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Soapbox: Variety Is the Spice of Gaming Life

Posted by Sammy Barker

Sammy Barker shares his taste for a good gaming buffet

We’re never ones to pass up on a game of follow-the-leader here at Push Square towers, so it was only a matter of time before we politely borrowed the soapbox format that’s been running wild over on our sister site Nintendo Life for a while now. For those of you peering voyeuristically in from the outside of our close-knit community, our intention with this series of features is to offer some personal insight into the gaming views of our network of writers. In this first edition, Push Square editor Sammy Barker discusses his long love affair with video game variety in the wake of Grand Theft Auto V’s release. Before we get started, though, we should stress that the views shared in this feature – and all future soapbox articles – reflect those of the individual editor, and not necessarily those of the website and its affiliates as a whole. We know that it’s a Twitter profile cliché, but it has to be said.

I don’t have a short attention span. If the occasion calls for it, I can set my mind to a specific task for hours on end. There’ll need to be an end goal in order for me to keep my focus in check, but I’m quite comfortable plugging away at repetitive tasks if the reward is good enough; I worked in a bar once, and the intricacies of that job involved pouring drinks for several mind-numbing hours at a time. As such, I’m comfortable with the idea of games picking a handful of mechanics and polishing them to perfection. In fact, some of my favourite titles are fairly simplistic when pulled apart – the likes of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, God of War II, and Resident Evil 4 never really reinvent themselves during the course of their campaigns. Despite this, I’ve long harboured a fondness for releases that dare to step outside of their comfort zones – and the launch of Grand Theft Auto V has forced me to rekindle that affection.

Shenmue certainly wasn’t the first game to lace its sandbox with superfluous activities, but it’s definitely the one that made me fall in love with minigames, side-quests, and subplots. I distinctly remember unwrapping my copy of the Dreamcast exclusive on a wintery Christmas morning, and swiftly submerging myself into the bustle of a small Japanese town. But it wasn’t the cutting-edge graphics, engaging storyline, or even relatable characters that forced me to fall in love with the classic – it was the mere interactivity of it all. You could peruse the goods on sale in the local convenience store, phone a computerised weather service to get an update on the upcoming outdoor conditions, and visit a local arcade. It was all very believable, and – outside of a few pivotal story instances – it allowed you to explore at your own pace. If you didn’t want to continue the plot, you could go and play Space Harrier, race a forklift truck, or enjoy a round of darts. For the year or so after that fateful winter holiday, I spent hours and hours merely messing around in Yu Suzuki’s ambitious play box. And it never got boring.

I get a similar feeling playing Grand Theft Auto V now. To be honest, I don’t rate any of the activities in Rockstar’s release very highly – but the mere fact that they’re included fills me with admiration for the game. I love the fact that if I tire of divisive antihero Trevor Phillips’ potty-mouthed rants, I can unwind with a spot of tennis in Michael de Santa’s private backyard court. The mode may do a poor job of replicating Virtua Tennis’ arcade gameplay, and the dodgy ball physics may make it difficult to get a decent rally flowing, but it offers respite from the rest of the world, and it gives me something else to do when I want a break from the crux of the campaign. The strength comes in numbers, too: fairground rides, stock market simulation, golf, triathlons – you name it, and the open world game has got it. With such a wealth of activities on offer, I’m finding myself wandering from one minigame to another like a sweet-toothed child in Willy Wonka’s fictional chocolate factory.

I’m aware that this approach has its setbacks. For starters, few developers have the time or budget to construct worlds on the same scale as Yu Suzuki or Rockstar. The former was one of the top dogs at SEGA around the time of Shenmue’s conception, and the developer was subsequently able to break the bank on the adventure – even if it was a little too ambitious for its time. Meanwhile, the latter has the backing of a billionaire dollar brand – no one’s going to stop the studio from delaying its next title while it adds a dozen more pages to an in-game web browser. This is, of course, a luxury that most studios would never obtain. United Front Games certainly tried to push the boat out with Sleeping Dogs, but while the title was praised for its core game mechanics and structure, it never quite lived up to Grand Theft Auto on the content front. The same could be said about virtually every other open world game deployed this generation, from Just Cause 2 to inFAMOUS.

