November 11, 2004

Bigger Isn’t Better

by Michael Mateas · , 8:16 pm

UC Riverside isn’t the only place discussing GTA: San Andreas. This last Monday, in the Experimental Game Lab at Georgia Tech, we held a group play-session and discussion of the game (part of the Game Night series we’ve started in the lab). At our next Game Night we’re discussing Fable: we want to compare two recent, large open-world games back-to-back.

The discussion left me feeling disappointed with San Andreas. With all the positive reviews, I had expectations for an even higher-agency GTA III experience. While there are some hilights (the rhetoric of poverty implied in only being able to eat crappy fast food, the character-appropriate accessorizing, the gang reputation system), I actually felt like I had less agency in this game than in previous installments. The fundamental gameplay is almost identical to GTA III: now the game is just really really big, with a simple RPG stats system attached.

The effect of a really-big world, with most of the buildings being facades that you can’t enter and that have no game-specific function, combined with characters you can’t really effect (ok, you can kill them or increase your reputation with your own gang) made the world empty and hollow – there’s no reason to really do anything. Sure, joyriding is fun, but I’ve already been joyriding for two previous games. Now I want more. Particularly, after three installments, the lack of more sophisticated NPC interactions is really starting to bother me. Some examples:

Matt said that one of the things he likes about open-world games like San Andreas is the lack of edges. The world has no edges; it’s impossible to fall off. I countered that there are lots of edges; every NPC is a cliff you fall off when they respond in an entirely predictable, mechanical, context-free way. The physical space is large and relative edge free, but the social space is tiny, hemmed in on all sides by edges. Sure, you can spend the 5 or 10 minutes to drive to the top of a mountain, find a parachute, and jump off. But, as a gameplay mechanic, this feels like an endless hunt for easter eggs. You can hide a lot of easter eggs in a huge virtual world. And while easter egg hunting has a long and venerable history (as recent examples, look at any of the crazily detailed guides for Zelda Windwaker or Kingdom Hearts, two games I’ve played somewhat recently, and no, I didn’t exhaustively search for all the secrets), I don’t see how it has any legs as a fundamental game design approach. What’s the next installment: a continent with hundreds of large, empty cities in which all the inhabitants act exactly the same, except now you can go to Cape Canaveral and carjack the space shuttle?

On the way home, Ian and I chatted about why San Andreas felt disappointing. Part of the problem is that, while GTA III introduced a major design innovation, San Andreas feels like more of the same (a lot more of the same). Without being able to bring more life to the world, richer NPC interactions, dynamic, generative mission (story) structures, and long range effects of your actions, there’s nowhere for large open-worlds to go. Bigger is not better.

11 Responses to “Bigger Isn’t Better”


  1. Grand Text Auto » Getting a Degree in EA Says:
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  2. noah Says:

    Yesterday at RISD I got my first chance to see Beyond Manzanar (by Tamiko Thiel and Zara Houshmand, and mentioned earlier). I was quite impressed by how it combined an explorable space with an experience that progressed.

    As far as I could tell, this is how it works. You move around the space of the detention camp — reading poetry integrated into the wire fence, looking in windows at archival photographs set back from them, seeing newspaper pages ghostly in the sky. Eventually you enter one of the buildings. Whichever one you enter, you have the same experience — the first experience you’re meant to have in a building. When you leave the building, the space is transformed. The new space is also explorable. But the next time you enter a building, whichever you enter, you have the second experience you have inside a building. (You get the idea.)

    I realized this was one of the first times I’d seen this idea actually implemented. Sure, I’d heard people say things like, “It’s easy. Let the player walk into a bar. Whoever they talk to, that person knows how to tell them the information they need. You don’t have to force them to talk to anyone, and you always feed them the info.” But I don’t think we do this “easy” thing that often.

    So my question about GTA:SA and other big world games is: why they don’t let you walk into any building, talk to any character, and just ensure that whatever you interact with in that big world is able to take on the characteristics of one of the elements of one of the missions? (Or of something else interesting.) Is the worry that you’d just spend your time popping back and forth on the same block and never see the big thing they’ve made?

  3. Ian Bogost Says:

    So my question about GTA:SA and other big world games is: why they don’t let you walk into any building, talk to any character, and just ensure that whatever you interact with in that big world is able to take on the characteristics of one of the elements of one of the missions?

    Or, better, why don’t they focus on dynamically creating smaller mission-like trajectories that would erupt out of the interactions between the player character and primary NPCs or (more interesting) any old NPC in the game? This is the kind of dynamic interactive story that Facade takes on, and I think the lack of it is exactly what’s holding back games like GTA.

  4. andrew Says:

    Ian, even if the GTA production team (or similar big budget projects at other companies) were given the go-ahead from upper management to try to push towards more dynamic narrative that you’re describing here, without some more heavy-duty AI technology to support that kind of dynamic behavior (e.g., a behavior-based language such as ABL, used in Facade), they’re not going to get very far. They’d be foolish to take on those design goals without the technology to support it.

