Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Are Games Becoming More Passive?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 6, 2011

I guess the picture of old-school level design verses modern level design that came out a few months ago has really caught on. I noticed John Romero and Tom Hall even used it in their post-mortem of Doom at the Game Developer’s Conference earlier this year.

(And might I add… what a cool idea, to do classic game post-mortems like that? I imagine those sessions were full the minute the doors opened.)

Now there are a lot of things wrong with this picture. For one thing, there’s still a lot of linearity in 1993 map. My memory is a little fuzzy on this map (E1M6 of Doom), but as I recall in general the maps were still pretty linear in single-player. They opened up a bit more for Deathmatch modes, where you really wanted multiple paths to every area. But while there were plenty of optional and hidden areas with extra goodies and monsters, so you might be able to get a weapon early or something like that, for the most part had to traverse the map in a pretty straightforward fashion, picking up the keys necessary to progress to the next section.

However, you were able to do it at your own pace, without being interrupted by cutscenes. And the level designers (mainly John Romero, Tom Hall, and Sandy Peterson) weren’t afraid of letting the player get a little lost finding their way through the map.  Finding the exit was never a huge challenge, as I recall, but it wasn’t always a given. There wasn’t a marker on the screen showing you which door to go through to get there.

Now, I don’t play too many modern “mainstream” action games, so I’m not much of an authority here. Though of what I’ve played, I can’t deny that A) They often led me by the nose a bit more, through on-screen navigation tools or simply a more constrained environment, or B) I still had fun playing them. But I have to appeal to gamers with more genre experience to point out anything as a “trend.”

Gareth Fouche, creator of the Scars of War RPG in development, recently ranted a bit against a trend that may sum up the situation a little better: a trend towards what he calls passive engagement. It’s maybe not quite the same as passive entertainment, like watching a TV show, but more like reading a book. To extend his analogy, a TV show will progress with no action whatsoever on the part of the viewer – I can fall asleep in front of the tube if I want. But a book does require active effort on the part of the reader.

So there are levels of passivity, and reading a book isn’t really all that passive. Modern games, he contends, are tending to engage the player on more passive levels.

Maybe this is true. I’ve avoided most games that have the dreaded “Quick-Time Events” which I always thought were incredibly lazy game design way back in the day before they had a name – when instead a game had you repeatedly mash a button as fast as you can or something inane like that to succeed.  For me, that kind of thing does not make me feel like I’m now participating in what is effectively a cutscene… it further pulls me out of the game. It makes me feel like I’m the kid brother tagging along in the back seat of the car being given busy-work to keep me occupied while the big kids do their thing.

Barring that particularly annoying exception, though, I have to ask – are games becoming more passive, or simply more focused? Are they dumbing games down, or simply stripping away the parts that are “less fun” to focus on the key aspects of the game? If the core of the game is supposed to be mowing down aliens emerging all around you, then is getting lost in a maze of buildings where the aliens have already been “cleared out” really add to the experience?  In an open-world RPG, would I really prefer to be hunting for a needle in a haystack on some quests without having an indicator to show me where to hunt down a unique item? (My answer: No, but I also say that’s poor quest design for that kind of RPG, but that’s another story).

I didn’t used to worry about these kinds of things. Maybe we’re over-thinking it now. I mean, complaining about reduced complexity or lack of breadth in modern games doesn’t make sense when you compare a modern XBox 360 controller to the old NES controllers, or the one-button joysticks and paddles of the Atari era, now, does it?

I don’t really know the answer to this. Maybe it depends upon the game.  And maybe it’s a side effect of the quality of the production values and modern interfaces. Back then, you really couldn’t play a game without committing yourself to it, to a degree, forcing the engagement.  You had to dig in and find out what the particular colored collection of pixels on the screen was supposed to be, and what it was supposed to do. There was rarely an extensive tutorial to step you through everything.  You were expected to RTFM before you played.  You had to engage your imagination to permit yourself to accept the metaphor the clunky graphics were trying to express. In our RPGs, we were forced to make maps and take notes manually (even if we could record them on-screen, which was nice).

Once you were engaged at that level, everything else clicked into place.

But now the quality bar is so high we can just kind of coast in, mentally. And we do. I’m not sure I’d call this a bad thing, but it does change the dynamics a bit.  Maybe it really is a bit like the difference between watching a TV show and reading a book. Maybe that’s part of the reason many readers prefer books over the movies adapted from them.

