The gaming industry has been around for a fair few years now. Not to make anybody feel old, but the original Sony PlayStation turns 30 this year and we’re at a point where several generations have grown up playing games. In other words, we have more gamers than ever.
But there’s been a bit of a trend growing in recent years, where growing numbers of the gaming community aren’t seeing through campaigns or story modes to the end. According to PSN Profiles, 50% or less of players have completed Hogwarts Legacy, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and The Last Of Us: Part I, to name just a few big titles from recent years. Then there’s Red Dead Redemption 2, which won awards for its narrative, but nearly three-quarters of its player base on Steam have never seen the ending.
People are forking out their hard-earned for these games, so why are they turning their backs on them part way through and essentially not getting their money’s worth?
Getting Too Old (Or Too Bored) For This Sh#t
As the Architect puts it in that questionable Matrix sequel: the problem is choice. There’s no shortage of games on the market these days. PS Plus, Game Pass, the likes of Humble Bundle and regular sales have made games so readily available digitally that people are spoilt for choice. Why stick to a game that’s become a grind when a brand new title is just a click away?
And for a lot of older gamers, time is at a premium. Life is getting in the way of gaming for a lot of us, as jobs, parenting, exercise, other hobbies, and just existing in general take priority. Striking that balance will always come at a cost for any time to game, and so players get more picky. As a result, tastes change and a lot of players become more selective with what they play, seeking out games for immediate enjoyment rather than long-term investments.
When time is short, enjoyment trumps completion, so if a game starts to loosen its grip on their attention, it’s likely to get dropped. This sunk cost fallacy awareness has led to a lot of players enjoying their time playing a whole lot more, not feeling obligated to play something that’s outstayed its welcome.
Or could it be down to an outlying factor? It’s been well-documented in recent years that social media has been destroying our attention spans, so is it possible that longer, narrative-driven games are becoming too much to ask for many of us.
Some of the most popular games right now are quick rinse-and-repeat battle royales like Fortnite and Apex Legends, which tap into that instant gratification and dopamine chase to keep us engaged. When the likes of Red Dead are more of a novel in comparison, is it really surprising that people are switching off when our kids aren’t reading for enjoyment anymore?
It’s easy to point the finger at the consumer, saying that times change and tastes shift, or that it’s the result of a social media brain drain. But there are two sides to every story, and on the other side of this one are the developers and publishers. This shifting trend surely raises questions at about how they’re making their games.
With the standard of graphics in games today and the power of the hardware they run on, big titles are multi-million dollar investments over a number of years. This has seen many games adopt tropes that have had success, such as crafting, open world-mechanics and gear-scores to appeal to as wide an audience as possible in the hopes of a proper return on that initial investment.
This has resulted in plenty of games becoming bloated and repetitive and downright grindy, and it’s putting people off. This thought process of quantity over quality is contributing to player fatigue and disengagement, as players are less inclined to go from one 80-hour campaign to another. Ubisoft in particular is guilty of this, as there has been little innovation in their marquee titles in recent years. As much as we enjoyed it, we ourselves described Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora as a Far Cry game with a coat of blue paint.
In some cases, it can be argued that we’ve seen a tight and replayable eight-hour game get padded out to become 30 or 40 hours – just so a publisher can justify its £70 price tag. Much to the chagrin of writers like Amy Hennig, who pointed out that this is where a lot of gamers get disconnected from the games they play.
And then there are the bugs. Whether it’s pressure from above to get a game out on time, or just a let’s-fix-it-in-post attitude, so many games have bugs and technical issues on release. Some may be minor annoyances, others can outright break the game. Players who paid for the early-access release of Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League were given £20 of in-game currency after the game was taken offline twice in its first 24 hours. Cyberpunk 2077 recently completed a renaissance after its disastrous launch way back in 2020, but how many players were put off and never came back?
Less Story, More Money
Money drives everything, and there’s a lot of it going around in the gaming industry. With the rise of microtransactions and live-service games, people may not be finishing their games because they’re being conditioned not to. When they’re not cutting costs with layoffs, publishers are always looking at ways to continue to extract money out of players after their initial purchase, and what better way than with microtransactions, expansions and a constant, ever-updating and ever changing game?
The objective in the game is no longer to reach the climactic battle, beat the bad guy, get the girl and go home, but to get the loot instead. Constantly striving for in-game items for marginal games keeps players focused on the gameplay loop as opposed to the wider narrative.
It could be that for the majority, stories in games are just taking a back seat now. If a player jumps from the instant gratification of Call of Duty to the slower and more nuanced world of The Witcher 3, there’s good odds they’re not going to give it much of a chance.
Gamers either don’t have the time or the patience to finish their games. It’s easy to blame smartphones, rising living costs, and people daring to have other hobbies, but, arguably, this is an issue that sits at the feet of the people who make games.
Where’s the imagination? Where are the risks? At the mercy of publishers who are only looking for profit. And if gamers are still buying, why try something new when they can just rely on what’s already been working, or some shiny new graphics?
But where does the industry go from here? What will stories in games look like in ten years? Will the likes of Naughty Dog and Rockstar still be around championing storytelling, or will we all just be jumping out of variations of battle buses chasing gear scores and dopamine spikes? One thing is for sure, a lot is riding on Grand Theft Auto VI’s shoulders, with plenty anticipating its release.
But then again, hype never helps either.