Puritan Work-Ethic, How I Loathe Thee

I do not like work, even when someone else does it -- Mark Twain

Most video games are a rip-off.

Nearly every video game since "tank pong" has buried its best content behind layers of work. Unlike any other retail product I can think of, when you buy a video game, the chances that you will actually get what you paid for are infinitesimal. I can't think of a single game I've played where I am confident that I've seen every single level; unveiled every coveted secret; unlocked every whatsit and pretty and soundtrack left like kipple by the designers in the dark corners of the code.

I bought it. I want my game.

When I buy a book, the only thing that stands in the way of completing it is the page count. And I know the page count going in. I can read the last chapter standing in the bookstore. If I find Chapter 56 too cumbersome, I can skip it entirely and move on to the better parts of Moby Dick (there are better parts, trust me).

Sometime about 10 years ago, we started measuring video games in terms of "hours". A game that gave you 5 hours of gameplay was somehow a ripoff. A game that proffered 100 was some kind of opus. But the reality is that most gamers play a small fraction of even those 5 hours. Let's face it, a lot of games suck. I buy the game. I play it for an hour or two. I see the pretty. I hear the boom. I go "cool" at the twist or the plot or the theme that made me want to buy it in the first place. Then back it goes into the GameSpot "used" bin.

Some genres are bigger offenders, bigger overall ripoffs, than others.

From Doom to Halo, first person shooters have propagated the evil concept of levels. I'm playing level 12. Level 12 sucks. I suck. I've killed random demon #212 and I'm 5 minutes past the last save point. But I have to get through level 12 to play level 13 where the giant pretty monster of death awaits, and that's supposed to be the coolest thing ever. Excuse me, I bought the game. I'd like to go directly to the pretty monster of death.

Zelda, Oblivion, and all the role playing games in-between take this curse of Calvinist suffering and at least attempt to justify it through story. If I want to meet the Grey Fox I've got some thieving to do first. These games are marginally more palatable and feel like less of a ripoff, because at least the barriers to the content are logical. But as a capitalist consumer, they still keep me from getting what I paid for without an additional investment of hours and hours of time.

But by far the worst offenders are MMORPGs. Oh how the hours have drained from my life as I've made cloth caps or shot rabbits solely to get to the shiny I've ostensibly already paid for with my $14.95. Even highly refined and otherwise excellent games like World of Warcraft, or more recently Guild Wars: Factions, suffer from this curse. Hey, at least with the offline offenders I can spend half an hour with my friend Google to find a magic "cheat" that gives me the hollow satisfaction of sneaking out what I paid for in the first place.

I play games to escape. To go somewhere else. But our industry has so ingrained this concept of "earning" our fun that the best is somehow always saved for last. Like modern day Puritans, we've convinced ourselves that we are not worthy of that for which we've already paid. Sinners in the hands of an angry god, we don't deserve our fun until we pay in blood.

But verily I say unto you all is not lost. I think we might--just might--be in the midst of a rebellion. Increasingly, developers realize that to be successful they must treat the consumer with respect. Most FPS titles are now designed for content-leveling multiplayer from the ground up, or at least contain enough plot and story that they break the "level" mentality. Even Battlefield 2 with its unlocks doesn't systematically leave the casual player subject to the eternal boot-licking scorn of the cheese-eating high school student. The Grand Theft Auto series, while maintaining some traditional story-based barriers, is popular precisely for the sense of freedom it evokes. There's still content below the surface, but you feel like you can go find it if you want it.

Real Time Strategy games, which are often conceived entirely as competitive multiplayer experiences, have dropped their content barriers as well. A few hours with a modern RTS title and most players will have seen the full spectrum of what the game has to offer, and can focus on (heaven forfend) actually playing the game. Sims (all kinds) break the very mold of the problem. In Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight (FS9), you can fly any plane, from any location in the world, at any time, in any conditions. All that stands in your way is your own competence. Sandbox games like Spore (we hope!) and Second Life replace the very concept of levels with building and evolution--violent and competitive evolution occasionally--but not illogical puritan denial.

Perhaps this curse of puritan work-ethic is easy to understand. Games are supposed to be challenging. When the opponent is simply a machine, there needs to be some reason to keep playing, a goal. The only coin the game can offer is what it can hide in the bits and bytes of the game itself.