So what do you think? Are modern games encouraging the player to engage them on a more passive level? And if so, is it really detrimental to the game experience?

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 20 Comments to Read

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I don’t think games have become any more passive. If anything, I think they’ve improved in demanding more MEANINGFUL interaction from the player.

    It is far better to strip out the choices and events that don’t matter or waste time or aren’t important and put the player at the next meaningful choice crossroads.

    The medium has matured and is trying to offer genuine EXPERIENCES now, instead of novel entertainments or time wasters.

    The film industry’s growth and evolution continues to be a good comparison for video games evolution. When film was new, theaters would show simple films based on a gimmick, like a train coming right at you or something similar. Nickle peep-shows. 20-minute sing alongs. The medium was popular, but didn’t really approach anything that could be called art or meaningful.

    Early video games were simple, and largely something of a novel or gimmicky nature. Pong and the like weren’t truly fun in any meaningful way. It was more about the novel experience of playing a game on a video machine. Just like early movie goers rarely cared what they saw, as long as it was new and the pictures were moving.

    It took nearly 50 years from the invention of moving pictures until the creation of films that most would define as “timeless”. By that, I mean you could show those films to a child or a person and they would enjoy with an identically level of enjoyment as a modern film. Sound, color, special effects, camera angles, length and pacing, were all codified into a teachable art form by that time – the medium had come into its own, led by people that had never known a world without films.

    By the same time scale, if we count the very simple games like Tennis for Two and Space War, we should be at our own 50 year mark in our medium. If we count from 1971’s Computer Space – the first widely available video game – we should making video games that hold up a hundred years in the future with children and adults within the next 10 years.

    Codified games with rules have existed for thousands of years. Video games are a unique MEDIUM, no more connected or dependent on tradition games than movies and films are connected to stories or books. Both mediums draw from the traditional heritages they are related to of course, but each is also uniquely separated from them.

    Video games then are not about gameplay by itself, but the experience and manner in which that gameplay is presented – just as movies are not about story by itself, but the experience and manner in which that story is conveyed.

    Passive? Games will always be as passive or as active as they need to be to match the gameplay experience desired. Just as different board games and sports have varying levels of interactivity required, so to do games.

    Games have shifted from requiring more mechanical engagement to requiring more emotional engagement. It is a pendulum oscillating back and forth that is looking for balance. Eventually, hopefully soon, it will find it, and our medium will begin producing its first Gone with the Winds and Wizard of Ozs. Older games will be remembered, some of them fondly, but they will be more for historians and super fans of the medium.

  • Tom said,

    Hard to say video games in general are doing anything because the field is now so wide. Casual games certainly seem to be doing well with unadulterated gameplay, for instance.

    But to narrow the question to RPGs and FPSs, I do think that story TELLING is in danger of eclipsing story FINDING. Those who like a strong story in these games are getting some good ones, but those who like exploring and feeling more ownership of the story are missing out. A prime example of the former is my wife, who’s almost finished her second playthrough of Dragon Age 2, and of the latter me, who is barely into the second act of the game for the first time. The only real delight of discovery I’ve found in the game is what the NPCs are going to say to each other next which, come to think of it, is about the same draw as a TV show.

    It so happens that I was playing Baldur’s Gate before DA2 came out (thank you GOG.com) and the comparison is relevant here. Baldur’s Gate has a story, it has chatty companions. But those who haven’t played it in awhile might be surprised at how sparsely the story is presented compared to how you remember it. I think that’s because we fill in a lot of the story in our heads and actually FIND the story in the playing of it, something like the Sims.

    The active engagement of video games was always my comeback to the derision of the mainstream. At least I’m not sitting on my rear-end on the couch watching other people play a game on TV. Which is lamer? Now I, too, can sit on a couch and watch a game play out passively before me.

  • Chevluh said,

    It’s not exactly specific to games, it’s a more general phenomenon. Today I was attending a seminar more or less about the question “is teaching becoming more passive?”, and a lot of the stuff that was discussed crosses over with this game problem.

    Essentially, what came out of it is if the goal shifts from the not-primarily-financial (communication of knowledge in that case, something like tapping into the potential of games in the other, though games are an entertainment industry so profitability second may be the exception) to making a profit, the tendency in the decision process will be to increase yield, and for that there needs to be a concrete measure of useful stuff produced (which in the manager mind tends to directly influence client satisfaction).

