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An homage to pointless video game details and the importance of choice

Monster Hunter World Sauna
Monster Hunter World Sauna (Image credit: Windows Central)

Last year, Mass Effect Cinematic Designer John Ebenger revealed that 90 per cent of Mass Effect players chose the Paragon playthrough for Shepard. In Mass Effect, a big part of the game's unique selling point was the depth to which choice played a role in the overall experience. During dialogue scenes, you could choose to play a more hardline "Renegade" approach, or a more goodie-goodie "Paragon" approach.

As a member of the ten percent who plays Shepard as a Renegade, it was with some degree of disappointment that choice had been stripped back so much in Mass Effect: Andromeda, which was unpopular enough to plunge the franchise into a years-long hiatus.

I can't help but wonder if EA sat down with Bioware in some sterile-looking board room, explaining that telemetry data suggested that most people didn't care for, or want, a Renegade playthrough for Mass Effect, and that they should just focus on more simplistic, ultimately cheaper choices instead. I have to wonder if the same telemetry data led to choices being deprioritized in Fallout 4 as well, and other games that have removed flavor in recent years in favor of trends and "data."

Is telemetry data making our games, well, duller?

Flexing creative muscles

Source: Windows CentralThis Twin Peaks Easter egg from Mass Effect 2's Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC is one of my favorites. (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Some of my most memorable and impactful video game experiences came from choices the game allowed me to make, and small details that served no purpose beyond delighting those that found them. Nowadays, it feels like it's only indie developers and smaller studios that offer these kinds of human elements, while the big AAA publishers chase sanitized experiences that feel like they came off an assembly line.

I often think about some of the stealth features in Metal Gear Solid. Hideo Kojima games in general are a great example of games that feel intentionally filled with interactive curiosities that are there for the sole purpose of intriguing the player, and aren't core to the experience, or even necessary. The iconic cardboard box from Metal Gear Solid is often an inconsistent tool to actually use to stealth through the game. But it's fun, and hilarious, seeing guards react with confusion to a random box that appeared within their patrol path. The cardboard box is now synonymous with the franchise's wider legend, and it could just as well have not been in the game at all.

Source: Windows CentralIn Monster Hunter World, you can dress up a poogie pig in various costumes. For no reason. It's awesome. (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Monster Hunter is another great recent example of a game world filled with fun details and smaller systems that give the sandbox a huge degree of interactivity. Monster Hunter World has a fishing system, a cooking system, a creature photography side-quest chain, critter capturing, and monster size measuring, among heaps of other features that you quite honestly never need to even touch to play the game itself. I love that the features are there, even if I use them rarely because it makes the overall package feel more complete, more immersive, and more alive, in ways that other AAA games often aren't.

Gears of War is a franchise I hold near and dear to my heart and remains one of the best Xbox games, but it feels fairly thin on interactivity outside of the core gameplay loop. Gears 5 began to break the mold a bit with its skiff vehicular exploration gameplay, light narrative-oriented side quests, and human hub areas. The fish market sequence from Gears 5 felt like one of the more lived-in and memorable areas in the whole franchise. Knowing Microsoft as I do, I wonder if there were arguments to scrap some of these non-combat segments, using telemetry engagement as evidence.

Engagement telemetry is biased

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Telemetry describes user data harvesting to analyze how customers are using your products. Windows itself collects telemetry data on user activities to help Microsoft prioritize the way the OS is built. Services like Steam, Xbox, and others use this type of data to prioritize updates and resources.

I've written about telemetry driving Microsoft's decision making before, watching as features get removed from Xbox Live due to "underuse," leading to a narrower experience. We lost picture-in-picture, Kinect, TV integration, and various other features that made Xbox a richer experience, owing to "low usage." I'm by no means suggesting features should be offered on a charitable basis. Microsoft and other big companies are businesses, and allocating resources where people are is, of course, important. However, when this mentality slips into gaming, I feel like the results can be unintentionally negative for the player, leading to games that feel lifeless and uncreative.

