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So When Are You Finished?

January 3rd, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 8 Comments · Design, Me

I was a guest on this week’s Jumping the Shark podcast, and the topic for the week (once you get past all the “what are you playing?” stuff) was whether we complete the games we play. This was not about whether reviewers have to, but about what makes us finish a game and whether we feel compelled to move on if a game isn’t doing it for us. The whens and the whys are pretty important.

I don’t play games that really have ends. I mean, they have end games, but when can I say that I have finished War in the East or Bronze?

On the show, Todd Brakke boasted about having finished Dawn of War 2, but which he meant he had finished the story based campaign. I commented that, from my perspective, he had only barely started Dawn of War 2. Sure, he had completed the story and had some fun with the squad based tactics stuff, but he only played one race, he never tried the skirmish, he didn’t engage with any of the territorial control games that Relic designs so well.

Some strategy games clearly have end points. Lionheart: King’s Crusade is nothing but two campaigns (one Crusader, one Saracen) and there is no reason to play the game once you have claimed the Holy Land for whatever god your hero worships. A few years ago there was a spate of WW2 real time strategy games that, similarly, had nothing beyond the missions that were strung together.

No matter how many times you play Mass Effect 2, though, you can speak of having “finished it” so long as you see the story to a resolution. No matter how many times I conquer the world in Civilization or beat back the Zerg in Starcraft, I never feel like the game is finished. Playing a new skirmish whether online or alone feels like a new beginning in a way that restarting Dragon Age doesn’t. As one of the Gameshark panelists noted, I already took my guy through that story. The first time is what really happened – everything else after that is just exploring new plot points or grinding for achievements.

There is a world of difference between “I finished Starcraft 2” and “I am finished with Starcraft 2.” Does the first even make sense?


8 Comments so far ↓

  • Wolfox

    “I finished Stacraft 2″ doesn’t make sense because there’s no game called “Stacraft 2″. There’s an “r” missing there. :-)

  • Wolfox

    I guess that by “a spate of WW2 real time strategy games that, similarly, had nothing beyond the missions that were strung together” you mean mostly Men of War and its prequels?

    In any case, “finishing a game” is subject to interpretation. Take Mass Effect 2, for instance – for some people, finishing it is playing through it once. For other people, you never really finished it unless you’ve played through every possible “decision tree” available (roughly, in the case of Mass Effect 2, playing as Paragon once, and Renegade a second time).

    What about games with multiple endings? Have you truly “finished” it if you haven’t seen all possible endings? Again, that’s subject to interpretation.

    That’s nitpicking, however. What is a fact is that there are different categories of games, when it comes to “finishing” them.

    The first category is made of games that are designed to be finished – to provide a complete, fulfilling, well-defined experience, one that might be replayed, but which is recognized as a single “entity” and experienced as one. Mass Effect (and most RPGs), most adventures, and most action-adventure games fit in that category.

    There’s a second class of games – games that can provide a “complete” experience, but which may be repeated several times with different variables, in order to feel “new” every time you (essentially) replay it. That would be the case of Civ, and most strategy games with “skirmish-like” functionalities (EU3, Distant Worlds, Master of Orion, etc).

    And there’s a last class of games – those that have no actual ending, no definitive “winning condition” – games that are designed to be experienced in the same way we experiment our own lives – as always changing, evolving experiences. Many open world games fit this category, but I’d mention Mount & Blade as a good example.

    Of course, it’s not that simple. Games like Morrowind and Oblivion combine elements of category 1 and 3, and RPGs with multiple endings and classes could perhaps be classified in category 2 instead of 1. Starcraft 2 can be classified as both category 1 (the single-player campaign) and 2 (skirmish, multiplayer).

    Enough talking, I guess. Comments?

  • Jon Gad

    Can you ever really finish a game these days? Even your shooters like the Halo or Modern Warfare games have a ton of multiplayer beyond the standard single player game. Indeed, many players insist that the multiplayer versions are the “real game” and the single player campaigns are only very long tutorials.

    That said, I do think there are games that can be finished. The old school point and click adventure games could be finished, for example. Those games often even kept score with the percentage the game you’d completed. Once you’d hit 100%, you had finished the game.

    Likewise, the spiritual descendants of adventure games like Heavy Rain can certainly be finished. You can poke along in the margins after you beat the game, maybe see what happens if you get this character killed or ensure that character gets the best ending and what have you, but really, Heavy Rain is the one story, and once you’ve seen that story, it doesn’t really change with further playthroughs, any more than a film’s story on DVD changes because you’ve turned on the director commentary.

    For strategy games, while one can argue that you’ve finished the game once you’ve beaten the story campaign, the fact is that unlike an adventure game, the story isn’t the point. The point is the game itself. The story is usually a bolted on affair that artificially limits what parts of the game you can use at any given time.

