Making Side Content Fun

The Witcher 3 applies its approach of a massive, breathing world to its side-quest design; everything has purpose and depth to it.

More and more it seems games are trying to pad their main modes/campaigns with extra game-play. Side-quests, collectibles, and DLC are produced by the truckload in major games these days without much hesitation; we see this with Assassin’s Creed games, the Arkham franchise, Dragon Age Inquisition, and so on. Despite fears that the rising cost of AAA development is leading to less content, we seem to be experiencing quite the opposite. Side-quests are no longer the staple of RPGs, but every single game is nearly expected to have some form of side content.

At first glance, this is great. Every game we buy packs more and more into it. However, there is a serious need to distinguish between the quantity and the quality of all this content. AAA games still cost a lot of money, time, and labor; that is the reality of adding more to a product. Given the extreme pressure to meet rising expectations of more content while keeping AAA costs viable, there is a serious danger that the content itself will receive less and less polish, and that the main portion of the game would see a similar lack of attention. Or that excessive focus on adding extra content may lead to hitching the main story’s progress to that content. The end result is a game with either a shining campaign tethered to sub-par side-content, or a campaign that doesn’t receive the development polish it needs so as to create more content.

A few good examples show this, namely Batman Arkham Knight and Dragon Age Inquisition. Let me preface, these are high quality games worth a try, and some of my favorites of these last two years. However, both overemphasize side-content that damages the enjoyment of an otherwise stellar main campaign. Other games, however, resist this degeneration and actually excel at molding side-content into the main campaign for the betterment of the whole game, with The Witcher 3 being an excellent example of this.

To break this down, we can compare these three games to see how side-content can be good, useless, or outright damaging. In Batman Arkham Knight, the main story has you tracking down the main villain as is usual in the other games of the series. The pace is beautifully broken up by puzzles, stealth sections, and fluid combat. However, the full story isn’t revealed without the side-content. Without spoiling anything major, there are characters and plot points covered solely through the side content. Now this is to be expected with any side-content worth your time. The issue becomes when the side content feels like a series of treadmills that slow down an otherwise amazing game. Certain side-quests are a series of car chases after a particular villain that rarely change up that much with each iteration, but you must complete them all to get the full story. Other side-quests are similarly repetitions of the same format, such as repeatedly saving hostages by basically beating on a small group of criminals without much else to the challenge. In this instance, the game has the capability to offer so much more to the story, but limits the enjoyment by creating simple formulas so as to produce a large quantity of side-content with little actual quality.

Inquisition’s questing map is very useful, but with time it gets bogged down with side-quests that too often boil down to busy-work. There are some stellar stories here, there is just too much fluff.

Dragon Age Inquisition takes it a bit farther than this. The main campaign is a complex plot of political intrigue, war drama, and high fantasy. The game-play has you facing immense, otherworldly creatures and exploring some of the most beautiful settings in gaming. However, at rather regular intervals, you hit a wall. The game will not let you progress at certain stages without collecting enough “Power”, basically a renown system gained by completing side-quests. What is problematic is that these requirements can be rather steep at times, with side content giving little progress. You are forced, literally, to wade through side-content to actually get to the main game. What is most damning is that a lot of the side-content has, as with the previous example, emphasized quantity over quality. The side-quests are far too often little more than “Go to X and get Y” or “Kill/collect X amount of Y”, mimicking the worst of MMO quest design – which even MMOs are trying to avoid. Not only is the extra content a waste of space and effort, but a punishment for players who simply want to focus on the parts of the game that matter. Too many of these side-quests offer little to no major plot, and any enjoyment is drained by their forced and repetitive nature.

Finally, we have The Witcher 3, a prime example of side content done right. The main story is what it is: sprawling, dense, meaty, and wholly enjoyable without a moment’s glance at a side-quest. Even better, those who do want more can take the time enjoy the side-content and will be rewarded with something unique and flavorful. There is next to no formulaic quest design meant to meet a quota, rather, each side-quest is meant to be a complete experience on its own. A player can pick up a side-quest and enjoy a full story with its own characters and exciting game-play elements. Prime examples include uncovering the story of man cursed to live as a werewolf and then deciding his fate, or helping a friend uncover an immense source of power that will define your relationship with them. Basically, the side-quests in The Witcher 3 are not meant to be filler, but are their own, complete experiences for players who want more than the main story.

At the end of the day, the contrast between games such Arkham Knight and Inquisition, and The Witcher 3, is why the side content exists. In the former two, it is meant to pad the main campaign or, even worse, prolong it artificially, while the latter is a case of simply providing more content for players who would like to explore the game’s themes more, without hindering the rest of the experience. My question is why take the former route at all? Here we have three AAA games that require a lot of work to create. However, two of them spent a lot of extra effort to create more content when the base game would have probably been just as enjoyable without it, if not outright truly better. The point is that side-content should be an honest effort to create more fun. Anything else is just padding the game at no gain to the developer, publisher, or consumer.

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