People are obsessed with content, and this is damaging the artistry of game development

12 mins read

Opinion by Matt S.

About a week ago now, Nintendo updated the market on its financial position, and there were some startling numbers involved. It was the healthiest year on record for the Nintendo Switch, and Animal Crossing seems to have been the one thing to benefit from COVID-19 – it sold in such staggering numbers (well over 13 million in just six weeks) that going forward the company will surely consider it a marquee franchise, along with Mario, Zelda, Smash Bros and Mario Kart.

Nintendo also updated the market on what it has coming next, and that’s where this piece comes in. In short, people are not happy. The Xenoblade Chronicles remaster lands in May, followed by Clubhouse Games in June. A (likely) Japan-only detective game will come at some point later in 2020, and then there will be DLC and updates for Animal Crossing, Pokemon Sword and Shield, and Smash Bros.

“Boy this isn’t a great look!” one pundit wrote on Twitter, as though DLC releases for Animal Crossing, Pokemon and Smash Bros won’t be enough to sustain a company for an entire year. There were a lot of similar comments. A lot. They were talking about a company that, putting aside the ongoing robust sales for many of its games, also has a hardware business so successful retailers are still taking preorders for the next wave of shipments… for a console moving into its fourth year. On just about every metric you could apply to Nintendo the company is riding a major wave, and yet because it’s not providing enough content, it’s a “bad look” for the company.

It’s not just Nintendo that has to deal with this, of course. Every reasonably prominent developer and/or publisher needs to constantly address questions on when the next content will come. One of the most grevious errors that you can make in game development is to not put enough content in your game. Thankfully it’s an easy mistake to avoid because the fans don’t actually care what’s in there, as long as it’s more, more and more content. But sometimes developers do raise the ire of the community by daring to suggest that their game doesn’t need to be quite so big. When Ubisoft announced that Assassin’s Creed Valhalla would be “smaller” than previous titles in the series, a sizable number of comments voiced disappointment with this, without any thought whatsoever to context. No one has even seen Assassin’s Creed Valhalla in action, and yet it being “smaller” is apparently an inherently bad thing in the eyes of the all-important consumer – there’s less to consume, making it less of a product.

In our little space, games need to last longer than the time that it takes to read War and Peace. They also need to be supported via DLC for years as they need to become live services, else they’re not substantial enough. Everyone loves to joke about how big their backlog is, but they’re still unhappy if they’re not constantly adding to it. And it needs to be very specific in-demand content, too. For instance, Nintendo’s not the only company that releases games on Nintendo Switch. Many other developers do, paying Nintendo licensing fees in the process (thus it being a healthy situation for Nintendo), but unless it’s Nintendo’s own content then we’re meant to just ignore all those releases. Without Nintendo’s own content the Switch is in trouble. It’s not a great look.

The root of the problem here is simple. We’ve all been conditioned to see games as products, and to mindlessly consume them. We don’t expect an author to write three books per year (though, yes, George R. R. Martin, if you start a series you do need to finish it at some point), and that’s because we know that literature is an art form. Hollywood does productise cinema far too much, but dig just a little around Hollywood and, in great contrast to “hardcore gamers”, genuine cinephiles don’t expect their films to be three and half hours long and part of an “extended universe” that runs for forty films. It’s only the most casual film fans, that don’t watch beyond Disney’s output, that treat film like a product and visit to the cinema looking for content.

We don’t expect a painter’s work to be on a canvas of a specific size (i.e. BIG). We appreciate Banksy’s work whenever it comes in, in whatever form it comes in. We don’t expect a season ticket to the ballet or theatre to mean weekly performances. We go to three or so performances through the year and appreciate that time (which is usually only a couple of hours long) that has been dedicated to the recital of quality artistry. I could go on, but the point here should be clear: the only art form which is so completely productised that what we’re consuming is less important than how much of it we have to consume, is video games.

It’s not healthy for the development of the industry as an art form, and in theory people do care about that, since every time someone from outside of games claims that games aren’t an art form, the community collectively loses it for weeks. Plenty of people never quite managed to forgive Roger Ebert, for the most famous example of that defensiveness towards criticism about what games represent. Treating games like content inhibits the artists. Suddenly they’re padding their stories out to fit arbitrary expectations for how long those stories should last, rather than giving the work the respect that it deserves. Persona 5 tells a story that is functionally and thematically equivalent to Persona 4, but does so over twice as much content. It doesn’t help. It only has the effect of diluting the thematic intensity of the game, and it’s a much weaker narrative as a consequence. Final Fantasy VII Remaster is (to many) a superb game and a brilliant bit of art, and yet even the loudest of those of us that enjoyed it will quite readily admit that the “open mission” chapters, which are blatantly there to get that “hours played” clock up, add nothing to the experience, and actually detract from the its rhythms and flows. We ignore those chapters, to instead appreciate the chapters in which meaningful stuff does happen, and credit must go to Square Enix there – by making those chapters so blatantly removed from the rest of the game, they allow fans to distance them from the rest of the experience. You just know that everyone involved in the Remake knew how ruinous those chapters would have been if they integrated them more closely with the narrative.

Just about every open world game is filled with the most bland of empty spaces and meaningless “side quests,” all of which are the equivalent of writing “then I took a step, and then I took a step, and then I took a step” to turn your 50-page novel into a book of epic length, and still other games have useless multiplayer features shoved in, draining resources away from artists working on the actual game, and the producers do that not because they think it will enhance the artistry of the game, but rather because focus groups insist that “gamers” crave multiplayer content. None of this is to say that developers shouldn’t do any and all of the above, if it fits the thematic purpose of the game, but, particularly when you look at AAA-blockbusters, so much of what is done is done to maximise the game’s commercial value, with very little regard for the thematic integrity of any of it.

I’ve spoken at length regarding my issues with the way we frame discussions about games into content and commercial viability. It’s destructive to games to allow the conversation to be dominated by corporate and marketing jargon that come from people wearing suits who, likely, haven’t read a book in two decades. We all need to stop indulging it. If it takes Nintendo a year to announce its next game, then trust that Nintendo’s artists are a talented bunch and will make it worth the wait. If a game turns out to be “short”, stop writing that up as a negative in the reviews. A game that is one hour long but dense and interesting gets worse, not better, if it’s then stretched to 20 hours of mindless button presses.

More than anything else, give games the same respect that you give to artists. No artist worth their salt thinks of their work as content. Art is far too important and valuable to talk about in the same way that graphics designers talk about the labels they create for soup cans. We should stop demanding that the creative people working in games look at their work with that little respect.

– Matt S. 
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb

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