Why More is Less in Modern Video Games

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In games today; or, at the very least, AAA games, more is more. Big blockbuster video games live in a culture of excess; more violence, more explosions, more risqué titillation; the gaming public is insatiable. Not gratified with finding a happy medium, players are always craving more, be it with downloadable content, or the enticing prospect of more new consoles and video games to blast through. Far from simply being excited for something new to play, however, gamers are homing in on a particular set of data every time: technical stats and specs. To use a recent example, the internet was buzzing over the impending release of Microsoft’s Project Scorpio. Cleaners had to be sent in order to mop up the drool created by enthusiasts, but they weren’t salivating over the prospect of new games; rather, the numbers. 12GB of RAM, 4K UHD visuals, a terabyte hard drive, eight CPU cores at 2.3GHz, and discs that can hold between 66GB to 100GB of data. Anyone who has a reasonable understanding of how gaming works can recognize that, yes, these are indeed high numbers, but while we acknowledge them as such, do they really, truly mean anything, especially in terms of just enjoying a video game?

It isn’t just technical numbers that we seem to wrongly put on a pedestal. It’s numbers like polygons, map size, “gameplay hours”, and developers are in hot pursuit of each other trying to bolt on another few digits to their grand totals with each subsequent game they release. What results is, largely, beautiful and expansive open-worlds that have very little to do in them; it becomes a digital wasteland because developers, by and large, do not have the content, the actual gameplay, to back up what is essentially a glorified tech demo, such as in recent offerings like Mafia III and Assassin’s Creed Unity. It’s not enough for a world to be simply big – it also needs to be vibrant and alive – this is the difference between Los Santos, which is crammed with characters on every single block, absolutely justifying the need for the open world, or Lost Heaven, which feels limp, flaccid, and makes us wonder why the game couldn’t have been achieved in a level-by-level format. To that end, it’s because of the good old gaming public again; hungry as they are, who keep demanding to play in open-worlds, and crying out for more content, even if the game in question doesn’t really fit it. After all, for every good open-world game, you could name 10 that just didn’t need to be that way.

This pushing and jostling by both players and developers has been a net detriment for video games; in insisting that “more is more”, video games drastically underperform and can’t live up to what they promise and of what is expected of them, and as such, more quickly becomes less (No Man’s Sky come to mind). To this end, one can proffer the explanation that fun and replayability are increasingly becoming less of a priority for big-name developers; it’s more important for a game to initially look pretty and sound statistically impressive so they can extract your money from your wallet. Once you’ve bought in, they’ve already got your money, and they can placate you with the same by-the-numbers gameplay you’ve seen in a million open-world games. Explore a bland looking city, do the same variety of story missions, play a few vaguely amusing mini-games, beat the side encounters, finish the game, and move on to the next AAA title haphazardly churned out, subsequently played without much thought. God, life is relentless.

This is what is meant by “more is less”, that the overall package is diminished by all its intertwining parts being too busy and complex, essentially choking the life out of the game. If developers cut the elements that were simply not working instead of leaving them untouched to appease their fans, they would gain a better and more rounded final product. As it stands, game-makers seem under pressure to retain everything that the last Grand Theft Auto or Forza Horizon did in order to not get left behind, to save face and retain their reputation as a big-boy developer. If a game doesn’t have a dynamic and open world with 190,870,000 possible encounters with NPCs and real-time yaw-control headshots, it’s labelled as “last-generation” and “boring”, and is on the fast-track to a 6.8 from certain websites.

There’s a better way, though. By trying to spin all these plates and satisfy everyone, AAA developers are running themselves ragged and spoiling the overall quality of their games. As such, why don’t we flip the formula? Instead of more is less, let’s say that less could be more. Put simply, developers should work within their means, doing exactly what they’re capable of and no more. Don’t try and reinvent the wheel if you’re not 101% sure the end result will work. Instead, focus on what you and your team are good at, and make the best game out of that rather than blindly playing follow the leader and obeying the market trends.

