A low percentage of players actually finish the video games they begin. While we’ve known for some time that this is true anecdotally, recent developments like Xbox Live and Valve’s Steam have allowed us to collect some real statistics, and they are disheartening: as the game progresses, more and more players fall away, until a mere fraction of those who start the game experience the ending. People get bored of books, or walk out of movies and plays, but not on anything like the scale that they don’t finish games.
Is this really a problem? I think it is.
We want people to take games seriously – as a form of art for the next century, as a new way to express things creatively – and yet somehow on the whole everyone finds games easy to put down and never pick up again. Why? Maybe the player reached a sequence that was too frustrating or too difficult for him, or he decided he just didn’t have the time to spare on games anymore and didn’t care much about the story. Many games already feature lackluster second halves and endings, partly because developers know that most of their audience won’t even make it that far, so it’s a self-reinforcing cycle.
To break the cycle and keep players engaged, some teams work on ways to try to reduce or remove moments that could cause players to become angry and give up, or invest in compelling stories that captivate players and make them want to find out what happens next. But the industry itself still seems to believe it’s acceptable for games to be evaluated on what amounts to a small slice of the entire gameplay experience. Reviewers will write reviews and industry professionals will vote for awards on the basis of having played just portions of the game. And it continues because nobody would say that this abbreviated game evaluation method produces completely inaccurate results. If the first level plays a certain way and exhibits certain qualities in its design, we are virtually assured that the last level, ten or twenty hours later, is essentially the same thing (notwithstanding some changes in the difficulty and setting). In other words, most games are repetitive and predictable enough that we feel we understand them without finishing them.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that most consumers ultimately feel the same way. There’s a certain kind of hardcore player for which finishing games (especially the very long and difficult kinds) is like a of rite of initiation, a point of pride because so few have the skills, time or desire to do so. But even many enthusiast gamers don’t finish the games they own. So if consumers and the industry are agreed – that the full course of a game is often too much of a bother to play – then why are we still creating games with hours of filler content through which few people will make it?
What if games were only as long as it took to get across their main ideas, about game design or the world around us? It would be a dramatic change, one that would challenge a lot of what we assume consumers are paying for when they buy a game. But at the very least, the critics would be forced to complete game before writing their reviews.