constantly intense, and I think that has a lot to do with why people get so into it.
RPGs grinding away the grind
Even RPGs are changing. The genre most notorious for level-grinding and resource-managing downtime is no different than social games or FPSes. Repetition, planning and management are being ripped out, root and stem, leaving almost no downtime behind.
Compare early Japanese RPGs like Phantasy Star II or Final Fantasy IV to later JRPGs like Final Fantasy X or Final Fantasy XIII. It’s like night and day. The former had immense mazes where death could mean a LOT of time lost, as well having a whole metagame of health, status, item and magic management. The latter are mostly linear corridors punctuated by combat and cutscenes, much like a modern FPS. You couldn’t even control all your party members during combat in Final Fantasy 13‒and you didn’t even need to heal up between fights!
It’s even stronger in western RPGs. Consider the Elder Scrolls games. Both Daggerfall and Skyrim are lauded for being sprawling, time-consuming affairs; but are really very different.
Daggerfall had loads of momentum-free downtime. You needed to spend hours poring over the character creation screen in order to even survive the starter dungeon, as the slightest mistake could doom you. The dungeons were monstrously huge: it could take hours and hours to find what you need, and the unprepared were unlikely to make it out. Skill-training and reputation-building were arduous. Magic was necessary but draining and hard to use; while magic gear was expensive and fragile, found buried in piles of dead monsters’ otherwise-useless stuff.
The game was engrossing, as are many RPGs of its time‒but it required a lot of work and patience.
Skyrim is also treated as this big empty space that you get lost exploring in‒but, actually, it doesn’t waste your time any more than FTL does. Far from being empty, Skyrim is packed with accessible content. Almost any short trip will reveal new caves, towers, and other points of interest. Empty? Skyrim overwhelmed me. Dozens of options were a quick-travel away.
The play experience is far more streamlined as well. Melee and ranged combat is intuitive, and magic is both easily acquired and simply employed. There are no classes and no statistics; your skills and abilities derive from your in-game actions, with little planning or strategy required beyond selecting your character’s perks. Monsters and item drops are matched to your level, eliminating any need to “grind”, and you can even complete dungeon quest objectives before a quest is given, ensuring minimal repetition.
In its own way, “RPG” or no, Skyrim is much like Modern Warfare or Angry Birds: a smoothly-flowing experience where almost everything you do grants some sort of direct accomplishment or feedback‒yet Skyrim is seen, today, as a slow, ponderous game.
Games’ competition and the death of the break
So where did this come from? Is it efficient game design? Is it fashion and trendiness? Is it catering to people’s “busy lives”? That latter one is a popular (and slightly self-serving) explanation, but the stats suggest that we have as much leisure time as ever. Wasting time is wasting time, right?
Time-wasting has changed. Gaming has always had competition, sure, but the principal competition that’s changed. That is where the truth lies, and where the problem might be.
The principal competition for people’s time and money until recently was broadcast television. What’s the most important thing about broadcast television? You can only watch one channel at a time, and it’s really just a vehicle for advertising! So TV viewers usually focus on one show at a time, absent some channel-flipping, and are accustomed to downtime during the commercial breaks.
That means that regular TV viewers are used to indirectness. Sitting through commercials is an indirect way of getting to the TV programs you wanted; you implicitly understand that the ads make the show possible, so you endure them. It’s never been ubiquitous‒premium channels like HBO and Showtime dispense with it entirely‒and it’s always been grumbled about. Television-watchers are still accustomed to it.
Even the bits that aren’t advertising might still be slow. A lot of beloved television shows are long, multithreaded affairs with slow moments: from long-running series like Hill Street Blues and miniseries like Roots to modern serials like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad. Games and television are different media, but that’s the competition game-makers faced‒and a lot of the best television had long novel-like narratives.
(Also some of the worst, depending on how you feel about soap operas.)
Now, though, there’s social media. Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and webforums of all kinds. It’s a neverending and overwhelming flood, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No downtime. Not ever. There’s advertising, but it’s unobtrusive. It isn’t even straightforward “leisure time” like television. Anybody with a smartphone knows that it never really stops, and the multitasking needed to make sense of it means that we never focus on any one thing for too long.
Internet communication is also really short. Facebook or no, Twitter is undoubtedly the paradigmatic social media channel, just as Twitter-like text messages are replacing phone calls. Blogging was always seen as a shortform medium, but 21st century communication is (apparently) an infinite stream of blurbs shorter than your typical turn-of-the-century telegram. People spread news, share opinions, and even debate issues on Twitter…140 characters at a time.
THAT is what game designers are up against. Instead of providing a salve against boredom akin to television, now they have to compete with this limitless flood of free content. They’re catering to an audience that expects constant, near-unending stimulation–and up against the consumers’ own friends and acquaintances at that.
