Start to Finish: Play Cycles in Video Games

Star_Wars_Battlefront_wallpaper

I’ve been playing video game since I was five or six. I started with my parents’ original Nintendo and kept playing through every generation of consoles since then. I enjoy many different genres of video games and can play my favorites for hours. What I find really odd and somewhat incongruent with my love of games is that despite how much I enjoy them, I probably only finish one in every four or five games that I play.

I can remember playing the Gameboy Advance Game, Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars, all the way through. And I collected almost everything in Xenosaga: Episode 1. Zone of the Enders was a turn-based strategy RPG and Xenosaga was a true RPG that required nearly one hundred hours to complete, but I finished both of these games. In contrast, I never came close to finishing Final Fantasy XII or Borderlands. One would think that if I enjoyed RPGs, that I’d be dying to finish Final Fantasy and that if an RPG  was too long for me, that something action-oriented like Borderlands would be more appealing, but neither game held me to even halfway through the story.

ZOE-FOM

The truth is that taste has a lot to do with how interested you are in a game, but I think finishing games entails more than that. Not only did you like the game, but you liked playing the game. You enjoyed being in the process of playing. I can remember being interested in what would happen next in FF-XII and hoping to get a new gun in Borderlands, but often, I didn’t enjoy actually playing the games. There was too much running around, too little attachment to the characters, and far too much anticipation of future excitement and not enough present excitement. The problem of wandering around, bored, was neatly solved by Skyrim. Bethesda made their world engrossing even without a cool mission going on, they made side-missions and random encounters occur while you were traveling, they gave you fast traveling options, and most importantly, the missions were of a reasonable length.

Too many times in FF-XII or other games, I wanted to resolve a plot point only to slowly realize that it wouldn’t be resolved a single mission later, but several missions later and the missions themselves were not necessarily fun enough to be worthwhile in and of themselves. This is where the game has started to be more of an interactive story and less of an actual game. One of the best things about arcade games is that once you started playing them, you were getting 100% game 100% of the time. Pacman, Centipede, Street Fighter, and Time Crisis all have minimal or no storytelling present, but have excellent gameplay. After you put your money in, you are playing the game. There’s no wandering around a massive environment to get to the koopas and lava pits.

What I think many modern games, which are becoming longer and longer and more and more “immersive,” would benefit from is to remember that while people love to play video games, they have limited amounts of time and patience. The play cycle is important to consider. One of my favorite games of all time is Mystic Heroes, which is very similar to Dynasty Warriors, both series focus on magical heroes beating up vasts numbers of enemy hordes. Dynasty Warriors is usually critically panned, but continues to sell well because it is fun to play and because one can play through a battle or two in a reasonable amount of time. But especially in the case of Mystic Heroes, the gameplay was simply enjoyable and each mission was just the right length.

The same is true of the Jak and Daxter, Crash Bandicoot, and Ratchet and Clank series. These games began as platformers and gradually acquired more shooter and action elements, but they were simply fun games to play that gave a feeling of satisfaction and progress in a reasonable amount of time. I think everyone can remember playing a game of checkers, or battleship, or Yahtzee. These games were fun and lasted a reasonable amount of time, but as Boromir will tell you:

One Does Not

One reason why Monopoly is rarely finished is that it can become dull and the other, larger reason, is that the game simply goes on too long. Tic-Tac-Toe isn’t that fun, but we’ve all played it dozens of times because it can be completed so quickly. When developers create 100+ hour games, that’s wonderful for consumers to have so much content, but that massive amount of content has to be able to broken down into smaller, more digestible chunks that are satisfying and feel complete. Because the flipside is that one can argue that a game like Pacman or Centipede, despite having less in it than Skyrim or Assassin’s Creed, has infinite content.

Halo was an awesome game to play through in story mode, but it was the multiplayer that propelled it to iconic status. Similarly, Call of Duty, despite having unimpressive story modes and other flaws, is incredibly successful simply because of its multiplayer that is fast paced, tense, and has a quick play cycle. However, in my opinion, there is only one game that truly touched the pinnacle of play cycle excellence. And even saying that the game itself reached such a position isn’t fair, many of it’s levels weren’t nearly as good. Several were great, but really, only one was perfect. I’m talking about Star Wars Battlefront and the level is Bespin Platforms.