    Developing such technology takes R&D time, experimentation, trial and error, building small experiences before moving to large GTA:SA-sized ones. If we’re ever going to see progress (and I pray we will, in time; hopefully research like ours can help make it happen), I’m guessing we’ll see it in small titles first, before we see it in big ones. One problem is, big game companies seem reluctant to build smallish titles that won’t be mega blockbuster hits.

    Actually I think Noah’s idea fits better within the capabilities of the technology they presumably have. I agree something like that could be done here; but Rockstar is probably even too averse to taking that additional design risk on, and with little reason to — because as we can see, they’re selling plenty of units as is.

    But — this is now the third variation of GTA3; they’ll have to move on to GTA4 at some point. One would hope that for GTA4, Rockstar will push forward with more advanced features, just as GTA3 was an advancement over GTA2 and 1. Hopefully they have people working on this as we speak; GTA:SA is the bread and butter revenue that could fund or perhaps is funding that experimentation.

    Michael, regarding your disappointment, the reviews actually didn’t suggest there was significantly more global agency in GTA:SA; they basically just said there’s lots more stuff to do (breadth, not depth), 50% of it off the main storyline — but none of it at a significantly greater degree of agency. It’s not been hyped up as GTA4 by Rockstar or the reviewers. I haven’t played it yet, but I would imagine the increased size of the world would make the overall experience more immersive and engaging than the original GTA3. But I certainly agree that’s only a small advancement compared to the idea of adding more agency, and only an advancement one can enjoy (and is willing to pay for) one or two times.

  5. Mark Marino Says:

    Just to clarify: We’re UC Riverside, not to be confused with UCLA (re: Bigger isn’t necessarily better).

    The session was amazing. I’ll post a full report on http://globalinterface.blogspot.com

  6. Ian Bogost Says:

    Ian, even if the GTA production team … without some more heavy-duty AI technology

    Yeah, of course. But, why should we settle for less?

  7. andrew Says:

    We shouldn’t settle for less! None of us are settled :-) — we’re just making guesses why GTA:SA isn’t better, just bigger.

    Believe me, I’m hoping to get even more details answers to why this is, and how to get the industry to move forward.

  8. Michael Says:

    Just to clarify: We’re UC Riverside

    Ooops, sorry about that Mark. I’ve fixed this in the post.

  9. Michael Says:

    I haven’t played it yet, but I would imagine the increased size of the world would make the overall experience more immersive and engaging than the original GTA3. But I certainly agree that’s only a small advancement compared to the idea of adding more agency, and only an advancement one can enjoy (and is willing to pay for) one or two times.

    Well, I guess I didn’t even find it more “immersive and engaging” – I didn’t feel motivated to run around and explore the world. The shear scale, coupled with the sameness (I can wreck vehicles wherever I go, have people respond to me exactly the same way wherever I go, pass by empty building facades wherever I go), actually took away my desire to explore. Sure, discovering some of the minigames is nice (like the low-rider rythm game), but it wasn’t enough. Again, it boils down to looking for easter eggs in a really large world. Also, I think the scale actually decreases agency. The various elements of the larger world suggest more possible high-level directions that you can’t pursue (given the game verbs) than a smaller world, leading to diminished agency.

  10. Ian Bogost Says:

    Andrew — yes, looks like a great panel. I’ll look forward to it.

    Michael:
    Well, I guess I didn’t even find it more “immersive and engaging” – I didn’t feel motivated to run around and explore the world. … Also, I think the scale actually decreases agency.

    I had the same reactions. One of the questions I have is, would it have been better if Rockstar have stopped with GTA3 or VC? Did they provide the innovation of the open world and then tarnish it in SA by virtue of the reduced agency you mention?

  11. Erik C Says:

    So my question about GTA:SA and other big world games is: why they don’t let you walk into any building, talk to any character, and just ensure that whatever you interact with in that big world is able to take on the characteristics of one of the elements of one of the missions? (Or of something else interesting.) Is the worry that you’d just spend your time popping back and forth on the same block and never see the big thing they’ve made?

    Probably! I have found in my tests, where the user starts in a ve (or game) makes a big difference to their experience of that world.
    It might also come back to testing, ie practicalities. If character events etc are linked to location, it is easier to test (keep in mind) from a designer’s point of view. And yes this is boring. Secondly, if events can happen anywhere and not linked to physical co-ords, could that not make the physical environment a mere backdrop rather than a collection of localities with character (or even) agency?
    The games I have seen tend to have a very simple (if near spot) then..trigger, I personally prefer see more event triggers based on a combination of characteristics of the physical locale.
    BTW, is the ‘social space’ the same as the ‘cultural space’? ie where NPC occur, what can you do with or to them, and does it vary with the locality?

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