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Shuuda avatar 4:37 PM on 11.11.2013  (server time)
Front Loaded

Note: this post has spoilers for Fire Emblem: Awakening.

First impressions matter. If a game fails to hook the audience then it can wind up being banished to the pit of the forgotten (though frankly, I have a soft spot for slow starting games). Unfortunately, the emerging trend in recent games is to pour too much on the start, causing the game to be front loaded. The result is a one night stand of a game. Something that's bouncy castle levels of fun, but only for a few hours. To put up a more sensible, and less suggestive definition; a front loaded game is one with a spectacular opening few hours, which is used for the purpose of masking the shallowness underneath.

Of course, the most recent Sim City game is a the perfect example of a front loaded game. The game ran impressively for the first few hours, and everything was dandy. It's only after a while that things began to fall apart. The obvious flaws in the game's AI became ever more apparent. A torrent of disgust followed, but it was too late by that point; EA had taken the money of many. Games that are front loaded don't lack on mechanical levels alone. This attitude to game design can infect all facets.

Examples of front loaded games are not always as obvious as EA's disaster of a city builder. Even games of good quality show signs of being front loaded. One such game that I've been thinking about is the most recent Fire Emblem title, Awakening. A lot of you might find that confusing, but when compared to the Fire Emblems of yesteryear, the evidence is there.

The first point of call is the visual design. More specifically, the character designs. Up until Awakening, Fire Emblem opted for modest designs. Rarely were they overblown. Most importantly, everything stuck to a consistent tone. The games were set in medieval fantasy realms, and the appearance reflected that. Awakening however, goes more in the direction of what I see as pop-fantasy. Many of the characters let's just be honest, mostly the female characters are full of fan-service. It's not Scarlet Blade by any stretch, but when you compare Awakening's designs to Fire Emblems of the past the intention becomes rather clear. It's the zazz factor; the developer's attempt to dazzle with flashy, overly decorative designs. Of course, it doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure that suits of armour that don't cover the back, or see through robes hardly fit the setting. It's style over substance, designed for marketing in mind more than world-building.

The story is perhaps the most jarring example of front loaded design I could find in the game. For the first ten chapters, it holds true to the staples of Fire Emblem. Villainous monarchs, a merry band of valiant heroes, and at least one boss who's purpose is to remind you that not everyone you're killing deserve it. After that, it jumps the shark with time travelling antics and certain characters not being so dead after all. The plot lost consistency and began to drag on for the rest of the game, which I think is contrary to past entries in the series.

But let's move on, before I get too ranty on that topic.

The promise of grand features, which in reality do little to improve the game is another calling card of front loaded games. Worse yet, is when a game tries to prop itself up entirely on these shallow features. Naturally, Sim City's online features provide a pretty apt example. The whole game was built around additions that no one really wanted or asked for. The end result was an extremely watered down single player experience, which was what nobody wanted. Every new MMO promises to change up the old model, but all of them devolve back into being inferior versions of WoW. With the onset of a new generation, open worlds looks like it's set to become the next turd chalice, though that might have already become the case.

Even small, or independent games can fall into the trap of being front loaded. I think back to InFlux, and how it's few mechanics wore out very quickly. This seems to be run of the mill for these kinds of puzzle games. They're sold on a single gimmick, with the hope that they might be the next Braid or Portal. It's not the number of mechanics that's important however, it's the depth of the mechanics that are present. The key difference between InFlux and Portal, is that the latter's mechanic did not grow as tedious.

Naturally, we can't close this until we take a look at the reasons. The motive in suspect became clear after an old article about Creative Assembly came to light regarding Total War: Rome II. The short story is that they did not want features in the game unless they thought they would yield a good Metacritic score. It comes down to developers and publishers wanting games that appeal to reviewers before the players.
Of course, the etiquette at this point is to point the finger at that braggart of a website, Metacritic. Curse you, Metacritic!

It makes sense; if everything looks swimming in the reviews, then the average gamer is none the wiser until they buy the game. We could blame the reviewers for this, because they might not be thorough enough to spot the faults. Given how many games they might have to go through a week, I don't think it would be fair to chide them for not being able to devote the tens of hours necessary to find these issues. At the end of the day, front loaded games are built to fool these people as much as the buyers.

The fault rests, as it so often does, on the publishers, though judging from the story with Creative Assembly, the developers need to take some of the footing as well. In their eyes there's little room for cult classics, like Beyond Good & Evil. A front loaded game has no room for subtly, or niche audiences. Short term success and profits appear to be at the forefront of their minds. Perhaps so much money is being spent on these games that they need to make it look like it justified the cost. It's an understandable viewpoint, but also one that I believe is directly opposed to the wishes of many others, who want games to aspire to artistic levels.

The most disappointing thing of all, is that these front loaded games sell very well. It's the trumiph of marketing over art.

You can also view this post on my personal blog.

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