perfectly spherical

Game Design In Theory

Small Games

☰ Table of Content


A little while ago, Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart launched. The folks announcing it were proud to say that they got it done without crunch. They rolled the game out the door (to the tune of 70 dollars) without a single case of pushing their workers too hard to make up for a bad schedule.

And then people started complaining that tiny details were missing. A plant didn’t animate when Ratchet walked through it. The mud didn’t have footprints in it when Ratchet walked through it. The horror. The horror! Why are we paying ten bucks more for THIS!?

I swear to God, this shit drives me up the wall. The way people are talking about this–the way publishers are reacting to it–the demands everyone is making–it’s all completely, utterly, horribly backwards. It’s wrong. And, as is tradition on the Internet, I am going to argue very angrily about it, because Someone Is Wrong On The Internet and that’s not acceptable.

The problem here is that we’re solely focusing on how much content we should get for 60 70 dollars. Every game has to provide 80+ hours of content, replayability, an award-winning story (for a certain definition of ‘award’ and ‘winning’) and all of this has to be pushing the bar constantly on graphical fidelity, gameplay, and how big the map is. Not making something the size of the fucking Titanic is unacceptable, because why would you pay 70 bucks for LESS game? Not handcrafting every single building in a 10km-square world map is insanity, because why would you pay 70 bucks for LESS game? Not having 200 copies of the exact same minigame scattered across that map is unthinkable, because why pay 70 bucks for LESS GAME?

The fact of the matter is that more content isn’t the solution here. You are not gonna get enough content to justify that 70 dollar pricetag, not within any reasonable amount of time, not even with a hundreds-strong development team. The thing about adding content is that it isn’t an additive process, it’s a multiplicative process. You’re not just throwing another bossfight or another level in there–you’re also having to make sure that bossfight doesn’t do anything that breaks when the player completes certain quests before it or after it, and that the level you’re adding has entrances and exits in all the right places, and that you can’t glitch through a wall in a weird spot by firing a gun at the wrong angle and completely bypass the boss fight. The more content your game has, the more interactions that new content will have with the stuff you’ve already added, and that means more shit to test. And, on top of that, big companies have gotten into the habit of ignoring their QA team, while overworking their dev team, because it’s gotta be out by Christmas.


The content discussion is missing something really, really important: The price is not a magic number. It does not need to be a 60 dollar game, or a 70 dollar game for that matter. It does not even need to be a 50 dollar game. A complete and entertaining experience can be delivered for 20 dollars.

Am I asking for something on the scale of Cyberpunk 2077 or Fallout 4 or Witcher 3 for 20 bucks? Hell to the fuck no. But you shouldn’t have to have that much content, and you shouldn’t have to justify a 60 dollar pricetag, because you don’t have to charge 60 bucks.

In fact, that much content can bite you in the ass in other ways, too.


I might be alone in this, but…when I hear a game has all this content in its main story, and all of this extra stuff, and so many things to do, I actually get turned off. First of all, I have a job, dude. I can’t spend 80 hours just playing one game. That’s 8 hours a day for 10 days! That’s the amount of time most people spend at their day job! Some of us have lives outside of the game, you know.

It’s possible to have a lot of bite-sized content–like how Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker and Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days had individual missions, breaking up the flow of the game in such a way that I could popcorn-effect my way through them–but that’s never how big-budget studios do it. It’s all open-world this and seamless-experience that, with an hour count inflated by a checklist of sidequests, encounters, and minigames that’s longer than the main quest is. Frankly, I just get tired after a while. I stopped playing Cyberpunk about 20 hours in, and haven’t touched it for a couple months–and that’s a game that I did like. I haven’t even bothered buying Skyrim, because what little I’ve played of it feels like a grindfest. Ultimately, I don’t want to sink that much time into a single game, especially not when I don’t know if I’ll even like doing it.


This is gonna be an awful thing to admit to ourselves, because it’s gonna sound like I’m asking for fewer people in gamedev. But, look, the “too many cooks” saying applies to development, too. Any kind of software engineering is a complicated task that involves a lot of planning, details, testing, and especially thinking. It’s not really like, say, building a house, where most of the thinking is done by an architect and you can always add manual labor that follows that plan. Even the act of building a level isn’t quite like this, because a level designer is gonna have to do some scripting, and scripting means doing logic stuff, and that logic stuff is the sticky part.

This is why small teams are able to do very simple-looking games that feel way more polished than hundred-man teams. It’s hard enough to figure out what the code is doing when you can get everyone who’s changed anything in one room to ask them what’s going on–even in that situation, you get misunderstandings, missteps, confusion, and simple mistakes. A group of 100 developers is more than 10 times worse at this than a group of 10, because with 100 developers you can’t possibly get them all in one room, even pre-covid. Asking each one of them what the heck they’ve been doing would take all day. With 100 devs, organizing everyone and getting them to agree on things is an even larger task than planting every tree in Italy or wherever the fuck the new Assassin’s Creed takes place. And the thing is, when developers are not aware of, not in agreement on, or otherwise aren’t on the same page about a part of the shared piece of software that they’re all trying to make, you get mistakes, friction, bugs, game-breaking issues, and all kinds of other shit. This is why a team several hundred strong cannot finish a game in 2 years; they’re all busy trying to figure out what the fuck the game should look like. This is one of the reasons why games from big-budget publishers always ship buggy on day 1; the massive amount of money they’re dumping on their dev team cannot fix a basic failure to communicate. This is why solo projects can sometimes appear better-made than flagship products–because the solo dev doesn’t HAVE to communicate about anything, so long as he can do literally everything (which is unhealthy in its own special way).

Just make smaller games.

Stop trying to inflate the value of your game with a monolithic hour count, and just focus on making a complete experience. Stop expanding your world map, and start making what’s already there more interesting. I would rather pay 20 bucks for maybe 5 hours of content that I actually enjoy and finish than pay 60 bucks for 80 hours of content that I don’t care about at all.

Update: 2021-06-15

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