SW-Cover

That is Star Wars Battlefront on Bespin Platforms and the coolest thing about that pre-rendered shot is that the picture above is a 100% accurate depiction of the real gameplay. In Star Wars Battlefront, you don’t play as the Jedi or Sith or anyone special. You play as the foot soldiers in the Rebel, CIS, Empire, or Republic armies. Every NPC you fight with or against has the exact same capabilities that you do and this makes the game even better. The classes are perfectly balanced and unlike in Star Wars Battlefront 2, there are no special classes or Jedi to play as. You are always the best possible class because they are all equal and each one has its own unique advantages. You die a lot in Battlefront and that’s okay because you will immediately respawn and be back kicking in teeth a few seconds later.

Your deaths help keep you hooked into the game. The battles are incredibly exciting, especially when playing co-op with a friend. When you die, you “Get out,” just like in dodgeball and this down time gives your brain time to cool off and to build anticipation for getting back into the fight. But that’s the way all of Battlefront is and the way many shooters are nowadays, so what makes Bespin Platforms such a gem? Everything.

The platforms are set over Bespin, a gas planet, which means that should you fall off the floating level, you will enjoy a ten to fifteen second freefall into the core of the planet before dying and respawning. Because you’re on a series of floating platforms, the sky is all around you, even under you, and that allows X-Wings and Tie-Fighters to engage in dog fights overhead, to go on bombing runs, and you are, of course, free to play as a pilot and participate in them. There are numerous places to snipe from in the map, places to camp, turrets to man, and open areas to run and gun in, but nowhere is impregnable. There are three bases, which function as spawn points, on either side of the level, and one in the middle, but even these bases in the rear are vulnerable to attacks and invasions from the aerial vehicles in the level. Nothing is ever completely safe.

Bespin Map

One of the highlights of the level are the corridors that connect that central base to each army’s side. Those corridors are one of the most thrilling and dangerous places you will ever enter in a video game. They look like this.

Corridor Interior

While there’s only one enemy in the picture, the corridors are frequently filled with two or three dozen soldiers on either side. The long, straight corridor means that each side can see everyone on the other side, including the reinforcements running down the ramps at either end. It’s a lot like dodgeball with the opposing sides facing eachother. Those pillars on either side offer limited cover and the open-windowed wall allow for people on the main platforms to take pot shots at you as you near the opposing side. All of these features make for an intense experience as you try to storm the corridor to reach the other side’s main bases. Even more interesting, if you’re clever, you don’t even have to go in the corridor, you make a mad dash for the enemy base by running on top of it.

Corridor Exterior

The reason I’m spending so long praising this level is because it delivers what every game wants to, hours of enjoyable, frenetic, exciting fun. My brother and I have probably spent more time replaying this one level (and other levels in Battlefront) than we have playing entire games. The classes, level design, vehicles, and various strategies that you can employ simply make this the most fun I have playing games- even after all those playthroughs, even though I know every corner of the level, and even though I’ve done it all a hundred times before. And when you throw in the truly invincible, non-playable Jedi and Sith, then things can get extra dicey.

Going back to my original point about play cycles, this level provides cycles that last as long as you can stay alive, very brief respites- once you die or are being healed by a droid, to catch your breath, and then you’re back in the fight. With four different armies, once one battles ends, you only have to wait a few seconds before the next battle begins with a slight tweak to the formula. It’s the ideal sine wave of fun, composed of even smaller harmonics of fun.

I’d just like to see developers remembering the concept of play cycle while they’re developing these massive blockbusters that they expect us to pay 60 or more dollars for. If you build a good game, or even a great level in a good game, people will play it for years. After all, Pacman and Tetris are basically one level and people still play them.

pacman

And the Jedi/Sith really were invincible in Battlefront. Their lightsabers automatically deflected all lasers, from pistols and sniper rifles to the massive lasers from an AT-AT. You could hit them with a rocket or grenade and they would get back up from the explosion like nothing happened. And thanks to all the hours that I played Star Wars Battlefront, my brother and I figured how to kill them. And what’s more fun than killing something that’s supposed to be invincible?

