Take your time, and be quick about it.
If games charged by the minute, the likes of Sid Meier would be rich beyond our wildest dreams. His Civilization series has so many options, modes and tactical theories that I’m prepared to say it would be the only game I’d ever need if stuck on a desert island. With a PC. And electricity. Cuba, then. Si Games, founders of the Football Manager franchise, would also be challenging Bill Gates and Warren Buffett since it takes an entire day just to complete a season of the typical transfer wrangling, tactics-devising schematics within football management. If time is indeed money, then both developers have plunged gamers into a spiralling debt rivalling that of AIG, the company that helped cause the global financial meltdown that you may or may not have heard about in the news.
But nothing great can last forever, and these two titles both become mundane once the initial furore has died down. Civilization, for example, is a race between factions to become the best on the planet, whether by dominance, culture, diplomacy, production or genocide, which makes the top units towards the year 2000 incredibly short-lived. Oh sure, you can continue and play to your hearts content, but the game slows down rapidly since everyone has umpteen cities that are number-crunching; there’s nothing to research, so everyone pumps money into espionage and production, so suddenly even that poverty-hit nation that’s been dragged through the ages since the dawn of man has a city full of modern armour tanks. All tactics go out of the window and it’s down to who has the larger number of the strongest units.
I want to build a hermit nation in which my people own slaves, all borders to the outside world are closed and the state owns just about everything. The plan would be to antagonise the world by refusing to partake in diplomacy, defying resolutions and repeatedly making arrogant demands until I’m inevitably invaded by the freedom fighters, to which I launch nuclear missiles at their big cities. From then on I’m the big cheese and everyone answers to me – simply put, I want to be an evil bastard. But instead I find the game trying to funnel me off into starting another map once the going gets good.
Football Manager, for all its charms, loses itself after ten or so seasons in the top flight because it’s just so hard to do anything wrong. Clubs will have a change of ownership which spices things up a little in the way of whether you’ll be sacked in the morning, but there’s no real news, no scandal. You don’t holiday for a month, only to find out your skipper has been getting his leg over with the wife of the left-back; you don’t find your team banned from trading in the transfer market because your youth development officer was found guilty of “tapping up” young stars. There’s simply little excitement to entice players forward once all the big names have retired from the game and you’re left with made-up players who mean very little.
Both games are, in a sense, suffering from what caused the real-world meltdown; they both judge success on growth. Civilization wants you to build something from the ground up, sprout legs and charge for the finish line; Football Manager lets you take a minnow to the top, and once there, there’s little else to do besides going straight back down again. Even Tropico 3, the re-birth of a classic “island under dictatorship” title, limits resources so to push you in the direction of growth, rather than sustainability.
This is why I believe Will Wright to be the true “godfather” of gaming. The ludicrously-hyped Spore aside, his franchises like SimCity and The Sims have no determined path or ending, no distinct conclusion or gauge for success. SimCity 4 captures the sandbox genre in a nutshell; you start with nothing and can instantly return to it without consequence. It’s entirely possible to play the game legitimately as a small farming community without any hand-holding or resource-strangling designed to push you towards planting a skyscraper in the middle of that pumpkin field. Likewise, if you feel the mass transit system should have been designed better for a metropolis area, there’s nothing standing in your way should you wish to de-zone the entire city and start from scratch, or just unleash a hellish twister in amongst your sims and watch as those intricate roads get ripped up. Build it, and they will come.
The Sims 3 also captures the essence of free-living. By giving the player no possessions, they don’t feel robbed if it gets taken away, such as when a Sim dies. Along the way there are ample opportunities to spread your seed amongst the many females (or visa-versa) to continue your family in the world; whether young or old, there’s always people to meet and places to go in the world of The Sims, and if you built your house wrong then hey, rip it down and re-do it without consequence. If a Sim has a bad day at work, then he simply gives the cold shoulder to the neighbour as he heads up the garden path, sitting down in front of the PC to masturbate furiously. You’re not penalised or forced to load from another save, it just happens.
Sadly, the sandbox genre is becoming a niche in today’s market; it’s not often that you can simply load up a game and relax, instead there’s checkpoints of no return where you have to plan what accessories and perks you’ll take before passing through. Fallout 3, for all its charms, requires a bit of planning should you wish to actually survive out there in the wastes. Putting all those skill points into improving your conversation skills won’t let you charm your way out of fights, and there’s no real way of learning that until it’s too late. Modern Warfare 2 is relentless in pulling you along its path – “quick! The chopper is on its way!”, “the roof is caving in, run!”, “the Mexicans whose shanty you’re shooting at are coming to get you, escape!” – to the point where you feel like your sole mission is to imitate Usain Bolt than kill the sneaky Russians planning World War 3.
Some, not all, videogames just need to slow down in their execution. There’s little point in spending mega-bucks on fancy graphics or photographing real-life locations if you’re then going to entice gamers to zip through it like lightning. My current favourite game, Company of Heroes, has the balance just right; yes, there’s an end goal, but it takes an age to get there and throws different challenges at you, changing the scene of the battlefield at times and keeping you on your toes for the entire three hours it takes just to complete one tiny mission. At the end of the campaign there’s a feeling of accomplishment, that something has been achieved, rather than the instinct that you were pulled out of the experience just as the going got good.