Why do modern games not seem “fun”?
My interpretation of the answer is simple; it’s because it’s easier to rely on the players to provide “fun” for each other.
Let me explain my reasoning towards this.
Ask anyone who’s played games before the 7th generation what their favourite games are. Sure, you’ll get a few AAA blockbusters from the era when online gaming really took off. I’m guilty with a few of those, I don’t think I’ve gone for more than three months without indulging in some Burnout Paradise or Forza. However, the vast majority of people will list titles from the PS2 era and earlier:
Need For Speed Underground 2, Tony Hawk’s, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Metal Gear Solid, Crimson Skies, Psychonauts, Timesplitters, Advance Wars, Burnout.
I have yet to encounter someone who has much to say in the way of negativity towards those titles, if any negativity is present at all in their opinion.
My theory is thus:
Game Developers have been using online game modes as an excuse to avoid making better single player experiences. I can’t say what trains of thought led them there though.
Maybe some utter buffoon of an executive made them pursue Call Of Duty, because he thinks he can get those sort of sales. Maybe the developers just didn’t have time to finish the netcode properly. Maybe they were trying to go for some kind of brilliant online mode, but they didn’t get enough players to keep it going.
And compare those to the aforementioned titles. The vast majority of them have one thing in common:
They were all developed before online gaming was mainstream outside of the PC.
As a result, the developers knew they wouldn’t be able to add anything once the disc was made. So they had to put every last scrap of energy into it, knowing they’d get one shot at impressing the public and press.
Nowadays, they can just throw out a day one patch, and withhold content as part of their own slimy ways to keep their industry as consumer unfriendly as possible.
But look back, to the days when microtransactions were the fever dreams of some rabid, clueless, corporate clod.
Everything was there.
All the content was on the disc, and relied on the player. Not the player’s wallet. Sure, there might be a super-hidden ultra kart on Mario Kart Double Dash, or golden guns on Nightfire. The only obstacle between the player and that content was the player’s skill.
But I may have let this degenerate into a rant about microtransactions, so I’ll counterpoint:
Far Cry 3, and to a lesser extent Far Cry 4, are AAA games that still manage to get fun right; balancing challenge and freedom to a near-ideal. Wolfenstein’s latest additions to the franchise are masterful examples of world-building and characterization. All of the Batman Arkham series have atmosphere so thick you can cut it with a knife. Fallout New Vegas feels like an adventure.
All of the above were incredibly well received on release, and still hold up to this day. Compare and contrast to titles like Battlefield and Call Of Duty, games that might as well be declared legally dead once the sequels come out, pairing out the multiplayer population into smaller and smaller chunks.
Everyone’s got their own definition of fun. Some people love League Of Legends. I personally can’t see the appeal, and would rather be visited by The Spanish Inquisition during a particularly painful dental appointment. Yet, there do seem to be constants that go from game to game, some things that can be pinned down; accomplishment is the main one.
Every major game that has got the perception of being good in the eyes of the game-savvy public has this in one form or another. San Andreas saw the player go from being a “gangsta” to owning a crime empire across the state. Less story-driven games like Burnout and NFS, have their accomplishment in the form of victory, or just getting the vehicle or player avatar to the player’s taste. DOOM (the 2016 version) has a story that can basically be ignored, and there’s still accomplishment in it, even if said accomplishment is redecorating a laboratory in a lovely palette of demonic claret, satanic scarlet and hints of peach from the fragments of bone and organ left behind.
Story is another major draw for some, including myself. Portal and it’s sequel, while being comparatively short games, are well-written and offer a glimpse into the universe that they inhabit. Papers, Please is another superb example; watching the fortunes of a state turn via the perspective of your border crossing post is more engrossing than some big-budget blockbusters.
Then you’ve got the unscripted games. Dwarf Fortress being the finest example I can think of, which have the potential to take some predetermined behaviours, and turn them into the stuff of legend. If you don’t believe me, Google some Dwarf Fortress stories after reading this piece.
Then again, a game is nothing without control. If there’s no player input, then you’ve basically got an expensive DVD movie. (Heavy rain joke?) If there’s terrible player input, then the player will just go to another title. The controls have to feel right, and should have momentum. Imagine playing Sonic and not having momentum, or a flying game where there’s no “weight” to the controls, so it feels like you’re chasing your mouse around a screen. No game can be considered “fun” if the controls are an obstacle. (insert comment about someone playing Overwatch with Nerf guns?)
Finally, I don’t care what you say: the graphics are the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. Sure, a game can look pretty with all the latest and greatest texturing and effects, but if it’s got no satisfaction of any type, or any story, then it’s not really going to hold anyone’s attention. Meanwhile, if the game’s heavily story-driven or lets the player backfill the narrative, then the graphics can go out of the window in favour of imagination.
The two most recent Fallout games are examples of this: New Vegas basically said “You’re a courier. You’re delivering something. You got shot in the head and you’re healed now”.
Fallout 4 went “Well, you were a soldier in a war that happened before the great war and your wife’s a lawyer and it’s before the bombs dropped and you’ve got a son and you got in the local vault literally 5 minutes before the bombs detonated and someone stole your son…”
There is nothing stopping the player from backfilling their story in New Vegas. Maybe they’re a soldier, or a sheriff. Hell, there’s nothing stopping you from pretending you’re a time lord and your TARDIS malfunctioned on the way. Fallout 4? Basically gives you what it thinks your motivations should be on a plate, throws you some new shiny features, and then complains when no-one thinks it’s better than its precursor.
Everyone’s going to have examples of what they find fun, and what they find deathly boring.
But, in my opinion: a game doesn’t need to have flashy graphics or online multiplayer to be fun. They help, but a game without some form of satisfaction in the form of story or the player’s own goals…it’s going to never be loved to the same degree as one that doesn’t take itself too seriously, such as one that allows you to play as a cow riding a surfboard down a mountain while backflipping.
If you want my personal examples of what I’m on about with this – I suggest playing Stardew Valley, Thomas Was Alone, Burnout Paradise, Saints Row 2 and TimeSplitters Future Perfect.