The other issue is that the abundance of distractions can break the flow of an otherwise well told plot. Grand Theft Auto V prides itself on its narrative, but I already feel like I’ve broken it on a number of occasions. For example, there’s a point in the game where you need to complete a couple of activities to rob a local jewellery store. Without spoiling things, there’s a lot of urgency on this job as you need to repay a rather large debt. However, rather than performing the necessary actions to get the heist in motion, I just couldn’t help kicking back at the local golf course. This probably says more about my own misguided understanding of prioritisation – and it’s hard to fault the game for my own reckless lack of urgency – but it does demonstrate how freedom can sometimes represent a negative. By the time I got back to preparing for the heist, I’d forgotten what I was supposed to be doing – and this is an issue that I’ve encountered in other open world experiences.

But while I’m well aware of the dangers like an overweight person addicted to Burger King, I still find myself gorging on this style of game. I came to the Yakuza franchise quite late, but just like Shenmue before it, the SEGA published brand scratched a similar type of itch. The environments in Toshihiro Nagoshi’s scum-infested series are a lot smaller than any Western sandbox game, but the variety is just as compulsive. From fishing to pachinko machines, the property is packed with optional activities – Yakuza 4 even included a couple of character-specific simulation minigames where you manage a hostess bar and train an apprentice in a small rundown dojo. In this series in particular, the minigames are particularly poor – but I still couldn’t stop my stomach from performing somersaults when I recently read that the upcoming Yakuza Ishin will feature a full agricultural side-mode that will allow you to grow crops, care for animals, and sell your vegetables at market. If it follows in the footsteps of the rest of the series, I know that this pastime will be about as much fun as chewing on glass and washing the blood out with lemon juice, but I feel more excited for the PlayStation 4 title knowing that the superfluous side-mode is being included alongside the main single player campaign.

I think that what it ultimately comes down to is novelty. As a youngster in the early 90s, I owned a dodgy toy known as a TV Boy that plugged directly into the television. The device featured a d-pad, a large round button, and over a hundred games based upon an unlicensed clone of the Atari 2600 hardware. It was awful; despite the enormous roster of different titles, you could count on one finger the number of experiences that were playable for more than five minutes – Ice Polo, a rip-off of Activision’s awesome Ice Hockey, in case you’re curious – but I still spent hours simply cycling through the enormous list of games sampling all of the different mechanics. There were bad versions of River Raid, Pitfall, and Dancing Plate all in one place, and I was able to switch between them all at my own leisure. Even at the time I knew that I could play a better game on our family Mega Drive or Super Nintendo, but that would be limiting myself to the selection of ten or so titles that we had in our library. Why would I do that when I had access to over a hundred on my crude plug-and-play plastic plaything?

And I suspect that it’s the same feeling that forces me to fall in love with these open world games. I could probably have more fun playing Top Spin 4 than the tennis mode in Grand Theft Auto V, and certainly get more out of Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational than Rockstar’s cringeworthy take on Tiger Woods – but I simply can’t shake the appeal of having all of the disparate mechanics at my fingertips at any one time. I understand that minigames aren’t conducive to all types of experiences, and that it takes a special developer to pull all of these ideas into a single cohesive whole. But that won’t stop me from getting giddy when Grand Theft Auto VI implements some kind of Cooking Mama derivative, or when Yakuza 6 allows me to go out litter-picking around Kamurocho. After all, variety is very much the spice of life.


Do you have a fondness for the kind of minigames that get stuffed into series’ such as Grand Theft Auto, or would you prefer developers to focus on a smaller selection of mechanics? Register a vote in our poll to share your opinion, and don’t forget to write a comment to give us a little more insight into your opinion.

Do you enjoy titles with lots of optional activities? (36 votes)

Yes, the variety is the very best thing about open world games

53%

I like minigames, but only if they’re of a high quality

39%

No, I’d rather developers focused on a smaller set of mechanics

8%

Please login to vote in this poll.

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User Comments (18)

Squiggle55

#1

Squiggle55 said:

I think my personality in gaming is more of a completionist attitude, and for that reason I generally like games that for the most part funnel you through the story with a complete developing focus on the quality of that story and the basic mechanics and gameplay of the game. That's why I'd rather play Zelda than GTA. But I certainly understand the appeal of the sandbox genre. I think another big reason is that I simply don't have a lot of gaming time, so with my personality I'd rather be funneling my way through a game rather than playing around in a sandbox accomplishing nothing. But that's a conscious choice. I guess that's the major difference in a completionist attitude and an escapist attitude.