But you know what? Real life is hard enough. Give me back my game.


Random battles!

Good article, Rabbit. I agree, largely. It's part of the reason I love the DS and switched from consoles a while ago. I just found that my preferred usage pattern was 10 minutes here, 20 minutes there. Games didn't need to be long. They just need to be fun. The DS is a great platform for that. As was the GBA, really. Maybe it's a 2D thing.

The downside to that is that either a game has to be REALLY replayable or there have to be a large number of games, otherwise you'll eventually (like I've stated so publicly on the forums) play through all that there is worth playing for a system and run the risk of flat out running out of things to play. The DS is unfortunately like that. Lots of great games. Lots of nice, bite-sized games. But emphasis on the bite-sized. If that's all play, you'll run out of games. I think the lesson is that developers DO need to focus more on games that aren't like work. More pick up and play. Look at the most popular games for XBox 360? Seems like the Live Arcade games are still very popular. $400 next gen system and people are playing Geometry Wars and UNO and looking forward to Lumines.

Guess I struck a nerve. People over there seem to think I'm either a complete fool or merely stating the obvious. (grin). I appreciate all the discussion though. Hopefully someone lurking in the corners is actually making the next game we'll all want to play.

The issue of "short" games that DSGamer brings up is a good one, and a whole separate topic. My PSP and renting go hand in hand. It's the biggest problem with PC games actually--you can't rent them (please tell me if I'm wrong, I'll be signing up immediately).

Danjo Olivaw wrote:
SommerMatt wrote:

I am a huge fan of the GTA series of games, but I have to say that the single most annoyingly cheap POS moment I've experienced in a LONG time was when I first played GTA: SAN ANDREAS.

They finally let you swim in this damn game, so when I get to the top of the "allowed" real estate with it's blocked-off bridge, I decide to just jump in the river and swim across. Suddenly, I'm a 4 star wanted felon, with SWAT teams sniping me from helicopters and cops in hummers on suicide missions trying to flatten my ass. For what!? Swimming across a river? That's a killable offense? (hey, not like I was an immigrant or anything).

I agree that this is silly, but at the same time the arbitrarily illegal islands allowed for an interesting minigame. First you get a parachute, then you break into the airport to steal a plane. The goal is to fly as far into forbidden territory before being shot down by missiles (which can be dodged with practice) before parachuting down to a survive-athon. Bonus points if you can snag a tank or Harrier.

Oh, trust me... I also made it into a "minigame"-- see how far I could get before being wasted. Except the way I did it was to swim across on foot, and see how far I could get. There was a farm nearby, where you could snag a pickup truck... and at that point, I just hit the highway and hoped for the best. I usually stopped along the way to switch vehicles, when possible. I actually made it all the way to San Fiero, but again the game cheats by not allowing you to lose any wanted stars in any way (no save points, star reducers don't work, can't change clothes, etc.).

I just dont get it... why not just let people do whatever the hell they want? Ok, fine, so I can't buy a house or go on a mission before I'm supposed to. Isn't that enough to force me to follow the path? And what if I just want to buy a house and deliver pizzas instead of doing the main mission? Why can't I?

Even though I keep buying these games, I never even finished the last one because I got stuck on one lousy mission-- I had to buy an airport for 80,000$, and I had like $10,000. I had been spending all of my mission money buying safe houses and everything, and suddenly I can't progress in the game without spending a huge wad of cash that I don't have. Yeah, I guess I could go beat down pimps about 5,000 times, but as the article said, that's a ridiculous amount of work and NOT fun at all. I entered a cheat code to be able to do it, but that marked my game as "cheats enabled," whatever that means.

rabbit wrote:

Guess I struck a nerve. People over there seem to think I'm either a complete fool or merely stating the obvious.

I don't wish to call you a fool. I just think that the code slaves that make the games are the only area in gaming that bring forth parallels with the Puritan work ethic.

Well, maybe MMO's. I'd consider those work, but that's why I don't play them. Yet I don't consider this as an affront to me personally by the designers.

That's a shame Matt, the airport is the only thing in San Andreas that money is good for.

Video games aren't the only ripoffs.

I bought a chessboard twenty-five years ago, and I'm still not the world's reigning grand champion.

I mean, I paid for the board and everything, but I'm not getting all the entertainment I expected!

