First Click: Giant time-sucking video games are bad for you and bad for gaming


The Division, which came out this week, casts you as a resourceful survivor in a vast video game version of New York. The city is huge, and so too is the scope of the game, putting players on a treadmill that rewards them with incrementally better gear as they gun down increasingly powerful enemies over days, weeks, and months of play.

Like Activision's Destiny before it, The Division is new type of video game — a shooter set in a massively multiplayer world —€” but it's also one of an increasing number of titles that set out specifically to monopolize your time.

At a time when players have more choice than ever about the games they play, publishers are spending millions on games that aim to become your only game, something you'll stay invested in at the expense of everything else. While this approach has given us big and beautiful game worlds like The Division's New York, it's also having a negative effect on the industry, forcing publishers to eschew riskier bets and pad out those games they do make with pointless busywork.

That padding is already visible in The Division — early players were treated to the ludicrous sight of people standing in line to use an in-game laptop  as it has been in massively multiplayer games like World of Warcraft for many years. But this behavior isn't just restricted to online games any more: this year has already seen a slate of huge single-player titles that aim to dominate your free time.

Far Cry Primal, released last month, is stuffed full of collectibles  essentially pointless trinkets that exist primarily to keep people playing longer than they need to. This year's upcoming games continue the trend. The rebooted Hitman is a murder sandbox, and its developers plan to churn out new missions for your bald-headed assassin for the foreseeable future, hoping to keep players killing for months to come. No Man's Sky takes this to an extreme conclusion, promising a near-infinite universe of generated worlds that are yours to explore.

I think I play more video games than most  a good habit for someone who's written about them for money for eight years  but the scale of big publishers' modern games means even I can't keep up. I ditched Fallout 4 after about 20 hours of wandering its wasteland, and the DLC from the season pass I shelled out for will likely go undownloaded. Likewise, I'm convinced that Metal Gear Solid V is fantastic, but every time I see my barely played copy, I avert my eyes and sigh —€” the huge expanse of game laying before me feels more like overdue homework than fun.

Worse is when a relationship with one of these giant time-sucking games becomes unhealthy. I spent a thousand hours in Dota 2, but forced myself to quit cold turkey last year, realizing that although I was stuck in the feedback loop, I wasn't enjoying any part of the experience. I wasn't getting noticeably better playing with nine other randos every match, and their constant complaints left a sour taste in my mouth whether my team won or lost. After so much time sunk into it, I can't bring myself to uninstall Valve's MOBA, but I know I also can't dive back in again in case it plants another spear in my heart and dominates my free time for another two years.

Lately, coming off the back of a lapsed Destiny habit, I've started playing Street Fighter V. I've been ‘playing' Street Fighter games since the mid-'90s, but this is the first time I've moved beyond simple shoryukens and hadoukens to inspect the fighting game's considerable depths. Over the last few weeks I haven't even been battling opponents  instead I've spent hours in the game's training mode, throwing out quarter-circles and increasingly complicated combos against an immobile dummy, trying to program my brain and my muscles with the memories required to pull off the best moves in a real match.

Street Fighter is a very different game to The Division, Dota 2, and Destiny, but like all three, it is designed to pull you in and not let go. To prepare for Street Fighter, I spent spare time watching YouTube videos, reading guides, following Twitch streams  basically learning another language of cross-ups and crush counters, all without even touching a controller. The Division, Destiny, and their peers have similar layers of complexity, and demand the same devotion but It's impossible for the average human to repeat this feat for every huge game that comes along.

It's a bit of a facile complaint  "there are too many fun things for me to choose from!"  but from a more objective standpoint, the relentless production of these vast games is also a bad idea for major publishers.

The Division

Companies like Ubisoft throw millions of dollars at games like The Division. Teams of hundreds spend years on minute details, building up the graffiti and modelling car doors, in a bid to get you to trade your world for their game's. Publishers hope to earn a fanbase of millions and, through microtransactions, expansion packs, and an endless stream of downloadable content, create a cash cow to be milked for years to come.

This model has been defined by runaway moneymakers like League of Legends, an impossibly deep game that rose from humble beginnings to generate billions for developer Riot Games, and perpetuated by successes like Destiny. While early signs say it's worked for Ubisoft for The Division, the market's so saturated you can't hope to repeat this feat every month.

Just this month, Microsoft announced it was closing Lionhead, the venerable British studio behind the Fable games. Each of the three games in that series was a sprawling RPG, but the developer's now-canned project, Fable Legends, was set to be bigger still, acting like a Dungeons & Dragons sandbox for a party of friends. Other games have already suffered from similar overreach. Solid multiplayer shooters like Evolve and Titanfall were built to last, with DLC plans and the promise of future support, but both saw their communities dwindle in mere months. Their servers are now ghost towns. Even good sales numbers aren't enough. Publisher Square Enix sold 3.4 million copies of its rebooted Tomb Raider in its first month on sale in 2013  an impressive figure that was just over halfof what the company hoped it would shift.

In the meantime, those games that do hook a percentage of the populace become the de facto hobby for their players, increasing stratification among their ranks. People come to define their hobbies by a single game —€” I'm not a "gamer," I'm a Destiny guardian, a Dota 2 player, or Street Fighter-er.

And at the same time, as publishers hurl more and more money in a bid to build something that'll lock players in for years, indie studios are having more and more success with short games. Titles like Firewatch and Gone Home take a fraction of the cost, time, and team size to develop, and their short stories are likely to stick in the player's brain longer than the latest open-world RPG sticks in their console's disc drive.

I'm going to have to try The Division —€” the similarities to Destiny are too enticing for me to ignore —€” but I know that the nature of the game means that I'll either have to give myself over to it completely, rejecting all else for a few months, or shelve it for good. Neither outcome sounds that much fun to me.

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