Crazy Taxi

Crazy Taxi is a fantastic example of this. Released to arcades in North America in February of 1999, it is now a staggering 18 years old. If it were a human being, it could legally drink in most countries of the world, but as software goes, it’s old news. If Back to the Future 2 were set in 2017, or a further future of 2017, the bratty kids in the diner would be calling it a baby’s toy. This is true to an extent; video games have marched further on, and Crazy Taxi could be argued as primitive against modern games. It doesn’t have an open world, or songs specifically recorded for the game by Leona Lewis, and it certainly doesn’t have special DLC side missions that expose Gus’ drug-addled past. What it does have, however, is heart. Crazy Taxi was a labour of love on Sega’s part and it completely shows; it had vibrant, sun-kissed graphics that still shine today, a soundtrack punctuated with the works of The Offspring and Bad Religion that perfectly complements the thrilling gameplay, which still provides excitement to this day as you throw your car around town, flying down the hills of the ersatz San Francisco, taking goofily-voiced passengers to their destination, be it KFC, Tower Records, or the police station. If you’re familiar with Crazy Taxi and you felt a smile creep across your face while reading this description, this is exactly what is meant by “heart”. The pure joy that Crazy Taxi offers is born from a game that, objectively, is rather simple, but is ultimately elegant and not bogged down by unnecessary elements. As a package, the game is super concise. It includes fantastic driving, four characters, two maps, three game modes, and that’s it. Not a part of it goes to waste, and that benefits the package as a whole – because nearly everything in Crazy Taxi is a positive, there’s nothing in which to leave a bad taste in your mouth. This is exactly what “less is more” game-making is about – working within your means, and doing what you can as opposed to what you should, in order to make the best possible product. How can you do this when your goal is to have more “stuff” than your competitors?

Indie games have thrived under similar conditions, with most independent titles being made in either a low-budget or even a no-budget environment. There’s no room for research and development, or to throw money at some unattainable aspect of a game in order to see what sticks: they too have to work on cultivating a game that’s within their reach. Go into the indie section of Steam and spit; it’ll land on a game that follows this exact philosophy. Even though Watch Dogs is a much greater technical feat than Super Meat Boy, the compactness of the latter title and its successes across the board (in areas such as tightness of control, challenging difficulty, and how it revels in the blood and viscera of its design despite being “only” a 2D platformer producing wonderful graphics) yields a much better package overall.
The tide is turning on a technical level, too; we’re beginning to hit a ceiling in regard to what we can do with technology and consoles. Over the last 20 years, it’s been undeniable that graphics have been improving: put Grand Theft Auto III next to Grand Theft AutoV and the comparison is clear– while III has its charm, it’s nowhere near as sharp as V. This is what 12 years of graphical progress looks like. Yet take Grand Theft IV as a rough midpoint, being released in 2008; 7 years after GTA III and 6 years before V. In a similar way, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of III but only marginally worse looking than Grand Theft Auto V. This is because the rate at which we can push hardware is slowing down, and it will cost more money than ever before to make ever-diminishing improvements. To this, one could say; why not be like Nintendo and steer into the skid?

By and large, the graphical power of Nintendo’s console offerings since the seventh-generation onwards has been weaker than that of Microsoft and Sony. For example, the Wii made use of the Broadway processor, a computing chip that was punier than the Cell and Waternoose powerhouse processors used by the PS3 and 360 respectively. The internet jeered the Wii from its inception in 2006 until its discontinuation in 2013 for daring to use less power, which seems pretty, even for the World Wide Web: especially as the PS3 and 360 only looked marginally sharper. Yet, this is the aforementioned Internet we’re talking about; bloodthirsty for high numbers even if they don’t really know what they mean. In any event, Nintendo’s decision to use less powerful parts paid dividends on launch versus the two other consoles: the Wii retailed for 249 USD as opposed to 399 USD for the 360 and (memetic as it was) 599 USD for the PlayStation 3. The Wii’s graphics were more than acceptable, so it only makes sense that Nintendo stopped chasing hyper-realistic graphical fidelity when they simply did not need it to make good games, and this is where they benefitted the player: since 2006, they’ve sacrificed a bit of bleeding-edge graphical power in order to give back to fans, a way of making the entry price of buying a Nintendo console more affordable for everyone. More to the point, by de-emphasising graphics, Nintendo can no longer market them as a plus, so they’ve had to rely on other elements as selling points for their titles, such as the strength of gameplay and pioneering innovative ideas; Super Mario Galaxy and Splatoon come to mind. Games such as Wind Waker incorporated open-world design, but was never made bigger than it needed to be – while its map is totally dwarfed by modern games, the game area more than fits Wind Waker’s purposes and intentions. As such, by prioritizing “less is more”, Nintendo gets more consistent returns to form than that of Activision or Ubisoft as a developer-publisher, creating decent quality products that usually do not require day 1 patching.

Simply, “more is less” relies on the “too many cooks” analogy. When you throw parsley, tarragon, coriander, sage, thyme, garlic, lemon, white wine, mint, nutmeg, salt, pepper, juniper, vanilla, saffron, hair of the dog, and cardamom into the same pot, it’s going to taste horrendous. Pare it back. Stick to the classics. Even if salt and pepper has been done, it works, and will make for a tasty and palatable seasoning far after the daring combination of 60 herbs and spices is forgotten.

Less is more.

– Ben McCurry

Less-is-More

Ben McCurry writes about video games. He once sued Square Enix for their spurious and misleading use of the phrase “Final Fantasy”. The case was thrown out immediately. Follow him on Twitter @gaysteelmill.