The game could do the equivalent of: "I see this is the 52nd time you're trying this San Andreas mission where you try to fly the mini-biplane from the hobby shop, kill four guys on motorcycles halfway across the city, then fly back and land without running out of gas. You're clearly not going to get it. How about we cut a deal? Don't worry you're not cheating, I'll just note in your Stats that you'll have spent 500,000 game dollars to buy your way out of having to bang your head against this mission."

Shenmue had something like this. There was a stealth mission where you had to sneak past some security guards and get inside a specific warehouse. If you failed repeatedly, the subsequent attempts became gradually easier. You lost a in-game day for each failed attempt.

I agree to a point. Obviously, level-based games can't give you everything at once. But I sure hate having to win a certain number of races to unlock the good cars. Geesh.

Oh, and I can't stand long FMV sequences. If I wanted a garbage movie, I'd watch a DVD.

rabbit wrote:

Guess I struck a nerve.

Yep. There is rioting here in the streets of Austin. People are saying levels have to go or they'll start killing puppies.

Hypothesis: that there are two types of games:

Type 1 - Monopoly games - a game where you have to follow a sequence and succeed at sub-tasks in order to reach the game's possible end state (you can't build houses or hotels without getting the right properties, saving $$, etc, and it is hard to win the game without houses or hotels).

Type 2 - Chess games - a game where all of the rules and options are put out in front of you at the beginning of the game, and all of the gameplay comes from how you leverage those rules and options. (Turning pawns into queens requires prerequisites, but the vast majority of gameplay is available to you even if you never get to that point.)

RPGs and single-player FPS are type 1.

Tetris and multiplayer FPS are type 2.

Speaking as somebody who loves games but doesn't have nearly the time to play that he did before wife, house, etc, I could use a lot more type 2 games. I've been playing RPGs since the Wizardry days; despite the great reviews for Oblivion, I have a hard time making the investment in another X hours of levelling up a novice, no-experience character by killing rats in basements, goblin raiding parties, or whatever the equivalent is in Oblivion.

necroyeti wrote:

Um, you just got linked on Slashdot. Congratulations!

EDIT: Also, my condolences to Pyro et al.

Also add linkage from dvorak.org/blog

I appreciate all the comments. I guess if nothing else it started a conversation about what we all really want out of games.

Oh, and in regards to one comment I got:

Tank Pong was one of the few dozen modes on the "Combat" cartridge that shipped with the Atari 2600 in 1978. It remains one of the purest 2 player deathmatch games of all time, and is still worth playing in 2006.

There, now I feel really darn old.

I agree with a lot of what's being said here. There were definitely moments where that "cut a deal" bit would have been welcome (a few choice instances in Jimmeny's Diary come to mind), but I sometimes... I do like to work for something in a game. Take the example of seeing the Grey Fox; I really didn't find that fair. Of course you've got to work for it"” it's a whole new story line. Those "barriers" are there because that's all there is. Remove them so you can just walk around and take a gander at the Gray Fox and what've you got? It's still entertainment, but it's not a game anymore. It's a picture gallery. The barriers and challenges in a game are there because that's pretty much one of the staples of what make a game (especially of the RPG and adventure variety).
EDIT: Definitely this approach is not suited to all game types. As was said, nary an RTS adopts this mentality. But each game is different: if I strongly disliked having to manage a great number of units simultaneously, would I say that Civilization was a poorly crafted game? No, chances are I'd write off strategy as a whole and find something more to my tastes. Likewise, if I want to be able to experience absolutely everything a game has to offer the first time through, chances are that RPGs and adventure games are not for me. It's unfair to label an entire style of game design off as a cheat. I cannot fairly say that all French literature is terrible because I must work to read it. If French isn't my cup of tea, I'll get the English version instead. Alright, that was a bit of a vague parallel, but I was trying to use French writings to represent a style of game that requires what some deem to be work to complete.

If you take away the fights, thefts and challenges in an rpg, what you're left with is a poorly written book (maybe with a good story if you're lucky) that is dictated to you by little digital avatars. Why go through the trouble when you could just pop down to the local library? On that note, if in an RPG your goal is to get to the highest level possible, then yes you will have to grind or what-have-you, but those are limits that you are defining. If your goal is to find out what happens in the story then it's not often you have to do much more than just play your way through. Personally, when playing Paper Mario for example, I didn't find I needed to go out of my way to kill every living thing in dungeon. I play through to the end, watch as the credits roll, and otherwise get what I paid for. Then I fire the game up again and see if I can squeeze out any more entertainment.

