How much content is too much?
Recently I had the pleasure of diving into one of the most hyped games of 2015 “Fallout 4.” If you’re at all a fan of RPGs, you know they can’t be quite massive. Certainly Bethesda has been well known to produce some of the largest games out there, with typical playthroughs running well above 100 hours of gameplay. I’ve spent my fair share in these worlds, being guilty of 200+ hours in Skyrim and have still yet to finish “The Witcher 3.” Just speaking from my own gaming experience, it’s safe to say that I’m quite veteran to these types of gaming experiences. Yet Fallout 4 managed to surprise me in such a way that I didn’t think possible. For the first time, in a long time, I felt overwhelmed. I found myself having a hard time grasping all of the mechanics, balancing what I was supposed to be doing, and understanding simple things like leveling up my character. Not that I’m saying that the beginning stages of the game weren’t enjoyable, yet I did find myself wading into the deep nuclear muck that is Fallout and wondering what the hell I was doing. This got me thinking… How much content is too much content? Seems like a crazy question to be asking, in a world where we’re all looking to consume as much content as possible and still beg for more. Developers struggle to maintain these demands by pushing out content updates, DLCs, and other forms of media to help meet their consumer’s needs. Is Bethesda wrong for releasing a game that is packed so full to the brim? I don’t think so, but to help answer this question I wanted to dive a bit deeper into what’s being expected to us as the user and how people actually learn information. Bare with me…
To start, we should take a look at some of the early phases of the game and examine what’s being asked of us. (I’m going to be quickly summarizing the major learning points that appear in the early phases of the game, and skim over some of the plot points.) In the very early stages of the game we’re exposed to the Vault and character creation, which is not new to any RPG. We’re asked to distribute points around to our specials, there isn’t a clear explanation as to how you level, and how the specials correlate with your perks. I had a friend who believed that they had to actually level each special up to 10, before they could begin accessing the individual perks, and this person was an avid Skyrim fan. Next we have to “Escape the Vault,” here we have our first introductions to combat, the VATS system, sneaking, hacking, lockpicking, and item usage (stimpacks). From here we make our way to Sanctuary, find Codsworth, learn about companions, and missions. We have our first official mission to head to Concord and “Save the Settlers from Raiders,” here we learn about Power Armor, have a bit more heavy combat, and head back to Sanctuary. Now there’s a bit of a jump off on the learning curve… We’re introduced to this new thing called “Settlements,” learning about citizen requirements for food, water, beds, power, defense, etc... Many of these systems are very glossed over and can be convoluted to understand, even for hardcore gamers. I must have spent ages trying to get walls to appropriately align at 90* angles before realizing that you had to build a floor for them to snap onto. Whether you got all of the mechanics or not, I think it’s safe to say that a lot is being asked of players in the very first few hours of the game. Before diving into more of my opinions of the game’s mechanics, I wanted to learn more about how people learn and retain information.
I reached out to some old friends of mine, specifically from my time at Champlain College in Burlington Vermont. Alan D. Stracke was a professor of Sociology during my tenure at Champlain. I’ve always found him to be extremely knowledgeable about people in general :) So I asked him for a little help in breaking down the basics of how people learn and retain information… which I’ll attempt to summarize in the most “layman's terms” possible.
We should start with the “Learning Block,” we’re exposed to the information in a formal or informal way. From here “we have to consciously engage in the “thinking” process in order for our brains to do anything with the information.” This is the “Integrator” step, where the information must be engaged in, retrieved and practiced, in a targeted manner. This would be like introducing a character to the lock pick and them asking them to open a lock. From here we need time to “Consolidate” the information, the part of the brain that is loaded with the “thinking cells” requires time following the learning block to consolidate or process the information that has just been retrieved. For this to be truly effective we need to minimize the duration of the Learning Block, maximize the meaningfulness of the information, and follow each learning block with a non-interfering activities (the goal would be not to think). The brain requires retrieval or targeted practice of the materials as soon as possible after the non-interference break, as well as practice material. When you vocalize, write or reflect upon information in an engaged manner, specific cells within the brain actually change in shape in size and your brain begins to personalize the information. Using the lockpicking analogy above, this would suggest that we should expose the player to another opportunity to lockpick relatively quickly after a period of rest. “Memory is stored as information fragments, it must be consolidated.” Learning is always sure to take place when the learner is engaged, and when the brain is given enough time to consolidate the information. Interferences with this consolidation process is the reason why we do not remember or why we forget.
Does this apply to Fallout 4? In some ways it does, I’m not saying that we’re forgetting the information being taught to us but there are some problems in the structure of how the content is being provided, and that can make it difficult to personalize the information. I would infer is that there isn’t necessarily “too much content” in Fallout 4 but due to the lack of consolidation time and practice, it makes it difficult to grasp the depth of the information provided. If we were provided additional time for “non-interfering activities” between learning new elements, and had an a bit more structure to re-engage in the elements we had just learned, it would have provided a smoother transition into the world of Fallout 4. Many arguments could be made against this point... knowing that this is an open world game and that we’re able to pretty much do whatever we want, whenever we want to, it’s very easy for the player to mess with how the flow of the information is being provided. Yet if we follow the early on main quest objectives, there are many problems with how the content is delivered to the user. Many gamers do like being left a bit lost in a game, and not having their hands held, but there’s a certain about of usability that we shouldn't be forgetting about. I did have a lot of fun figuring out elements to Fallout 4, and still considerate to be one of the great games of 2015. Even if it did feel as though they were asking us to learn basic math and calculus on the same day.
Hopefully this was at least half way interesting, I think it might have been a bit dry at times but my hopes with this blog would be to think critically about the games that I’m playing, and be able to explore questions in a thoughtful way. As both a gamer and developer, I hope to use this space to explore topics like these into the following year. Hopefully the next ones will be more interesting than this, but hey… gotta start somewhere? Thanks for reading!
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I make games, I play games... and sometimes I have some thoughts about that.