As a college educated video game developer, I make a point to critically analyze the games I play. Lately, I’ve been playing quite a few games that only grab my attention for maybe an hour long session, but after playing Horizon Zero Dawn, I’ve been able to pinpoint my problem exactly. This is a critical analysis on the state of repetition in current video games and a look into the nature of gameplay loops.
I currently find myself in an unfortunate predicament. I am a recently graduated college educated game developer. On the surface this seems like an odd thing to call a predicament, but if you are in the industry then you know that most companies will not even consider hiring you unless you have some odd years of experience: experience you cannot obtain without being hired. From what I gather, this is a universal trend with 90s-born millennials (at least in the States). So, with this in mind, I’ve been spending a little under a year developing indie games; most of which will never see the light of day.
So, what does this have to do with gameplay loops? Well, let’s just say in the few hours a day I can claw from my schedule to play an actual video game, I spend every second taking notes. I pause each game and break down every detail to what engine is used, to the art techniques in the texturing, to nature and writing of quests, to observations on AI and coding, and to, of course, the gameplay loops that are set up.
To those who do not know what a gameplay loop is, it is exactly what it sounds like. This tends to be the case with most game-related terms: a side effect of being a new industry. Gameplay loops are simply the series of actions the player is expected to make while playing the game. In a hunting game for example, it would be to manage equipment and/or tags, track down the animal, and then shoot it. In a team match multiplayer game, it is to pick a map, get queued up, spawn, shoot enemy players or complete an objective, die, respawn, repeat the shooting of players onward until match ends. Simple, right?
Well, it is too simple to be exact.
In linear games such a team multiplayer games or story focused ones, simple gameplay loops are often the best. You don’t want to do several different types of actions while an enemy team is firing at you, right? You want to know exactly what you need to do before the match starts, right? So, for the sake of the rest of the article, I will not be talking about those types of games. I’ll be talking mainstream triple-A games from here on out.
So, in regard to triple-A games there is a notable trend going on. It has been going on for several years now, and can probably be attributed to the success of Skyrim. Triple-A games are almost entirely open world now. Even the most recent game of the Zelda franchise is open world. Ubisoft is practically a genre name now, as they have been pumping out reskins of the same game for years now. Look up any list of recently released triple-A games and you’ll find nearly all of them are open world.
So, what is the problem here? Well, that is the big question, ain’t it? See, I’ve been finding myself not liking most triple-A games lately, and I’ve been struggling to find the answer why. I like open world games. I am still playing Skyrim, albeit, in a heavily modded form. Some have suggested that it is due to lack of content in these worlds. So how come games praised for being content heavy still bore me, like Breath of the Wild? The answer to this question has eluded me until I just last week.
I had bought Horizon Zero Dawn: Complete Edition on sale at my local mall while out with some friends. I didn’t think too much on it. The game had been on my radar for quite some time, but had been rather low on my wishlist. I had gone so long before even considering it in wait of a reduced price. Well, there it was; complete edition, brand new, at a notably reduced price. I still hesitated. My mind went to little-played copy of Sea of Thieves on my desktop and the equally little played No Man’s Sky. It went to my friends copies of Far Cry games and Breath of the Wild, which both had been a chore to play despite my friends’ insistence otherwise. Still, I had money to burn and some time that night. I picked it up.
Playing that game once I got home was some of the most fun I have had in ages.
I enjoyed every cutscene and conversation. The lore intrigued me to no end. I played every sidequest and errand before continuing the main story. Every heard of machines I came across was wiped out as I passed by. I chased down animals with fervent glee. It made me worried about how much my stress was being released in these constant expressions of bloodlust.
So what was the difference? Why did I spend 4-6 hours a session on Zero Dawn and only 30 minutes to an hour on all the other open world games? Cross-referencing my notes, I was able to pin it down to one thing: the gameplay loop.
The gameplay loop of Horizon Zero Dawn was quite complicated compared to other open world games. In say, a Ubisoft game, you go to a place, talking to a guy, go to another place, kill a guy, go back and talk to the first guy, go to a tower, climb up it, reveal map, repeat. This has gotten a bit better with recent Far Cry games, but it is still pretty much the same loop throughout. Due to the repetition of this loop, by the time I got something else from the game, such as lore or story, I couldn’t care less. Zero Dawn’s loop, while similar on the surface, was much more complex. Go to a place, talk to a guy, “hey will you help us?” “sure”, protect the guys from machine creatures, a new machine you haven’t seen before shows up, scan it, find it’s weakness, you can’t stealth, now you can stealth, it is doing a thing now, I can shoot the weak spots now, everything it dead, talk to guy, you need to track down some other guy, follow their tracks to a new area, talk to that guy and learn why he did what he did, now he is dead, he was killed by a new machine you are barely strong enough to kill, etc, etc. And that wasn’t even main story; just a side mission that wasn’t even marked on the map.
So, to make an easy quote: it is not the world or setting that makes an open world game good. It is the thought and care put into the gameplay loop. It is making each mission feel new and avoiding repetition. It is making each encounter unique. Vast open worlds mean nothing if they are not filled with content, and content means nothing if the player has seen it before.