ShogunRokAdmin

#2

ShogunRok said:

As long as side activities are well made and actually offer some sort of decent reward or progression system, then I'm all for them. That said, I tend to skip them more and more as a game continues - possibly because I get caught up in the story or I end up losing interest.

GTAV has some fun stuff, I like tennis and golf even if they're both rather basic and don't do much to expand upon what they do right, but the rewards just aren't there for me to play them consistently. Maybe if there was some sort of tournament system I'd be more inclined to waste my virtual time on it. Yakuza 3 and 4 are the same way, as entertaining and weird as the activities are.

Stuffgamer1

#3

Stuffgamer1 said:

Gee, I clicked on this article expecting it to be about the value of playing a wide variety of genres...I was a bit disappointed to find it was about optional stuff in sandbox games.

Anyway, I've made my viewpoint on open-world game design quite clear recently...and it does tie in to my completionist tendencies to a point, but it's also just about game quality. Most sandboxes just wind up replicating that tired old saying..."Jack of all trades, master of none." This because most developers simply can't afford the time it takes to perfect every element of a game with more to it than the periodic table. By your own admission, even the minigames in GTAV aren't all that great, and that's coming from a company you say DOES have the luxury of time to work on it.

So yeah, I think the mechanics, level design, and overall production quality generally can't help but go up when a game ditches the open-world style...providing the developer is good, of course. The question is whether or not the trade-offs are usually worthwhile. It would seem that's a "yes" for you, Sammy, but I disagree.

Madd_Hatter401

#4

Madd_Hatter401 said:

I clicked on this link cause the shenmue pic lol..I personally prefer open world games because I enjoy the freedom, exploration and variety. Problem is most companies half arse it giving us small worlds with nothing to be seen. GTA V is amazing because of the sheer amount to do and explore nevermind the awesome storyline, where sleeping dogs not as much but has alot of solid aspects. There are few solid open world titles that have the verity I as a open world fan expect that being the two mentioned above red dead and far cry 3.

charlesnarles

#5

charlesnarles said:

GTA5 does a good job of balancing "core" vs "minigame" mechanics. It's not Gran Turismo, and it's not Ghost Recon. Rockstar's textures, for example, are always sub-par to max other resource-needy doodads. BUT I do think another Driver entry could focus on driving/crashing and have way less minigames and still be successful. I'd sure buy it. Watch Dogs might have added enough extra stuff to keep it interesting, too. Good topic for devs to read : )

rjejr

#6

rjejr said:

I see.

Doesn't count as "open world" or "mini-game" but I really liked the Triple Triad card game in FF8 - also loosely adopted into Skylanders Giants.

Jak ad Daxter The Precursor Legacy - while a platformer through and through - also had a pretty good variety of concepts , except for the fishing net game which just sucks. I really think they put that in there at the beginning just to make the rest of the game seem that much better. And going back and being able to do those other activities AFTER you beat the game was nice. (I'm still annoyed at Pikmin 3's ending, making me go back and re-beat the final boss to end again.). Toki Tori 2+ has the same good post-ending as Jak and Daxter.

I see.

get2sammybAdmin

#7

get2sammyb said:

@Stuffgamer1 That's a good topic for another time, I think. :)

I think you make a very fair point about sandbox games, and, to be honest, I don't really disagree. As you rightly point out, though, I love the idea of all of these different ideas being contained in an overarching experience, so I'm willing to accept the tradeoffs. Everything you say is perfectly fair, though.

Jaz007

#9

Jaz007 said:

I love the idea of sandbox games. A world fleshed out with extra things to is just great. I love just being able to mess around in game worlds. But there barley anything rated T in the genre though, especially these days. :(

WaLzgiStaff

#10

WaLzgi said:

It actually is refreshing to read something that doesn't talk about controversy in GTA.

To me, variety is very important. That's why I like Warioware in particular. Even though each game lasts less than 5 seconds, there's such a variety that keeps the game fresh.

TasukiStaff

#11

Tasuki said:

@get2sammyb: Very nice read. I have to say I know how you feel. I played console games for years starting with the NES but back in 2009 I had some friends talk me into trying World of Warcraft and I was instantly hooked. It wasn't so much the storyline (although it is a great story) that got me hooked but everything that I could do besides questing, like fishing and cooking or doing some kind of craft like Blacksmithing or tailoring in fact that is the number one reason to this day that I make new characters on WoW.

