As a child, my gaming purchases focused entirely on which games could absorb as much of my bored life as possible. I, like many child gamers, had two times during the year to procure new games, and my birthday and Christmas are very close together. The eleven months and three weeks between the two composed a long stretch that any new games for the year would have to fill. I remember researching a purchase in a video game store once, my coffers replete with proceeds from birthday cards. I did what any intelligent eight year old would do — compared numbers on the back of the box. Twenty hours of gameplay for this one, thirty for that; this one promises 200 levels, but this one promises four hundred. This technique did not yield appreciable results, as I ended up with Acclaim’s classic Batman Forever.
Seeing this again gave me heartburn.
Becoming an adult has predictably inverted my condition, as I now have money enough to purchase games but not time to play them. Understanding the needs of both gamer types helps me approach game criticism. The financially bereft elementary school gamers of the world want tons of content, metered out at such a pace to maximize the entertainment derived from a single title. For the hot shot young professionals such as myself, this content should be optional and clearly defined so we can finish the game quickly and finally take out the garbage that’s piling up god damnit. Seriously, that stuff has a funk that nothing indoors should ever have.
I’ve recently played two games that feature additional content that extends game play, but these two titles approach the release of said content in very different ways. Deadly Creatures, an action/adventure game for the Wii, sports a direct and explicit method. Patapon 2, on the other hand, relies on obscuring information — requiring player exploration to release game content. Both have advantages and drawbacks.
Deadly Creatures is one of those Wii games that’s actually a whole hell of a lot of fun but you’ve never heard about because THQ didn’t buy fullscreen flash ads on IGN. In the game, players alternate between controlling a spider and a scorpion, rolling around and killing everything in sight while two hicks voiced by Dennis Hopper and Billy Bob Thorton attempt to find some Civil War treasure. The story is relayed cleverly, and you get to make a scorpion shove his stinger down the throat of a lizard before tearing its jaw open with your pincer claws. Awesome.
It’s ok, the blood isn’t red!
Everything players kill is worth a point value, and when so many points are accumulated the game unlocks new moves and combat upgrades. Additionally, there are 450-ish grubs sprinkled around the game’s levels. These are the game’s "coins" in as many words – the developers generally stick a grub somewhere if they want you to go in that direction and you may not have otherwise. Others are stuck in out of the way places that require some exploration. At intervals shown to the player — like 50, 200, 300 grubs — the game unlocks a new pack of concept art.
This method of content delivery is direct and clearly defined. At any moment, the player can see what they’ve unlocked, and what specifically is required to reach the next unlock. Whether the player wants to go for another combat upgrade, unlock more character art, or just ignore all that and try to beat the level, they are given all the information needed to do what they want to do. The downside here is that since the mechanics are so explicit, players have an easier time finding everything, which ultimately shortens the maximum game play time.
Patapon 2 is the polar opposite. The game features tons of content — the Patapon creatures can be upgraded to several different forms, leveled up in any given form, and equipped with all kinds of equipment. Additionally, players can discover maps and rare materials in stages that lead to even more secret stuff. However, unlike Deadly Creatures, Patapon 2 gives its players almost no information in finding this content, or what it will do once its acquired.
Pictured: no progress whatsoever.
Players must play random levels trying random things repeatedly, hoping that they will stumble across something, anything. What’s more, players can’t set their own agendas. Say a player wants to evolve a Patapon to another form — he/she will have no idea how, and will just have to randomly play levels until the resources to do it are accidentally acquired. The benefit to this sort of gameplay is in the length of play. Due to the game’s obscurity, a gamer could spend months with Patapon 2 and still not find all the content the game can offer.
Ideally a game will feature both explicit progression, well defined content delivery milestones, and still suck a lot of time from gamers that have too much of the stuff to spare. Call of Duty 4 and Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 (and for that matter World of Warcraft) hit the perfect combination. An experience system employed as it is in these games offers an explicit numerical system by which players can unlock content, but at the same time offer months and months of play. Under this system, players who have to vacuum the floor and drive to the post office (AGAIN) know what they’re missing, and players who need something to do while their parents are at work all summer can merrily grief the rest of us — moving towards content unlocks all the while.