    So the structure becomes linear (in the education case, failure states are progressively being axed) because that produces a better yield (the player is gonna see everything you’ve made, no “wasted” material) and a more predictable one. Plus with wrong moves removed, no matter however small, you’re increasing the client’s satisfaction, while means you’ll get more clients.

    So it naturally appeals to the manager types, who are the ones okaying the projects in the first place, and that it may destroy the soul or interest or whatever of what’s being produced is irrelevant as this isn’t part of the goal, as a manager isn’t paid to understand but to manage.

    Well, that’s the gist of it, and I think it applies there

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    Are they dumbing games down, or simply stripping away the parts that are “less fun” to focus on the key aspects of the game?

    The big problem is that “fun” is not universal. The example I love to give is inventory management. I don’t know why, but I love inventory management in games. I find it a lot of fun figuring out what items to keep and which to ditch based on the items I’ve found. However, given how much people rant and rail against this, I figure I’m in a minority. But, still, take away all inventory management issues and you take a way a bit of the fun of the game for me and others like me. The question is, does it increase the number of people willing to play (or, more importantly pay for) the game at the risk of alienating those who find something missing? In the case of inventory puzzles, probably. But, in the case of heavily cutscene-driven games, this might not be the case in the longer term.

  • McTeddy said,

    I’ll second that “Fun” is not universal. I enjoy actually making an active effort to play. Whether it’s working on my jumping for an old platformer, or studying tactics for a strategy game. The idea of performing the same Cover/shoot/rinse/repeat so that I can see the next cutscene bores me to tears.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with your up front investment. Choosing to believe that the pixels were a person was already work… as was studying the instruction bible. If I’ve already put in the work… I’m darn well going to enjoy that game.

    I think that games today are far less work or at least far less player investment. Is this a bad thing? For me, yes… It makes games boring as hell FOR ME. Overall… if people enjoy the games there is no reason that it’s bad.

    The problem I see today is the One-Size-Fits-All mentality that ALL game’s must be this and that. While there is nothing wrong with passive engagement… we shouldn’t treat active engagement to a game like it’s a diseased limb that needs to be hacked off.

    There’s no reason we can’t have old school games and new ones side by side without the whining about which is better.

  • Styg said,

    Yes, definitely.

    Whether this was because old games lacked some (now standard) tools, such as journal, auto-map, quest indicators, etc, forcing us to do (and more importantly think about) these things ourselves, or whether they had genuinely more complex game mechanics is another thing. I suspect that the answer to THAT question is much harder.

    Games today, like movies, books and other forms of popular entertainment, are created for wide audiences. And to cater to a wide audience you need to cater to an average man. And an average man doesn’t want to engage in anything mentally tasking.

    Btw, it really doesn’t matter how complex the controllers are. Once you get used to them, they really don’t require any active thinking in order to actually use them. If the problems you are presented with are easy and obvious, bad tools (controllers) can only make them annoying to solve, not mentally challenging.

    Is it detrimental to the game experience? Like Teddy pointed out, there is no reason we cannot have both. If I am purposely looking to relax and relieve stress through simple mechanical action, I’d like to have that option, but this is not why I am into computer games. Much more often I’ll just fire up Alpha Centauri.

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    And to cater to a wide audience you need to cater to an average man.

    If you’re averaging a wide audience, you need an average hermaphrodite*. Which should also demonstrate the folly of basing your decisions on assuming that everyone is like the average and catering to that.

    * – I am aware this term is not in common polite usage anymore, I was making a point, not referring to real individuals.

  • Styg said,

    I never said anything about averaging an audience. Just that if you want a wide audience you need to be targeting the average man (human being), as they are the most numerous.

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    I’m just saying, “average man” is a lie. You get people saying things like “The average man likes sportscars” – but they’re not at all considering men in India as part of that ‘average’. They generally don’t mean average at all, they mean a stereotypical representative of the particular subset of men that they think it their target audience. They have a particular image in their mind of what A Man is like and they stick to that.

    And very often, they are indeed designing for a stereotypical man and claiming that they are forced to do so in order to cater to a wide audience, which is part of why you get eyebrows raised from me on the phrase. 🙂

    I’m not trying to pick on you, I’m trying to challenge the so-called common sense argument of the “average man” because I see it thrown around a lot as an excuse. Truly catering to a wide audience requires options, not homogeneity.