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As a game developer, I imagine it's not fun to hear that only ten percent of players chose one of the content paths you'd worked on through the game. But when your game sells millions of copies, that's still hundreds of thousands of people who enjoyed those details. It goes beyond that, though.

Even for those players who chose not to experience the Renegade playthrough, it was still their choice to be a Paragon. The fact that it was a choice elevated the impact of those decisions, making the game more memorable and more evocative. If you were railroaded into playing Paragon by default, then it's ultimately less of a role-playing game. I felt far more connected to my Mass Effect Shephard than I did to my Witcher 3 Geralt of Rivia, because the choices in Mass Effect were so much more divergent.

Mass Effect 2

Source: BioWareI'm pretty sure I'm one of the only people in the world who shot Mordin in Mass Effect 2. (Image credit: Source: BioWare)

I never bothered to play through as a Paragon, but I'm glad that the content is there because it gave my decisions a sense of ownership. Is that enough to justify the investment on the developer's side? I'm not sure. But increasingly, I look at games from big publishers and lament how cookie-cutter they've often become. To get a sense of that human touch, increasingly, it seems to be falling on indie developers, who don't have access to this "data" and aren't given strict publisher mandates. Creativity flourishes alongside all of those fun little details and features that seem to contradict telemetry trends.

In some ways, perhaps social media can help eliminate the data bias that arises from using binary engagement or non-engagement data of a feature. The popularity of the Twitter account CanYouPetTheDog really proves the point I'm trying to make. This account catalogs games that allow you to pet the dog in games. As a result, being able to pet animals in games has become almost universal as a given feature of recent games that feature animals and pets.

I'm sure there's telemetry data to suggest most people may not even notice the fact you can pet the dog, or at the very least, perhaps they only use it once or twice. From a telemetry point of view, that might not be a worthwhile feature to add — but how can telemetry measure the way a player feels as a result of engaging with some of these "pointless" details?

More pointless details, please

Aim at a soldier in Metal Gear Solid 2, and they'll dance a bit, and drop their dogtags. Why? Why not.

I'm sympathetic to dev's time and budgetary priorities when it comes to this stuff. But when I think about "publisher meddling" and the developers I've spoken to, oft-frustrated by telemetry used as evidence to contradict artistic choices, I wish more publishers would adopt a more old-fashioned approach, and just trust the artist.

I wish more publishers would adopt a more old-fashioned approach, and just trust the artist.

I think telemetry is useful and important too, of course, but it shouldn't be the be-all and end-all when it comes to making artistic choices. Telemetry based on a binary "did they use this or not" eliminates so much human nuance from the equation, and eliminates the value by virtue of a feature's mere existence.

Xbox backward compatibility is a good example. I don't use it all that often, but Microsoft's efforts in this space make me feel more comfortable about buying games digitally. They make me feel like Xbox as a platform has additional value. It makes me feel like my purchase decisions will carry to future generations. I would hope data scientists at Microsoft and other companies do take some of this stuff into account, but the results often don't seem to suggest that's always the case.

In any case, I want to shoutout every developer that pushed to add fun little mini-games, side objectives, easter eggs, or small video game details. It's in the minutia that we often overlook that make video game worlds feel more alive. It's the choices we didn't engage with that made our choices more impactful.

I am of the ten percent of Mass Effect Renegades out there, and while we may be few, my appreciation to all of the devs that contributed to those memories cannot be measured by a spreadsheet.