  3 comments for “Start to Finish: Play Cycles in Video Games

  1. anthonyseippel
    February 27, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    I would certainly agree that a game has to have the “fun” feel to engross you long enough to play it all the way through. It may have had an interesting gimmick to get you to buy it, but often this isn’t enough to maintain your interest. Personally I don’t like to buy games right off the release-date bat, even if I know I really want them. No matter how good they are, and how much I want them, I wait until they are cheaper. I did this for Fallout 3. I bought it once all the awards were given to it and once it had a game of the year edition with every add on accompanying the game in a single purchase. I won’t buy a game unless it costs me next to nothing. I ain’t looking to waste my money if I don’t have too. Now you would think this means I buy a shit ton of games. And yes, this is partially true, I do have a lot, well over 50, but that is simply because I never sell them back. If I commit myself to a purchase it isn’t in the mind set that I will eventually get tired of the purchase. I play for keeps so to say. But, all that being said, it is highly disappointing when I finally do purchase a game and it doesn’t hold my interest enough to complete it, and no matter how little I have paid for it, I still feel cheated out of my money. For instance, I bought Timeshift for $5. Five whole dollars. Last year. And I still haven’t finished it. And that irks me. I don’t have a lot of money to throw around, so I do my research. I see what the game has to offer, I look up reviews and scores and comments and everything before I have made my purchase and I only buy it once I am certain that I want it. In this way, I am really excited when I get these games because I have made certain that they are something I really want. But then I play them. And the only thing you really can’t get commentary on from anyone else, how the game feels to you, hits me, and sometimes, it just doesn’t feel right, and nothing disappoints me more than that. I feel cheated. Even more so, I feel sorry for whatever poor fool bought the game when it was new and a full price. But I guess that is my own issue in terms of what I like and I guess I really shouldn’t be complaining since I paid next to nothing. But I have to agree with you, sometimes it just doesn’t feel right.

    I too have played Battlefront 2 and felt exactly what you were talking about. In fact I got it for a birthday and me and my cousins played it for 5 hours strait until we went to bed and I could still hear the sounds of laser rifles going off and the swoosh of a lightsaber. I also felt what you felt for Skyrim but with my afore mentioned Fallout 3. I played that to completion and still will pop it into my Xbox for a visit every now and again. Same with The Orange Box, Batman Arkham City, AVP and a bunch of other games not really known for their single player over their multiplayer. These games just felt fun to me and kept me coming back, even with the AVP game that was bashed to hell by critics. When I come across a game like this, using the formula I have to buying old games for cheap, I feel like I have really gotten something good.

  2. erosenzweig
    February 27, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    I think your discussion alludes to something I relate to, which is the desire to feel powerful in games.

    Real life sucks. It’s slow and hard and boring and most days end with a feeling of underwhelmingness that even if you did complete something, it’s probably not the significant. So, when I sit down to play, I wanna berserk. I wanna gain a level, and feel like I earned it and got stronger, and I want giant fireworks when I do. I want new armor and weapons and abilities that’s cool looking and shreds through enemies. I wanna kill a lot of little things with easy and a big thing flawlessly. I wanna feel like I’m strong and getting stronger, and nailing whatever I’m doing. I play my games on normal, but if their wasn’t a stigma I’d play on easy.

    A game that can make me feel these things, like WoW (getting new armor) or SW: Force Unleashed (force-rage make big boom!) or, as you mentioned, Skyrim (armor, levels, abilities, oh my!), will be a game I dedicate my escapism time to.

    Anyway, that’s just me.

  3. William Hurley
    February 27, 2013 at 10:48 pm

    I definitely agree about the excitement of Battlefront I with the perfectly equal playing field (discounting the added combat abilities of piloting a vehicle) as opposed to Battlefront II’s somewhat unfair advantage of being able to use a Jedi in pitched battles. Hoth, in particular, became a rather tiresome battle when a Jedi was participating in it, being able to commit wholesale slaughter of waves of enemy troops.

    There’s something fun about chipping away at a greater, large force, in my opinion, and Battlefront definitely evokes that feeling. You’re a cog in the war machine, one small soldier that isn’t a War Hero or any particular brand of super-soldier, just a guy with a rifle that probably got drafted and put through Basic, shoved onto the battlefield, and was given a life expectancy of about 15 seconds. The relatively short respawn time and dynamic with set piece moments and group play made the Battlefront series an incredibly immersive and enjoyable experience for me, and I couldn’t agree more with your points.

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