Recently, Bioware producer Mike Gamble spoke to Game Informer about how there will be heaps to do in Mass Effect Andromeda. He reckoned that the game universe is the biggest one the studio has ever made “in terms of number of pieces of content,” and I imagine he is saying that with a note of pride in his voice.
By no means am I mocking the team’s hard work on Mass Effect, but I’ve always thought that such declarations are curiously prevalent in the videogame industry. For instance, Cyberpunk 2077 is said to be “far, far bigger” than Witcher 3. The Fallout 4 DLC, Nuka World, is larger than its previous DLC, Far Harbor, which in turn features content so massive that it is bigger than both the Automatron and Wasteland Workshop DLCs combined. And of course, nothing can be bigger than the universe in No Man’s Sky, which is infinitely larger than Minecraft’s enormous world.
Conversely, movies, books, music, and other forms of entertainment are hardly described in terms of their length or amount of content. Most people aren’t outraged that a three-minute pop song may cost just as much as a progressive jazz fusion avant-garde metal song that lasts 30 minutes (but in the off chance you’re reading this, Mikael Akerfeldt, feel free to write songs that last forever. Also, email me). Plus, aside from guitar enthusiasts, no one would be left distraught by the lack of guitar solos in a song.
Videogames are in a precarious position, straddling the thin line between being a product—in which players feel that they must wring out as much content as possible to get their money’s worth—and offering an abstract, immeasurable experience, much akin to art. How can you judge an experience based on its quantity or how well it can engage its audiences? For instance, even though Undertale can be finished within a few hours, the game was every bit as memorable as The Witcher 3, which I’m still trying to finish despite starting it four months ago. On the other hand, Fallout 4 offers an expansive world to explore, with enough content to occupy me for a couple of months. However, I’d still rather head back to a shorter but more immersive universe like Skyrim.
And because everything in the videogame universe will relate back to No Man’s Sky, this point is most evident in the debacle surrounding the game. When it failed to meet sky-high expectations, many players felt ripped off when there didn’t seem to be much to do, despite its colossal universe. In addition, the game costs a hefty $60—a figure that is honestly quite unheard of from an indie studio.
Some of my favorite games are also some of the shortest in length and content, but they are every bit as worthwhile as longer titles. Perhaps it’s time for us to have a conversation about videogame prices and cast a more critical eye on games in terms of the experiences they offer instead of the amount of content they house.