Finally turned in my paper today and thought it was time to get back to the endgame script for TNM. When I looked through it I was struck by just how damn huge it is – and how little of it you’ll get to see on each playthrough. So far it’s 18 pages – 11 pages of endgame cinematics, 6 pages of what I’ve written of the denouement so far, and a cover sheet. That’s a lot, incidentally. Since I’ve used standard script format it more or less matches 17 minutes of cutscenes, and I’m not even half done with the denouement yet, my guesstimate is that just that sequence may end up around 15 pages or more. But at any given time, you’ll only see a couple of minutes of it at most.
This is a trend in the design of TNM: We deny you access to a lot of content based on your choices. Each main storyline has 4 maps that aren’t present in the other storyline, meaning at the very least you’ll be missing 4 maps on each playthrough, and a couple of these make up entire missions. Then there are the optional maps – the ones related to side quests, the ones with bonus stuff, the Corporate District sewers that you may never visit but in which is hidden a bunch of cool content… and that’s to say nothing of the dialogue, the background story, the characters etc.
TNM as a project turns 6 years on Sunday, and it’s pretty clear to see what took us so long. The more I think about it, the more I’m wondering if this is going to be the only project I ever get to work on with this much adaptive content. Consider it from an economic point of view: We have at least 20 hours of content, probably more like 25-30 hours. You can take your sweet time searching through our huge maps, talking to everybody, hacking people’s accounts, etc. Daniel has played for hours and hours and he’s not even completed the first of our five sections yet. In fact if you go straight through the game, focusing just on the main storyline, it’s only about 7 hours.
On a real game project with a publisher, a deadline, and/or a budget, the producer would not like the idea of making a game with that much optional content. The producer would especially not like the idea of downright preventing access to so much content depending on the player’s choices as we’ve done. Consider Mass Effect. Here you start by choosing a background and a psychological profile when you make a new character. Each background opens one minor side-mission. The psych profiles don’t do much except change dialogue, as I understand it, which the backgrounds do as well.
This is really neat, but it’s a relatively minor difference – on each playthrough you will only really be denied access to 2 minor side missions. Mass Effect is also a game with huge amounts of optional content – loads of side missions you don’t have to take and random planets you can explore plus all the background text it keeps adding to your codex. This is fine though, from a production standpoint, because it’s a major selling point and if the player doesn’t make use of it, that’s a deliberate choice on his or her part. Mass Effect is a sensible production, unlike TNM which is massively self-indulgent in almost every aspect.
I actually touch on this in the paper I’ve just turned in (which may soon appear here as a .pdf, though it’s somewhat mediocre). Palestine is a game which locks huge amounts of content depending on your allegiances – write for the Israeli paper and the Palestinians won’t talk to you, but you’ll get loads of information out of the Israeli. Write for the Palestinian paper and the Israeli shut up but the Palestinians will tell you anything. Try to stay neutral and you’ll get a mediocre amount of information out of each side. This can be defended in a game like Palestine because it’s a short game that needs replayability to sell, and furthermore it’s developed for use in schools with a whole class of pupils playing it and discussing it.
I remember Warren Spector once mentioned in one of his articles that Gabe Newell had been poking fun at him for designing games where any given player would only experience about 80% of the game. Gabe probably bases this opinion on Valve’s thorough datamining that shows a lot of players never even completed HL2:EP1 and subsequent playthroughs are rare. Even putting aside the question of whether this would change if players knew there would be new content to return for, this ultimately misses the point: The reason for making adaptive games isn’t to persuade you to play more than once to experience the whole game, but that the part of the game you do experience should be your part of the game. Knowing that your choices shaped the game gives you greater ownership of the experience, and it also makes discussion of a game more interesting: When you’re talking about HL2, it’s like you’re discussing a movie (“wasn’t this and that part awesome?”). When you’re discussing Deus Ex, you’re comparing how you actually played the game (“did you save Paul or did he die?”).
Nevertheless, the lengths to which we go in TNM to change the game with each playthrough would probably be unacceptable in a real production. We love doing it though, and I’d really love to do more of it in the future. But Warren’s 80% is probably more financially sound than the ~60% you’ll see of TNM on one playthrough