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Making a case for the value of linear video games

There's been some debate recently regarding the potential of "linear" titles in the current gaming market. Here's why we think they should be embraced and encouraged.

Dead Space
(Image: © EA)

A few weeks ago, DualShockers reported that EA's Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Blake Jorgensen, went into detail about the company's reasoning behind closing down Visceral Games, creators of the Dead Space franchise.

According to Jorgensen, the game was a "much more linear game, that people don't like as much today as they did five or ten years ago." For those who don't know, a linear game is a title where there's only one path to take to complete the game.

While it may be true that linear titles aren't as popular as they used to be, they still offer an experience that more openly-designed games can't achieve, and they can still be successful in the industry today.

A tightly-knit story

A massive advantage that linear games have over free-roam or open-world titles is that the developer can structure the story in a way that's controlled, as opposed to the non-linear approaches that often let the player have as much freedom as possible.

Having a linear design allows for stories to be told at paces that best suit them.

Taking away freedom from the player may seem like a bad thing, but there are some positives to having a more regulated narrative. Developers can ensure that the story of their game is progressed through fluidly, making it feel cohesive and well-paced. In an open-world game, you often are encouraged to complete the storyline in pieces.

This isn't necessarily a bad part of the open-world experience — some stories are best told in increments — but this type of game design simply can't achieve the same level of structure that a linear game can.

In essence, linear titles allow our game stories to be written in a way that resembles a book or a movie, with the added benefit of you being able to participate in the central conflict. Where non-linear titles give you an opportunity to tell your own story, linear ones tell one to you.

Value of scripted events

The more controlled environment in linear games also opens the door for a variety of gameplay experiences in the form of "scripted events." A scripted event is something that is guaranteed to happen within an area of a game when the player reaches it. For example, an enemy ambush after the player reaches a certain point would be considered a scripted event.

A situation like this is hard to design in a more open game due to the nature of the experience itself. When you have the freedom to traverse the world in whatever way you want, there's a high chance you'll avoid a scripted event without even realizing it because of how unlikely it will be you'll go where the event is.

With linear titles, there's only one path you can go down. As a result, there's no possible way that you can bypass the scripted event. This ensures that you'll end up getting to participate in the gameplay experience the event creates, whatever that may be.

Why linear games can successfully exist today

It's undeniable that linear titles have been on the decline for years, and that's especially true in 2017, when only a small handful of more structured games have been released amidst a sea of non-linear, open-world style products.

The success of well-made linear titles in recent years proves that they are still viable.

Yet, that by no means indicates that they're a poor investment. Though the demand for linear games has fallen, there's still a strong market for them. The Metro series, Wolfenstein series, and Rise of the Tomb Raider are three examples of types of titles that have achieved commercial success today despite being linear, and they're critically acclaimed.

These games aren't as profitable on a mass scale, of course, but do they need to be? Does every experience need to be marketable to the general audience? I don't think so. It's OK to have products that target a smaller consumer base, provided that there's an opportunity to earn money.

Conclusion

Though not as profitable as they were years ago, linear games still offer a good opportunity for companies to make money. Offering unique story and gameplay advantages that more open-world-style games cannot achieve, linear titles stand out as a genre that should be embraced by the gaming industry.

Your thoughts

Do you think that the gaming industry should put more faith in linear titles? Let me know what you think.

Brendan Lowry is a Windows Central writer and Oakland University graduate with a burning passion for video games, of which he's been an avid fan since childhood. You'll find him doing reviews, editorials, and general coverage on everything Xbox and PC. Follow him on Twitter.

19 Comments
  • I agree. Not everything need to open world. I actually prefer linear games over most open world games.
  • I prefer linear as it keeps the story moving along.
  • I tend to prefer story-driven games too, which usually means linear.
  • It depends on my mood, but I like both.
  • Best linear games are those where you sometimes think you had the choice but actually it was a linear path. Games like Half Life 2 have done this in perfection. CoD on the other hand is the perfect example for bad linear gameplay.
  • There's a craft in telling a more or less linear story while at the same time creating the illusion of freedom and openness. Pen and paper role playing game DMs know this well. So yeah, give me a linear experience that's good over a sandbox game anytime. Have you noticed every open world game plays more or less the same? You also get too much into grinding.
  • I feel like it's really sad that we need an article such as this, to make the case for why linear games are still important. I much prefer a linear experience where the story is key. It's why I love my old 8- and 16-bit games, still.
  • There is an unfortunate financial reality here. Paying $60 for 10 to 20 hours of scripted gameplay is seen as less of an experience than 100+ hours of randomized "open world" gameplay with the same 10-20 hours of scripted content. The games cost the same amount of money to make, so the open world one is more likely to sell enough to recoup costs. Also, tightly scripted games tend to have less ability to adapt to multiplayer, which is another way companies can increase the sales longevity of a title. In the medium term, I think that heavily scripted games will tend to feature more in indie titles that cost less vs AAA titles. Long term, I hope that advances in procedural content generation bring down the overall cost of making AAA quality games (there still are 10x the number of artists as programmers on a AAA title, and a LOT of the cost is in generating art for games) so that linear narrative games can have AAA quality graphics, but still be at a "budget" price of an indie game.
  • To be honest I would listen to anything EA says with regards to how games should be made. They seem to think gamers are purely cash cows who they can milk for extra profit. I think the fact that they can't ram loot boxes into liner games may have something to do with this decision.
  • You can have both (linear and open world). Just look at the juggernaught that is Skyrim.  The main linear story can be completed in well under 20 hours, but there are many many times that in side quests and the additional storylines like Thieves guild, dark brotherhood, and the companions quests. Like a linear game, just play the main story, its worth the money.
  • That's still an open world game though. Linear is something like Metro 2033 or your standard shooter by today's standards. Something where your next point in the game after completing a level is another level after a cutscene.
  •  Remember levels? Aahh those were the days. Love me some levels!
  • I cant tell you how many non linear games i've not completed due to getting bored or moving on to a different game, I much prefer the linear approach to a good story driven game, if I want open world RPG's I'll buy one specifically.
  • I absolutely love and prefer strong story-driven, linear games. Unfortunately I don't have time to play and get good at multiplayer stuff anymore and I'm tired of dealing with random idiots. I can see my gaming days slowly fading behind me since I have given up on multiplayer.
  • It's funny you say that cause I've never actually finished an open world game(excluding Zelda). I had Red Dead Redmption for a bit but never actually finished it. I have finished some great single players though, Uncharted, Spec Ops The line, Dead Space, Resident Evil 4, etc. I think I have ADD or whatever that's called. 
  • There is definitely room for both... But to be honest the fact that the statement came from EA means it's worthless anyway. What do they know about making games? Milking money from players sure, they're excellent business people. But name a single gaming franchise that's improved after it's developer or license was acquired by EA. I also disagree that non linear games have to compromise story, it just isn't true. And any games pacing can be compromised by the player. The key to a good open world story is creating legitimate and sensible break points.
  • The uncharted series are the recent example of a linear games, so is the last of us. There are many, I would take everything EA says with an universe weight to power of avogadro constant level of salt. In laymens term I ain't trusting a single word that comes out of EA. They have lost me as a customer for life, Disney needs boot these greedy parasites off. They have ruined far too many franchises to be given an milimeter of slack.
  • Nothing wrong with linear. A good game is a good game if it's done right.
  • I prefer them too! That's what I play the most.