I recently finished two games that I had been looking forward to for some time: a quirky little mobile game (originally on PC in 1997) about game developers called Game Dev Story and the culmination of the Desmond trilogy, Assassin’s Creed III.
Game Dev Story is a small, cheap, unflashy game from a developer employing only a handful of people. It cost me a buck and it’s addictively fun. Assassin’s Creed III, made by the industry giant behemoth Ubisoft as the capstone to a massively bestselling trilogy (or trilogy plus), is a hot mess in practically every way. The reason? They seem to have lost sight of what’s fun.
Let’s start with AC3 so we can end on a higher note. I loved AC1 and 2 and thought Brotherhood was alright but a bit of a time sink, so I skipped Revelations and moved on to AC3, thinking that as a numbered entry, Ubisoft would produce another polished, captivating experience like AC2. Not so much. The free running in AC3 seems to have taken a step back, not only because the open world city maps are (literally) flatter (and the frontier not much better), but also because it’s so, so easy for the character to get caught on a small wall or barrel and not want to go where you tell them to. Having just one button for parkour is simple, I suppose, but it also abandons any hope of precision. Combat isn’t much better, essentially forcing you to counter a lot and occasionally break defense or (even rarer) throw an adversary into an environmental object. Items like rope darts are fussy and often impractical, and firearms—touted as a feature in this more modern 1700s setting—are atrocious (historically accurately but boringly so). So it’s not that fun to explore and it’s not that fun to fight. Yikes, Ubisoft. Oh, did I mention that horseback riding is pretty terrible, too?
With AC3, Ubisoft seems more focused on growing the Assassin’s Creed experience than making it fun in the present game. They expand the worlds, but make them less rewarding. They add naval battles (which are pretty fun—probably the most fun thing in the game), but fail to meaningfully connect them to the rest of the game. They streamline the gameplay to make it easier but less responsive. They beef up the story but kill it with a dragging prologue and incompetent cutscene direction and writing. And they leave incredible amounts of blotchiness and chunkiness in practically everything. When performing leaps of faith, its somewhat less clear in a tree or on a building where you should jump from than in previous games, and there’s no “lock on destination” or “leap of faith only” option, so occasionally, you leap to your death because the game doesn’t give you enough information. And the story—Ubisoft tries something ambitious by telling a story of the American Revolution without any simple good or bad guys, but in the execution of this storytelling, they fall on their face. Protagonist Connor’s words about valuing life often directly contradict the slaughterhouse of the missions preceding or following those cutscenes, and the overall treatment of the Assassin-Templar freedom-vs.-order struggle (or balance) and how that maps onto the Rebels-British conflict (and the involvement of the French and especially the Native Americans) is incredibly muddled, inconsistent, and shallowly developed.
And the cutscenes—don’t get me started on the cutscenes. Sometimes, a cutscene starts late—as if you’re walking into the room after it’s started. Even more often, it cuts out early, JUST after the last word spoken or sometimes even in the middle of a line. In one side quest cutscene involving a bride having second thoughts, you chase the bride through the forest yelling back and forth about her anxiety about the wedding, but when you finally catch up to her, a cutscene begins where you are presumably about to talk everything out, but before a word is spoken, the cutscene cuts out and you move on to the next scene—omitting the entire content of the cutscene. It is a cutscene with Nothing. In. It. This is an extreme example, but almost every cutscene is broken in similar, if smaller ways. And the loading screens. Often a cutscene will have multiple parts, and there will be loading screens between them. Sometimes those parts are 15 seconds long, and so are the loading screens. So much for using cutscenes to create dramatically compelling pacing. And the final, climactic Desmond cutscene is ludicrously underwhelming for the culmination of three games worth of build up.
No matter what I was doing in AC3, I was dissatisfied with it. Other than the naval battles, I essentially was more annoyed than entertained by every single aspect of the game, in a game that had a big budget and a big team. What it lacked was focus, focus on doing fewer things but doing them well—in gameplay and in storytelling. It may let me do a lot of things, but your game still sucks if all of them are more frustrating than fun.
Then there’s Game Dev Story. In this game, you start with a few employees, you chose the type and genre of games to develop for various platforms (with different costs for each variable), you adjust a few priorities in the development process, you manage employee fatigue and creative risktaking, and you manage your company’s advertising. You spend the whole game looking at your office (which gets bigger a couple of times) and occasionally the floor at a game convention or awards show (cutscenes, essentially), which are made up of retro sprite-like graphics. And it’s incredibly fun. The gameplay is balanced so that it’s hard to make a great game early on, but you can make increasingly good games. After each one, though, as the money comes in, you have to decide how much to put into contract employees for the next game, training your permanent staff, buying one-time or unlimited power-up (and career change) items, and advertising. As in any good resource management game, there’s not enough money to go around for most of the game, so it’s a matter of striking a balance that keeps you moving in the right direction. Small touches like being able to name your own games and make sequels to your best games increase ownership (I loved thinking up related names for the entries in my best franchises), and eventually you can even develop your own console and create games for it. I sunk more time than I should have into this game, finishing it surprisingly quickly, because it was just so fun—I wanted to finish the game I was working on to see how it would sell and to sink its profits into something even better. In the last handful of hours, I had gotten so successful that I no longer had real money limitations, and then the game got less fun, but up until then I was captivated.
How is it that a tiny mobile game developed by nine people is so much better than a AAA event with over 2,000 skilled professionals at its disposal? Part of it is that a bigger project creates bigger management headaches. But that’s an explanation, not an excuse. No matter how big a game or studio gets, the people in charge need to make their number one priority ensuring that their game is engaging and fun. If I don’t want to keep doing the thing that your game lets me do, you’ve gone astray.
Do you agree with me that AC3 was a train wreck? Did you find Game Dev Story as addicting as I did? What other AAA titles have gone disastrously off course? Where do you think they went wrong? What other tiny indie games get things really right?