Playing a game a second time through, for me at least, is a different experience altogether. This, if anywhere, is how the grinding or preposterous challenge comes in. But I maintain that this is its proper place. Did you buy Metroid to see Samus greet you in a pink leotard at the end? No. That leotard is a bonus. An Extra. An unlockable. You don't purchase Silent Hill to see the puppy overlord ending, it's something extra you "work" for. If the term "work" apply's to what your doing, then don't do it; if it isn't entertaining then I just avoid it altogether. It does happen, every now and then, that an impossible challenge makes its way into the normal course of a game. This is indeed a poor design decision. But it does not happen all that often. Just as there are bad books there are bad games.

To extend the book metaphor; yes you can skip through parts of books that bore you, but then can you maintain that you are getting what you paid for?


The ring of power is cast into Mount Doom and destroyed

. Was that worth the thirty dollars I shelled out for the LOTR trilogy? I'd argue no; when I buy a game or book, I pay for the process as much as I do the ending. That's what keeps me entertained. I don't see it as work.

Am I just masochistic?

I think many people have read my article and imagined me sitting here at home, hating every game I play because I want the whole thing in a nice little package with a bow, and I can certainly see why.

The truth of course is I play most of the same games as the rest of you and have a heck of a good time. There are offenders and non-offenders and a million shades in between. I'm not looking for zero-challenge experiences. I'm asking for the challenges to be meaningful, relevant, and not arbitrary earn-the-game excercises.

Do I read the last chapter of every book? Of course not. Do I skim through the occasional section? Sure, especially if I'm re-reading a book I know very very well. I re-read the Hobbit with my daughter on a regular basis. But we don't read every word from cover to cover, she makes requests: "Daddy, can we skip the riddles and go right to when he sneaks out the door?"

rabbit wrote:

I think many people have read my article and imagined me sitting here at home, hating every game I play

Only those who skim articles to get to the good parts
Those hypocrites.

Chiggie Von Richthofen wrote:

. . . and are pretty much the point of the experience. Have you ever watched someone play an MMORPG? To them it's not repetive gameplay, it's visual accounting, they love it. The live for it. For those of us who didn't live for it, we quit. People typically aren't going to keep playing something they think has no point.

In my experience (2.5 years in DAoC, 1 year in WoW) people accept the boredom and annoyance as a cost for doing the really fun stuff. I don't know anyone who lived for repeated 18-hour ML3 runs, or gathering herbs. I know people who did it because they wanted to give themselves or their team an edge, an advantage, in the main event. DAoC wasn't about Master Levels or gathering the money you needed to outfit yourself - it was about getting out there and competing in RvR. Everything was driven by RvR. You tolerated the stupid stuff in order to stay competitive - it wasn't fun in and of itself to anyone I knew.

And that, I think, is rabbit's point. If you want me to do something in order to get to the fun stuff, make that something fun too - and give the player some way out if it becomes too much. This is a game, dangit - it should be fun all the time, not just some of the time.

I definitely see you point about making the leveling as fun as the goal. I played Everquest for about 6 months and I got hooked by a few guys I used to work with. One of these guys would just keep making level 65 characters and then sell them. Once he got to the end he just wanted to start over again. That is an extreme example of and MMO'r and, yes, he probably did have brain worms, but it really made me question why I was playing at all. I just figured it took a certain kind of person to sit there and do that.

There were 4 of us that would play EQ in the lab where I worked and you should have seen these guys freaking out the day I loaded Quake 3 on their machines to mix it up.

Not every game, perhaps, can fall under this "don't make it work" category... but one that really CAN is RPGs. I realize that some people's fun is someone elses torture, but I HATE level grinding for the sake of the game telling me I need to be level X in order to do something. In many of the Final Fantasy games you had a choice-- go into the final boss fight UNDERleveled and get your ass handed to you, or else spend a week grinding to a point where the final fight was a total joke.

I can't remember which game it was (grandia? Lunar?), but this particular title made every fight in the game RELATIVE. If you were level 10 or level 100, the boss you fought was going to be 2.5x tougher than you were, for example. That way, everyone is happy, and the challenge still remains for both types of gamers.