Friday, May 23, 2014

On Playing Games which are "In Progress"

I've gone back and forth a lot of the time on games that are in on-going beta or otherwise in a state of incompleteness. Having talked to developers about some of these projects there's the sense that some of the projects will simply never be complete, that they will remain an a state of on going production until desire wanes, either theirs of the player's. But what kinds of unfinished games are there and what are they about?

I'm still somewhat of two minds on the idea of playing unfinished games. Hearing that something "will be implemented at a later date" is the worst. No one wants to hear that something they paid for is not currently in a state that can make it fully enjoyed. Even worse is when a game is released and then a developer finds the need to overhaul their already release product. This is kind of how I feel about Diablo 3, the game that was released was not the finished product, it took a free update months later to do that. That's not because D3 was in open beta, its because they wanted things for their game that were not what players wanted from it. Diablo 3 was very much a finished game. It got a big commercial release and with the exception of tuning it could be considered completed.

I'm currently playing Warframe with a good friend of mine and we often catch ourselves saying things like "I bet this would be fixed in a full release". Warframe is interesting because it not only shows its unfinished nature at times (lots of clipping problems, balancing issues abound), its also free for the most part. Freemium is a discussion for another day but I like that I can play and enjoy Warframe with my friend for free. Warframe is an interesting example for me because the game is designed to run on a freemium model but is also in progress. Things about the game change all the time. The effectiveness of older strategies, new items, new enemies, new maps, the game is constantly becoming something else, something more. I have no idea if it will ever become the other thing that it is attempting to be, I'm not sure if it will be better or worse than the game I am currently playing.

On that point, I recently got to interview the wonderful Tarn Adams, one of the minds behind Dwarf Fortress. The game is constantly in development, its also becoming more and different than the first time I played and is probably quite different from the first version anyone played. I did not ask him if the game was ever going to find a "finished" state but its not hard to image that it will not, it will continue on as a work of love. If one day that love fades then the game will reach a kind of finality. It might not be "done" but it will be final. Dwarf Fortress is a perfect game hat might never see a finished commercial release, the kind of game that will always see small tweaks and become a perpetual work in progress. And that's okay.

What is clear is that the game is becoming more. It's more items and more time and more interesting things and I like that. Speaking of, MiniMetro is a game that is constantly becoming other things and doing so in a way that is very interesting. It's a game that is drastically different every time it changes. The change logs read more like new rules for play than they do version update notes. That's part of what makes MiniMetro so wonderful, every time I come back to it there are differences. Sure, it's "enough" that the game is fun and has a style I enjoy but MiniMetro's continual updating makes it so that its a slightly different game. Think of this like episodes, each update is an opportunity for the developer to explore something. It's certainly an opportunity to misstep but it's also an opportunity to move the game in different directions and change directions, something that's much harder to do with a big commercial release.

But what about episodes? These are perhaps the last pillar of the unfinished pantheon. Each episode of The Walking Dead or Republique is a chance for the developers to do something new with their game. To take a story, an experience, and gameplay, and push them in new directions. They can take something, make it familiar, and then challenge that familiarity. They become a total experience over much longer amounts of time while maintaining smaller arcs. Episodic games challenge the idea of a "complete" game in interesting ways. Looking back at some of the linear games that I've been playing lately I think they could actually be better served as episodic games, its almost too easy to play straight through them.

Maybe that's what really intrigues me most about unfinished games or games in progress, which might be a better term. An unfinished (or in progress) game is an opportunity. It's about promise and about potential. Is MiniMetro viciously fun despite its "alpha" status? Yes, very much. Does it's alpha status make it even more fun? I would argue definitely. I sued to be hugely against them, I would wait for all the episodes or for a game to arrive in a box instead of slowly as updates. But now color me intrigued, I think there's something really special about in progress games and are worth taking a look at in their own light.

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