Design Rant: Feature Creep

4 minute read

At what point does new gameplay become a chore to learn? At what point does a game lose it’s identity?

To answer that, consider this: for every totally new game you play, your mind is clear.

You learn more and more about the game, and start having an expectation for how it plays.

It also means you become experienced at the game. The two are the same.

If those expectations get betrayed you might feel bad.

But you can’t stop a player from acquiring them.

[Dealing with growing expectations]

For many games, you can’t cultivate a players attitude to accept more or less mechanics. Ahem, that would start entering the realm of mind-control.

Perhaps, you can do pure power creep (You satisfy expectations more than anticipated, but your gameplay may fall apart).

I mean, power creep just makes the existing game… relatively easier to win. The only time you should make a game easier to win is when it’s starting to become a chore to the player.

A bad example: some RPGs let you become extremely powerful during a certain portion of the game and by this accident, the game isn’t really fun because it’s not challenging.

A good example: eventually some RPGs skip a battle encounter and immediately give you the miniscule exp from early-game enemies once you’ve become powerful. You never enter the battle menu, you just win these battles that wouldn’t have challenged you.

Finally, you could just make every new gameplay mechanic intuitive and easy to learn. If its a comfortable new addition to the game, the player is happy! The only problem is, now you’re limited in how much you can change the game.

A good example: Anything you can capture in Super Mario Odyssey. They all turn and run at very comfortable speeds. Everything you possess simply presents a new way of “moving somewhere”.

A bad example: Sonic Adventure 2’s stage archetypes. Rush to the final goal in linear “speed stages”, but explore more maze-like maps for “treasure hunting stages”. Then you move slowly and gun down enemies in “shooting stages”. But unlike odyssey, this feels like 3 separate games.

Every good example maintains whatever experience and expectation you had for the game, so you never felt like your time is being wasted playing them.

But those good examples come from games that had lots of planning time. What about games that don’t?

[Game patches]

Patches can add, remove, or change anything in the game.

This is a fearsome power.

Not only do you have the power to make new content and revise old gameplay, but you could effectively make an old version of the game stop existing for most of your players.

Most games that heavily rely on patches are slowly evolving beasts. Even the developers themselves might not be 100% sure on a change, but if it doesn’t work out, you can always fix it with another patch.

Theres nothing certain I can conclude from the major examples. Look at the hugely popular ones that have become e-sports, and see their player numbers. Even with the data the companies have collected on players, every single patch ever made is through experimentation and testing.

Not only that, but players become accustomed to the idea of patches too.

They become experienced with reading up on new patches, but remember, it also means they’ll have expectations for patches too.

Depending on how you patch games, players could expect you to deal with parts of the game they don’t like. If this expectation becomes too strong, they’ll easily become dissapointed if they’re in the minority.

Strangely, there is a equilibrium of how often you should patch. Updating too often or not often enough is going to generate negative expectations i.e. “you change the game too much” or “this game will never get fixed”.

Although for single player games, its not good business to just keep patching (not all players return or even hear the news that your game was patched).

After enough patches are applied, you’ve basically made a game’s sequel from within. So to cover this, we can just talk about sequels.

[What about sequels?]

You’re allowed to break expectations in a sequel. You’re allowed to add new features. People aren’t too upset because its an entirely different game.

The important thing is you keep the identity of the original game intact. You can’t CHOOSE what the core identity is, and it’s almost always the most significant component of the game.

Bad example: Banjo Kazooie Nuts & Bolts, a driving game where you build your own vehicle. Doomed to failure since the previous two games with its namesake were successful 3D platformers.

Good example: Team Fortress 2, the only required feature was “having playable classes with roles”, but had completely overhauled visuals and weapons were simpler (i.e. weapons were removed and nobody was upset).

Some players also might just not touch a sequel, if they think they’ve had enough of the experience the previous game offered.

In that case it’s up to us to produce an entirely original work, that barely contains whatever elements are necessary for fans to identify it in the same series.

Good example: Breath of the wild, which actually… “reconstructed” many of the Zelda series’ conventions for the capabilities of modern hardware. (only characters, puzzles and weapons remain, everything else is new)

[Closing]

I keep asking more and more questions.

About how much features should be attached to a game, or how lean should the core gameplay be.

How long do you want players to keep playing?

How long do you want to continue working on a single game?

What leaves people happy? It’s going to be hard to make them happy if they’re busy being confused.

I guess, just keep your mind open and once you’ve figured it out, remember what your game is supposed to be.

You want players to expect great things from you. I like this simple way of thinking.

Have fun out there, won’t ya?

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