After playing a MMO with so much variety in it it was hard for me to go back to console games unless they were an open world game like GTA. I think that is why I am starting to get back into console games now. I played Assassin's Creed III and I will admit most of the playtime I acquired was doing optional stuff like hunting and homestead mission's and that, I mean I probably have sunk into at leas 100 hours into that game but only 20 of that was storyline. That is one reason I was hyped for GTA V is was just the shear amount of stuff you can do from golfing to scuba diving to ATV racing to hunting. I played about 10 hours yesterday and maybe only 3 of that was actual missions lol.

Its the variety that keeps the games fresh for me when I start getting bored of the storyline I can take a break for bit but still be playing the game rather than taking a break from the game itself only to get distracted by something else like another game or a tv series and never going back to that game.

Its nice to see more and more games getting that variety in them.

MadchesterManc

#12

MadchesterManc said:

Im completely opposite to most people here. I find open-world sandbox games a chore to play through. I like my games to have a cohesive narrative, refined mechanics or artistic flair and I find sandbox games to be lacking in some or all of these apects. Not many sandbox games buck that trend for me. Although a particular highlight this generation would be Oblivion. Sure it had slightly wonky gameplay at times, but it had a nice art style and the narrative was really good. The lore for the series also helped to immerse you. I actually enjoyed reading the books in the game :P Yakuza 3&4 are also another good one. I hadn't really bothered much with the other activities as the gameplay & narrative for the main story are just superb. Its the kind of narrative Rockstar at night dream of having lol Its one of the reasons Ive yet to bother with GTA5. It comes across from reviews as basically being a refined version of GTA4 with even more distractions. Thats not what Im looking for in my games. Personally I think the activities in sandbox games serve to distract the player from the games shortcomings. Thats why people always discuss what extra side mission/quests or optional activitites you can do, and never the wonky mechanics the game actually has.

Bliquid

#13

Bliquid said:

To me, specifically talking about my experiences in Shenmue (the beautiful scar on my heart that will never go away) and GTA V, it's all about roleplaying.
In GTA i like just walking around sightseeing, and i think Michael WOULD stop and have a tennis game.
My Franklin would participate in clandestine races and walk around Chop.
Trevor is the most difficult to role-play because, you know, it's Trevor.
Can't keep on killing and robbing all the time, THAT would get boring.

The more activities, the more choice to play the way you want; it's called sandbox for a reason.
And i think that while, as pointed out, the lateral activities wouldn't sell a game on their own, they aren't actually bad at all.
Basic, sure, but entertaining enough.
I do wish, as someone pointed out, that there were some kind of rewards for playing them, but again, boredom is part of the fun.
I remember many ppl complaining about the boring quests to earn money in No More Heroes for Wii, but i thought they fitted perfectly the message in the game: life in Santa Destroy is boring, killing killers with a beam katana is fun.

Ristar42

#14

Ristar42 said:

I've not got GTA5 yet, not sure I'm interested enough in that particular game but... I did enjoy the previous generation GTA games, although I never finished any of them as just messing around, listening to music while driving, flying and so on, also made me forget what I was supposed to be doing overall. I think I only played missions to unlock the map!

This is one reason I’m disappointed with no custom soundtracks in the new game.

I was a big fan of Shenmue and played both games to their conclusion (still want to know what happens next, I guess we'll never know...), I appreciated the effort SEGA put in to collecting items and playing mini games that you could progress with to discover new things (such as the duck racing in Shenmue 2), even to the point of getting games for Ryo's Saturn (though, how did he get that console in 1986!?).

Ristar42

#16

Ristar42 said:

@eliotgballade Yep - I played Shenmue 1 and 2 for hours beyond the main story, with all its retro SEGA collectables and distractions. It was ahead of its time, the world may have been small compared to the modern sandbox, but there was a lot of variety to explore and discover, great game. Now, where is Shenmue 3 SEGA?

NathanUC

#17

NathanUC said:

This is an awesome write up. I really agree on so many points. I think what appeals to me most about Final Fantasy XIV ARR is the absolute freedom. Heck, this is what appealed to me with most Final Fantasy games to begin with (even if far more open).

I'm really not a fan of open world games at all, but when the gameplay is done well to suit the sandbox, it's an awesome thing.

DilMan33

#18

DilMan33 said:

I am probably in the middle. In most cases mini games have to make sense in the context for your ultimate goal and should be of high quailty. But all games cannot have mini games; it's a strain on the action/adventure genre.

Speaking of Shenmue, when's the HD remaster finally coming to PSN? I just know I'll spend a long time on it!

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