    Creating a model in your head of what the “average audience member” is like and targeting everything straight at that mythical figure leaves everyone unhappy, because most players will not be the Average Man you envision.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I think you do need to have a picture in your head of who your “typical” audience member really is. In the end, your success depends upon how many people are within tolerance levels of your target player, how well you succeeded at addressing the needs of that representative, and how well you market to them.

    I think one of the things that changes is that the picture in designer’s minds was no longer the teenaged male with geeky tendencies, but to a lower common denominator. Or at least what they thought was a lower common denominator.

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    Say the “typical” audience member doesn’t like reading, so you make all the text audio-only. Fine for him, but you’ve just locked out all your players with bad hearing. Your typical audience member isn’t deaf, but by adding subtitles you can easily widen your potential audience without losing anything.

    Basing everything on the mythical Average Man leads a lot of games to have you only play a male character, and he has to be bald and grunt a lot, and he has to be surrounded by women with huge breasts, and so on. This isn’t getting you the widest possible audience, it’s getting you a particular audience and turning off others.

    I’m not saying it’s bad to cater to a particular audience, but that people should be aware of it when they do. And if you really want the widest possible audience, you need to think beyond the “typical audience member” and consider what small changes or OPTIONS can make the game more appealing/accessible to more people.

    Some options would have a huge impact on the game and should not be added lightly. Some options (like subtitles) are easy to stick in once you think about it and have no real downside.

    Difficulty levels and bonus/completionist content are an obvious way that games cater to different skill levels and play styles.

  • bhlaab said,

    The “more focused” argument falls apart when you look at exactly where such streamlining has taken us: Videos of players beating missions of Call of Duty without firing a single bullet.

    It seems that developers are clearly putting their ‘focus’ on showing the player pre-scripted events in a controlled environment instead of allowing the player any agency that may interfere with their orchestrated setpieces. This isn’t about audiences or lowest common denominators, it’s about a medium throwing away the one thing that sets it apart from everything else.

    TV shows, films, and books have a rule: Show, don’t tell.
    Interactive mediums should have something similar: Do, don’t show.

    If a game describes itself as ‘cinematic’, that just means they’ve given up.

  • Gareth Fouche said,

    “TV shows, films, and books have a rule: Show, don’t tell.
    Interactive mediums should have something similar: Do, don’t show.”

    That is a great way to put it Bhlaab. Don’t get me wrong, I like a few cutscenes occasionally, to set the mood, but in general I don’t want to feel like my role as the player avatar is being overshadowed by that guy in the cutscenes, the one who looks like me but pulls off cooler moves than I can and says things I wouldn’t.

  • Xenovore said,

    @ WhineAboutGames:

    Quote: “Truly catering to a wide audience requires options, not homogeneity.”

    Agreed! Of course, you can’t please 100% of the players 100% of the time, but at least go as far as possible to allow players to play the way they want. (Or as you mentioned above regarding accessibility, allow players to play the way they might need to.)

    Back to the original post… In my mind, “passive engagement” in a video game is an oxymoron, and rather counter-intuitive. If a player is spending more time watching or reading a game instead of playing, how can they truly be engaged?

    I guess some people are fine with that, but personally, the more cut-scenes and text walls I see in a game, the less I want to play it; i.e. it’s not engaging me.

    The Final Fantasy games are a classic example of this; they were interesting to watch but I never wanted to actually play them.

    Dragon Age 2 is another example — I watched a friend play the demo and that was enough for me; I had absolutely no desire to play the game for myself.

    And unfortunately, yes, games are becoming more passive and less engaging — it seems that both designers and players are becoming more lazy (and/or stupid). It’s something of a vicious circle: Designers dumb down the game-play, players come to expect it, designers further dumb down the game-play, players come to expect more of it, etc.

  • Xenovore said,

    @ bhlaab:

    Quote: “Interactive mediums should have something similar: Do, don’t show. If a game describes itself as ‘cinematic’, that just means they’ve given up.”

    Completely agree!

    And, unlike Gareth, I mostly despise cut-scenes; to me they always seem like lazy design, and more egregiously, they inhibit player agency.

  • Menigal said,

    A quick and somewhat belated comment, I think one of the big problems with gaming now is Enforced Cinematicness.