The shift in 21st century game design towards shorter, more intense experiences makes perfect business sense. Low-intensity indirect progression isn’t in keeping with the short sharp stimulative hits of Twitter and text messages. Slow, careful planning isn’t going to compel an audience that looks at quiet, contemplative moments as prompts to start poking their smartphones. Many developers even depend on that: the whole point of social and mobile gaming right now is profiting from those moments. You can’t blame them for that.
Our scary brain-changes
Blame or no, there are still problems here.
If it were just about taste or fashion, it’d be fine. At the worst it’d be annoying but ultimately harmless. Fashion and taste will move on, and so will games. Besides, Skyrim and Modern Warfare aren’t bad games. They’re GREAT games: as are FTL, Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja. We could simply relax and enjoy them.
It might not be taste, though. It might be capability. Some of the research, as reported by by people like Nicholas Carr, suggests that our very cognitive faculties are changing. We may be so accustomed to immediacy and brevity that we can’t endure their absence. The possible explanations vary: it could be an overload of short-term memory, an overload of interruptions, or engagement varying by medium, among others . Maybe it’s all of them. Hard to say.
But forget the reasons. Literate and intelligent people are discovering they can’t even read books. If they’re examples of a trend‒if people are losing the ability to read a book‒how would they ever make room for a lengthy, involved, occasionally-slow videogame? Long narrative-driven games face enough stigma as it is.
That makes it different. Directness and immediacy are great, but shouldn’t be the only option. Civilization on Facebook is a nice idea, but it’s no replacement for the real thing. CoD-style corridors are fun, but no replacement for DOOM’s mazes. Skyrim’s streamlined progression is great, but no substitute for the subtler pleasure of mastering a game’s systems to develop your RPG avatar exactly the way that you want to.
Struggling to learn and beat a hard, frustrating game makes the victory sweeter. Games with downtime‒with indirect progression‒can be as awesome as FTL or Call of Duty. We don’t want to be incapable of enjoying them.
Maybe it’s not a big problem. Maybe Carr et al are wrong. But the prospect of a society with minds quite literally incapable of enjoying some of the best games ever made‒like DOOM and Phantasy Star‒is downright scary. It would lock us out of the medium’s past, shrink creators’ toolsets, and deprive us of the struggles for success that characterize many of the greatest games.
I like Twitter. But I don’t want that.
Going forward: can we get the best of both worlds?
Good or bad, the situation is unlikely to change. Smartphones aren’t going anywhere, and neither is social media. It may play a less central role as constant connection loses its novelty, but there’s every reason to assume we’ll remain a distracted polity that sees the world in 140 character chunks. We can only hope that Carr et al are wrong about the repercussions.
That means games also aren’t likely to go back to the way they were, either. “Casuals” are getting more kinaesthetically savvy, but mobile is still going to try to fill up those spare moment, and there’s still going to be pressure‒no matter what the motivation‒to “get to the point”.
What I’m hoping is that we can find a way to bridge the gap. Some games do, and I think they may point the way forward.
Games environments don’t need CoD- or Skyrim-style linearity. Mazes can be fun! My time exploring The Elder Scroll: Arena’s complex mazes felt tremendously rewarding, for example, thanks to Arena’s intuitive and rewarding automapper. Dungeon-delving in Arena wasn’t simple nor straightforward, but I generally knew where I was and where I should go next. It was exploration done well, giving players the tools they needed.
RPGs can take the ordinary and make it engaging. Nintendo’s amazing Paper Mario and Superstar Saga show how to make simple “attacks” fun by adding timing and consequence. Final Fantasy X showed how you can take something as dry as combat character selection and turn into a dynamic and meaningful system. Even World of Warcraft spruced up its once-dry talent trees to ensure that players can make meaningful choices and really see those choices’ effects.
Even repetitive struggle can be compelling if you FEEL like you’re moving forward. Dark Souls and Demons’ Souls are widely lauded despite being both hard and repetitive. You know why you failed, and don’t mind the repetition because you feel yourself getting better. The game’s ingenious use of past players’ failures as warnings for current players makes it even better: your struggle aids everybody.
Perhaps what I’m really hoping is that we get the best of both worlds. Having nothing but “nonstop thrillrides” is no solution. Instead, give us classes and stats and strat-game economies and whatnot, but make it visually and kinaesthetically clear that these things have an effect. Give us planning and strategy, but make the effect transparent. Give us daunting and fiendish mazes, but give us useful tools like automappers so we can enjoy exploring them.
With luck, that’ll be enough.
(Most game media are from their respective promotional websites, except the Doom screenshot, which is Wikimedia Commons; the Arena map shot, which is from UESP; and the Daggerfall and Morrowind screenshots, which I took myself. TV-watching and cell phone pictures are also from Wikimedia Commons.)