    To the degree that I have a specialty, its within the 4X space genre. Master of Orion 1&2, Galactic Civilizations 1&2, Sins of a Solar Empire and Sword of the Stars are all games that I’ve played to death. Of these, only the GalCiv games really even tried to have a “campaign,” and for the most part, I found the campaign to be so limited that I only did the first couple of scenarios before returning to the usual open universe game.

    So when have you finished a strategy game?

    I think I can say that I’ve finished MOO2. I’ve played it hundreds of times since 1996. I’ve played as every race, and used virtually every combination of race traits with the race creator. I’ve won diplomatically, crushed the Antarans, and conquered every planet in the galaxy. I’ve seen every space monster, and probably seen every event. I’ve used every tech, and delved deep enough into the tech system to get a Stellar Converter on a destroyer hull.

    In short, I’ve mastered the systems of the game. I know exactly how it works, how to maximize my own performance, how to handicap myself to make for a more interesting game, and what the game will do under almost any circumstance.

    That is, however, probably the only strategy game I can claim to have “finished,” because it took me ten years of playing MOO2 to achieve that level of mastery.

    Every other strategy game has either been superseded by another game or found lacking in one way or another such that I never played it long enough to master all aspects of its system. Even Civilization IV with the excellent Fall From Heaven II mod installed only dominated my strategy free time for a year or so. Most games only get a month or two, if that.

    So, to finish a strategy game, it has to hit you in that sweet spot that makes you want to keep playing it for years, or at the very least come back to it once you’ve finished with other games. Master of Orion 2 was that game for me, and I may never get another one. I feel privileged to have found that one game to master, though, and I keep hoping I’ll find another one someday.

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    Wolfox beat me to my point. I divide games into two categories, “finishable” and “scenario”/”match”/”round”-based games, which correspond to his type 1 and type 2. RPGs, single-player shooters, RTS campaigns, and anything with a “story” mode fall into the former category, while EU3, Civ, and RTS skirmishes fall into the latter.

    For Type 1 games, when I reach “The End”, that truly is the end for me. I don’t bother replaying — even if there are 500 branching paths through the game, I’ll only ever see one — and I don’t stick around for postgame content.

    For Type 2, I’m finished when I get bored or burned out. This is often a function of time spent, rather than number of games played. So I’ve played many more matches of Sins of a Solar Empire (~2hrs) than I have of EU3 (where it can take a whole day to play for one century).

  • Michael

    This is a great topic that I recently wrote in about on the Gamers With Jobs podcast. You illustrated your point much better than I did, as I don’t think they really gave my question a lot of thought… but there’s a very a clear divide between games that are one-shots that you play and are finished (Bioshock) and games that you can revisit and play differently every time. They both have their strong points, but I’m much, much more drawn to games that are a system I can learn and get better at, as opposed to an experience that I go through once and have completed.

    A game like Bioshock is like watching a movie – you absorb it in its entirety and move on. Like a movie, you can go back and play it again and maybe notice a few things you had missed, or maybe appreciate some aspects more just because you know what’s coming. It’s still the same game, however.

    Most strategy games, on the other hand, are like hobbies. They’re skills that you hone through practice. You’re not watching a set of scenes go by, you’re essentially creating something using the game as a tool. It’s like woodcarving – you can carve a boat ten times, but each successive boat will be done better and better. There’s no “best” or “ultimate” boat, just the next one in the series.

    Then there’s games like Victoria and EU, which have are very Zen in the sense that they have a beginning, but no middle or end. They just are.

  • Quinten

    Men of War has a very interesting multiplayer component, and a hardcore fanbase around it to boot. I play a few matches every month or two. I cannot stay competitive, but even losing is entertaining in how cool it looks to watch the enemies Tiger tanks blow my stuff up. To me the game was great because it was two games with the same controls: interesting sandbox single player campaigns, and a tactical hardcore multiplayer game. The game won’t be finished to me until MoW: Vietnam comes out.

  • Todd

    Since when did I “boast” about finishing DoW2? :)

    Anyway, I still think there’s a difference between open-ended/sandbox games and games you finish. You really can’t finish a game that isn’t scripted. With a game like Civ there’s always another largely unique experience to have by starting a new game. Dragon Age: Origins? Not so much. Yes, there are a few different endings and you can pick different origins, but you’re still playing the same game. The same people say largely the same things and you go to the same places and fulfill the same quest lines, mostly in the same way. As I said on the show, there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end.

    Personally, with the exception of sports games and turn-based strategy games (that are measured in hours and not minutes), I need that. I need the story to give my actions purpose or at least for my actions to build their own narrative (Civ, Mount & Blade, etc.), which is partly why skirmishes in a RTS game don’t appeal to me. They don’t build towards anything. I like endings. It makes it okay for me to move on to the next thing. (Or to take a break from mashing buttons.)

  • Iain

    It was an excellent podcast. The highlight for me was when you said you gave up Dragon Age just before the final battle. I did the same and for exactly the same reasons. Glad I wasn’t the only one.