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It seems that as of late, I’ve been wasting a lot of time playing video games. I mean, of course, wasting time installing and loading video games as opposed to actually playing them. How much time have you spent watching the screen while the video game you’re waiting to play loads? Think about that once more. How much time have you spent waiting for a game to install before playing it? (I’m writing primarily about console games; I know install times are old hat for PC gamers.) As an avid player of countless PlayStation Network titles, I’ve sat through a lot of download screens, install screens, and, most annoyingly, loading screens. Fortunately, the PS3 allows you to download most content in the background and continue using the system for other purposes (playing a game, for instance…). Installs can’t be skipped, and what’s more jarring is that there seems to be a rise in the number of disc-based games that require installation before playing. I’d like to take a look at why I’ve been spending more and more time waiting and watching progress bars fill or learning how to play a game rather than playing it.
Back when Devil May Cry 4 came out, I remember being hyped beyond all belief. I’m a huge fan of the series and was ready to have at what looked like the most difficult iteration. Then I started hearing talk of the game’s insanely long install time on the PS3. My first thought was, “install time? What?” I hopped on the logic train and it took me to some rational destinations. My PS3 has a hard drive, meaning things can be installed onto it, meaning said things would run faster if being accessed from the hard drive as well as the disc. That’s cool, I guess, and if it makes the game run better than it does on the XBox360, then hell yeah, I’m all for it. The game was to install before you could play it in order to cut down on loading times throughout; a legitimate trade off in most rights. The game literally suggested the player “go make a sandwich, grab a soda, and come back” to avoid going hungry while playing the game. That’s pretty funny. Still, I’m being forced to wait 20+ minutes to play the game I just purchased. I’m also taking up space on my PS3’s hard drive, which means if this trend keeps up, I’m going to have to buy a bigger baby. I’m not sure if it hit me at that time, but I did begin to wonder, ‘when did that become okay for console games to do?’ I’ve never installed a console game before, why should I have to do it now? It takes some of the excitement out of playing the game! When I popped in Heavy Rain for the first time a month ago, I was met with a required install, which meant I could only start playing a half hour or so after I wanted to. Really? Why the delay? Because the game has to load so much, and for so long, that I actually can’t play it without eating up 4GB of space on my PS3? As a matter of fact, the absolute lack of install times for console games is probably one of the reasons I eventually stopped playing PC games altogether (see: Baldur’s Gate install process). The closest thing I had ever experienced to such a bothersome task was playing RPGs that require you to swap discs at certain points of the game. I’m glad Blu-ray discs all but rid us of that burden, because getting off of the couch while gaming only to switch discs in order to resume gaming is just crazy.
Loading times have been around for as long as I can remember. Some of them are long, some are short, but almost all of them feel like a waste of time. In many cases, I’ve stopped playing a game or decided not to buy a game solely because of its extremely long loading times. I remember watching a friend play Morrowind on the original XBox. The game looked good at the time, and the reviews were all rather positive. However, whenever my buddy died, we had to watch the game load for a few minutes. I literally fell asleep watching the post-death loading screen. That’s absurd. Needless to say, I lost all interest in the game and chuckled at people who told me they had a great time playing it. Did you, really? How much of that time was spent playing the game? Right, sure, great, fantastic. Chris took out his stopwatch a couple of episodes back and timed how long it takes Modern Combat: Domination to load its front menu. The stopwatch started when he pressed the start button at the title screen and ended when the game’s menu popped up. It took close to 2 minutes for the menu to load. I’m not talking about trying to find a game or waiting for a level to load, I’m talking about the main menu. That’s a problem. What’s interesting is that not all loading screens have to be boring. Whatever happened to interactive loading screens? That was a compromise I could deal with. I remember playing Fantastic Four on the original PlayStation. During the loading screens, up to four players could play a top-down toy car racing game. The winner of the game received a powerup or health boost or something when the core game resumed. Come to think of it, that racing minigame was probably more fun than the actual game. What about Ridge Racer? (Riiiidge Racerrr!) Couldn’t you play Galaga while that was loading? Didn’t Tekken include that feature, too? My point is if I’m going to have to wait to play a game, I’d rather enjoy playing a game while doing so.
Another time-waster I’ve seen peppered into practically every game in the past few years is the in-game tutorial. In some regards, it’s nice to be able to learn how to play a game while playing it. It cuts out all of the pesky instruction manual reading and whatnot. However, the forced first level tutorial isn’t always necessary. In fact, some games tend to hold your hand a little bit longer than they should, which is, let’s be honest, uncomfortable. Z.H.P. is a big reminder to me about how stupid games think we are. Or perhaps it’s how complex games have become? Either way, lengthy in-game tutorials have got to go. Every time I finished a dungeon (and often within some dungeons), I was required to read a ton of text boxes which informed me of how to use whatever new feature I had gained access to. “You’ve unlocked your house, here’s a long-winded explanation of what you can do there and why you should visit it.” “Welcome to the battle tutorial. This is where you waste twenty minutes learning that enemies are bad and your objective is to kill them.” I understand that accessibility is of importance when designing a game. Obviously you’re going to want as many people as possible to at least be able to play your game. That’s fine. But there comes a point when tutorials stop teaching and start preaching. If I have to read a textbook before/while playing a game, then… well, I won’t. Gone are the days when I could pop in a cartridge and play a game. Here are the hours spent learning how to play before actually playing. I’ve put a few hours into Z.H.P. and am still getting hit with lengthy tutorials on how to do this or how to do that. Great, you’re employing a somewhat novel game mechanic. Is it so complex that I can’t figure it out? I’m a pretty smart guy; I think if you let me fool around with it I’ll catch on (that’s what she said?). Seriously, though, I’ve rarely felt like I’m playing the game, and that’s a problem.
I want to play video games, not install them, wait for them to load, go make a sandwich, then come back and, if I’m still in the mood, play. Install times are like run-on sentences: You wait around for a while, watch as it sets up an elaborate point, let it do its thing, try not to get annoyed, get annoyed, wonder why you’re still putting up with it, then, if it still has your attention by the time the period puts an end to all of the madness, continue on. It took about 20 minutes for Dead Space Extraction to install when I started it yesterday. My roommate and I wanted to play at 10pm. We begrudgingly started the installation and by 10:30pm were watching the intro cinematic. That’s a half hour later than we planned to play, and, to be honest, it’s probably the main reason why we stopped playing after completing the first level. It wasn’t a particularly bad game, we were just a bit more tired than we were a half hour ago. The time when the game could have hooked us was spent installing, waiting. Another increasing dawdling trend in games is the awkward hand-holding that impedes actual play. Nowadays, it seems like every other game comes included with a tutorial as its first level. Have the first levels of games replaced instruction manuals? I used to bring my Fallout 2 manual to church with me to read up on how to play and what certain perks do. Now I flip through a collection of pages that are basically an EULA with a front and back cover. I’m 100% fine with an optional tutorial being included with a game. In Super Mario World for SNES, you weren’t required to hit every one of the stoplight tutorial blocks. If you knew how to play the game or would like to figure it out on your own, you could skip them. To be honest, if a game offers a tutorial, I’ll probably play it before tackling the main play mode. When I decide not to, or if it’s not offered, I don’t want to be babied. I want to play, and I want to play when I want to play. I want a gaming experience, and I want it now.
P.S. I will be reviewing Z.H.P., which means I will be playing it at length. The tutorials are annoying, but I’ll champ it out to provide the most accurate review of the game as a whole as opposed to the first few hours of learning how to play.