Jez Corden is a Senior Editor for Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

15 Comments
  • Jez, great article as always. I agree with the importance of keeping in options both for providing choice, as you said, and giving the game a greater sense of verisimilitude or immersiveness. However, I would say the problem is not the over-reliance on data, but rather the failure to collect the relevant data. If they surveyed players or studied the effects of removing these choices, they should clearly see the adverse effects. One counter argument: I'm a completionist when I play a game, but I don't like replaying something I've already played and finished. Part of my rationale for being a completionist is to get everything on the first pass so I didn't miss anything that would force me to replay. For this reason, sometimes I resent when I am blocked from major content because of a choice (but deep down, I think I still appreciate that's what made the choice matter).
  • When I finished the Witcher 3, I had no desire to replay it for the other endings (for me, done is done), but I was curious how else it could have ended so then, and only then, did I check out the Internet for videos on other endings and to see what I might have missed. It impressed both how things could have gone differently and in other cases how different choices actually managed to loop back to the same story. Maybe that's another factor corporate decision makers should consider -- the more compelling and diverse those other options, the more buzz and excitement is generated for the game, which will ultimately help with sales.
  • It depends on the game and I guess the story for me. Ioved TW3, but I had no desire to replay it (though I might have for the hard mode). I too sometimes get aggravated when a choice is blocked, but I understand. If the game is compelling enough I will gladly do it again for the choice. With Mass Effect I replayed all 3 several times because I felt the need to. Hell, the first one made you play it at least 3 or 4 times for all the achievements and I Still felt like I could do another round because I loved it so much.
  • that's fair, and i think more linear games for sure have a place. i do love gears of war for what they are for exmaple. but i lament games like mass effect where choice was stripped out in subsequent sequels on the basis of "well nobody played renegade," didn't really elaborate very well tbh loll.
  • DATELINE: The Internet, April 1 -- Large, successful companies often doesn't include the features I want in their products. Let me give you an example ...
  • gj missing the point but sarcasm noted
  • So Jez, you are part of the problem. You didn't play the game again to make the other choices and see how the other decisions panned out? How dare you! 😜 I wonder if the telemetry accounts for people like me who played the game several times and used different choices every time to get different outcomes.
  • haha that's purely owing to time more than anything :C
  • I hear you. I didn't even get through my 2nd playtrough if Wasteland 3 because of that. Game Pass is going to ruin gaming by providing TOO MUCH choice!
  • Loved the article. Agree wholeheartedly. This concept needs more exposure.
  • Good article, little details is what made games as Deus Ex 1 instant classics. Secret areas in maps is nowadays also less or more scripted compared with older games. I get that they only want to put in stuff that people actually notice, but maybe they should give some more hints (maybe a vague list of hints when you have finished the game once or put it in some dialogue).
  • I agree with pretty much everything in this article, though I do have a small bone to pick re: The Witcher 3. You may not be able to choose an unambiguously "Bad Guy" path, but making that comparison between the two games misses the point I think. Most people do indeed choose the "good guy" paths in games with a choice - that is how most of us see ourselves anyway; where The Witcher is brilliant is in giving you a number of branching choices which may all feel good and right, but play out with a host of consequences both immediate and far-reaching in the overall story. It wants you to accept the gray, the unintended consequences, the Butterfly Effect, what have you - of not only choices made but choices avoided. It leaves you with an appreciation and awareness of a thousand small choices we made along the way, instead of "I am a good guy who saved the world". There's no warm fuzzies in the end if you did the bare minimum to complete the story and defeat the bad guys but didn't do the little things along the way that mean the difference between narcissistic hero complex and actually being a person of courage. Living in that space is not a common thing in the video game world. I don't have much interest in choosing the villain path myself (not judging, just me), but The Witcher didn't let me just coast on my good intentions, and that is a damn valuable lesson.
  • aye, I'm not saying the way The Witcher 3 does it is "bad," by any means, just that I didn't feel as connected to Geralt as I did Shepard, Witcher 3 is one of my fave games of all time. the fact the choices were less binary and occupy a grey area is cool and valid and i agree entirely. i didnt clarify that section very well.
  • I might have sided with Cerberus, let Gavin continue his experiments on David, let innocent workers die in a fire and many other questionable things, but this: >shot Mordin in Mass Effect 2. You sir are the true monster. Well done.
  • Very good article, it's not for buggies games (or bogeys).
    The best choice, the best story, have a great game.
    For the moment, they have choice to prefer infinites money ammos with 2 or 3 armors.