    Gaming is still trying to find its feet, as we’ve all discussed ad nauseum. Too many designers think gaming must copy other, more passive forms of entertainment, and I think this might be influenced by the increasing “businessness” of publishers. Too many marketting people who’ve never played games taking control of the design process, etc.

    For a game to be taken seriously, they think it has to be as movielike as possible. This means endless cutscenes, set pieces, and sections of odd gameplay. This is the one stealth section or forced use of an unusual mechanic you would never otherwise use. This is the boss battle where shooting him in his exposed head causes no damage, despite headshots working everywhere else in the game, because you’re supposed to shoot flaming arrows at some explosive gas vents and make the ceiling collapse on him or something more cinematic.

    The Grand Theft Auto games are full of things like this, and create a jarring contrast between the openness of the non-mission, more enjoyable part of the game and the linear, only-do-it-this-way missions. I for one feel more connected to the character when I’m allowed to make them do what I want, not what some writer wants. Games are a tool of the imagination, but more and more they’re taking this away from the player, so I would say, yes, gaming is becoming more passive and losing part of what makes it so special.

    Cutscenes at the beginning, the end, and leave the middle of the game (i.e., the bit we’re paying for) to me!

  • Do, Don’t Tell « Kitty Kitty Boom Boom said,

    […] Rampant Coyote wrote a nice blog post last week that took a look at level design. It caught my attention given the old school theme of my blog lately. The map on the left is from Doom, and the map on the right is from I don’t know what, but it made me think of a Bioware game, i.e. Mass Effect and Dragon Age. At no time playing these games did I get a feeling that I was exploring a dungeon like this. I wanted to. I really did. But the Mage’s Tower in DA I was essentially a spiral path, and the Deep Roads funnel you. […]

  • Press the X Button to Watch the Game! said,

    […] to the games, and got out of it what they were willing to put in. If we are trending towards more passive gaming experiences, then we need to ask ourselves if we’re gaining more by emulating more popular traditional […]

  • Do What You Want « Tish Tosh Tesh said,

    […] Why are so many gamers content to just do as they are told?  Who exactly is to blame for not exploring the world of an MMO?  (Which is, after all, still a game, not a pure world simulator, for better or worse.)  Why, in one of the most potentially interactive entertainment mediums, are games so constrained or controlled, and so many “consumers” still so passive? […]

  • Tharanauk said,

    I think this reduction (on average 😉 of “Minutes of Agency” in games, is a result of a ‘Hollywood like” game industry.

    There are independent games being made, and thanks to better tools it’s now easier than ever to make a good looking game with a small number of people.
    This is where innovation is truly free
    e.g. Mount&Blade, Runesc…, early Ultima Online and SWG before the ‘Big Money’ asked the developers to bend over and think of the cash.

    Think of the games they could make in the future with this money, if only they compromised on what they wanted with the current game.
    Like a writer with two thugs looking over her shoulder, ‘suggesting’ changes to every page.

    Typical exchange between creative types and Their financial backing:

    Thug1: “what if the ring really wasn’t destroyed!”

    Thug2: “hey…that’s awesome! we can have 10 more books after this. Just put at the end ‘The End…or is it?'”

    Writer: “That isn’t what I had in mind, I think it would rui-*SLAP*”

    Writer:”…I mean, sure…that sounds ok I guess”

    Thugs: “we knew you’d see it our way.”

    Readers: “…I liked it, but not as much as I might have if the writer was free from non-writer coercion. There’s a second one ring?!”

    If game developers, artists etc had free reign to do whatever they wanted we’d have more games that don’t cater to FAR TO MANY MARKETS at once.
    Games that have true beauty, soul, that people initially pirate but then buy the collectors edition with the cloth map.

    Many current games are like adding fish to icecream, targeting too many tastes.
    Mixed together to produce something not quite as good as either.

    Catering for everyone,(while financially optimal)means the game isn’t as enjoyable for anyone.

    Someone wants permadeath in their MMO?
    let them be your target market, it will be smaller but it will be loyal.

    I may be loyal to a restaurant with good food and service, especially one with a unique menu…but never to McDonalds.
    Nobody is truly their target market,because they use a nuclear bomb, making sure they get everyone.
    And their food tastes like ash. covering my ass legally->(ketchum that is, from pokemon, Ash ketchum).

    “Then when everyone’s the target market…noone will be.”