Written by Tanner Banks, September 14, 2016, at 3:42 p.m.
No Man’s Sky came out and man was it… a total disappointment. Despite delivering on the over 18 quintillion planets to explore, most were the exact same. While it was a vast space to explore, there was nothing worth exploring. Sure, the life forms had their own unique looks, but they all acted the same. In essence, No Man’s Sky delivered on the concept, but not in gameplay.
It under delivered so much so, that they’ve been offering refunds for the game. Yikes. But that is the danger you take on when making a game. But No Man’s Sky highlights a problem that is becoming more and more troublesome for gamers when looking at games: Concept vs. Gameplay. Is it worth sacrificing gameplay to focusing on an interesting concept?
What is High Concept?
High Concept video games appear to be the new “it” for big time publishers. If you take a gander at the dictionary, you’ll see:
High concept – A simple and often striking idea or premise, as of a story or film, that lends itself to easy promotion and marketing.
High concept is easy to understand, quick paced, and marketable. I’ll toss out a few examples. Speed: Bus filled with explosives can’t go over 55, Bruce Willis and has to save the passengers. Matrix: Keanu Reeves finds out he’s living in a simulation and he joins cyber ninja warrior people to unplug everyone. Space Jam: Michael Jordan joins the Looney Toons to face off against Aliens in a game of Basketball. Snakes on a Plane: They’re on a plane… and there are snakes on it…
All four of these films are classics for their time and left a lasting mark on cinema. So why is High Concept dangerous in gaming? Because it has something movies don’t, interaction. While a great movie can make you feel engaged and like you’re a part of the story, video games require you to interact. A film can rely on a great concept to gain some level of success. For video games it doesn’t matter if the concept is breathtaking, shitty gameplay makes a shitty game.
High Concept Games that Didn’t Work
There are a few examples that have come across in recent years that were notable for being great concepts mired by mundane, imprecise, or otherwise lacking gameplay. The aforementioned No Man’s Sky, Watch Dogs, The Order: 1886, and Homefront are some notable examples. (Or not notable depending on how you see it.)
So what happened to each of these games? Why were they hyped and what went wrong?
No Man’s Sky Concept: Travel a universe with 18 Quintillion planets and discover unique life forms and document my findings? Awesome.
No Man’s Sky Reality: Repetitive Gameplay, boring combat, shallow differences in life forms and planets. Everything felt like the exact same after a few hours.
The Order: 1886 Concept: Protect Steampunk London in 1886 as a badass Knight of the Round Table from half-breed monsters.
The Order: 1886 Reality: Almost no actual gameplay. Stiff controls, insultingly short play time for $60 price tag.
Homefront Concept: China North Korea has invaded America. Time to be a badass and save the country Red Dawn style.
Homefront Reality: Overtly linear, tired story, derivative gameplay.
Watch Dogs Concept: HACK THE PLANET. HACK THIS. DEFINITELY HACK THAT. HACK EVERYTHING!
Watch Dogs Reality: Mediocre gameplay, boring story, lame protagonist.
High Concept Games that Did Work
Now that’s not to say that high concept games can’t be successful. Some of the biggest franchises in history are high concept. Minecraft: boxy exploration of a procedurally generated world crafting as you go. The Mario series: plumber has to save the princess by traversing the land to get her out of the castle. The Sims: create people and live a better version of your pathetic life vicariously through them.
Why are these games successful examples of high concept? Because they actually do something with the concept. Minecraft is the gold-standard of procedural generation because there is actual variety with thousands of different ways to do the same thing. Mario is successful because its level design is fluid and tight. The Sims works because when stories evolve naturally in every life you create. (And building the perfect house is addictive similar to Minecraft.)
Having a great concept is fantastic. Good job, go grab an extra doughnut by the water cooler. But if you are satisfied by the concept alone, you fail as a game maker.
Sure the game may grab onto some serious hype and wind up a commercial success, but will it be successful as a game? No, games that fail to live up to the concept fail to live on. Sure it might hang on for a sequel to try again, but if developers don’t see the mistakes they made, they’ll just repeat them.
Look at Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, it could have been an all-time classic. Play as Darth Vader’s secret apprentice? Hell yeah! Instead we got a tired retread game with no soul to it. (Just like Phantom Menace)
Gameplay is, has been, and always will be the number one priority in game development. It’s up to us the consumer to not be swayed by a pretty package and an awesome idea.
If the devs want to sell us on a concept, it had better have the ability to back it up. Otherwise their games will be left in the dust, forgotten and stepped on by the games that succeed to reach their full potential.