Embrace The Bounce

The Thing (2002). Not taken by my, as I never got to meet Keith David.

Another ancient article recovered from the permafrost atop the flame-raddled corpse of Edge Online.

It’s 2002. The Thing, the game of one of my favourite films, is about to come out and I’ve just started working on a games magazine. I get the game code, load it and enter the world. It’s great! I’m in The Thing! I’m standing outside that base! Kurt Russell and Keith David must be inside, doing that staring thing… And I can’t get in.

I walk around and around the base. I freeze to death over and over. I try for an hour to work out what to do next. And fail. I don’t go back. I eventually meet virtual Keith David in Mass Effect, but it’s not the same.

It’s 2012. I’m playing DOTA 2. All my young friends have been playing for months, polishing their expertise. After endless imprecations, I go in, expecting to be terrible at it – and I’m not. Considering I don’t know the builds and strategies, I’m just mediocre – at a stretch, passable. Probably because the game feels just like Warcraft III multiplayer, which I played excessively, possibly from a good native APM. But, because of that over-familiarity, because of the time sink, I don’t go back.

We all know the bounce – the second you realise you aren’t going to put any more time into something, free or paid.

You bounce off all types of media. I bounced off Orange Is The New Black, because it felt contrived and over-scripted. I bounced off Death Note because I didn’t want to devote another 150 hours of my life to another endless anime. I bounced off The Wire before the opening credits ended because I’d been told too often how great it was.

It pays to shop around before settling on, say DOTA 2.

It’s not to say that the media is bad, just that it doesn’t fit for you at that stage. And it’s something that designers go mad trying to avoid. The game-breaking bug, the untuitive critical path – there’s many reasons we stop playing. Think of the way Valve used early player-tracking in Half-Life 2 to determine that there was a difficulty spike in the Episode 2 Ant-lion battle where they were losing almost all their players.

But the most likely reason you’re bouncing off games right now is the time commitment.  Especially at this time of year, there’s only so many of these game relationships we can commit to. We’re told we can only have so many actual relationships with real people – dodgy statistics peg it at 150. And social media tech is helping us stay in touch with them – Facebook probably means we don’t have to do a pint more than every few months.

With games, it’s harder. A game is a bigger commitment than a pint. We know that the games that re really worth playing can require a mind-boggling commitment. Gunpoint creator Tom Francis has played, at his estimation, 3000 games of Spelunky since the freeware game first came out. If I estimate that each of those took half an hour, that’s a hundred sixteen-hour days that Tom’s spent on it when he could have been making more Prankspasms and Deathflukes. Similarly, I have Steam friends who’ve joyfully put over 2000 hours into Team Fortress 2.

If you’re looking for a long-term relationship, Spelunky has a lot to offer.

Like dating, we’re looking for that one game, that one serious relationship. It’s why we all got into MMOs – because what they offered were open relationships, where you got to see your friends too. And, like dating, you have to try a good handful before settling on a partner. Reading a positive review, however perfectly-crafted, is sometimes as useful as a MySingleFriend recommendation. Likewise, The Thing, for me, was like being stood up.

To find the game that’s the right fit for you – the game that you’re happy to put hundreds of hours into, to attempt to 100% – you need to try a lot out. The mainstream model doesn’t work with that – no-one can afford to go for a dinner-date every night – and demos are thin on the ground. The Freemium model does, but it more-than-cheapens our relationship if we have to pay the object of our affection by the hour. The recent proliferation of bundles and Steam sales is therefore excellent. It’s speed-dating. You buy a game for a few pennies and you don’t feel terrible if you just play it once, because there’s a queue in the wings and you might suit each other better.

So don’t feel bad about bouncing off a game. You were probably never meant to be together. And, anyway, being stood up isn’t worth fighting for, even if it’s by Keith David.

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