Feature Creep: Control It, Embrace It
Tucker Abbott | Student, Drexel University
Feature fatigue is a term used for when a product’s usability suffers due to the large number of functions, or features, that the product has. Feature fatigue is becoming more and more apparent with every industry, and in this post I'm going to go over why game developers should no longer cringe when someone brings a new feature to the table. Grab the creep by its own horns, and give it a hug.
I believe that feature fatigue is not so much caused by simply having a large number of features, but rather having a slew of features that are presented in an overwhelming way. Some games that are widely successful can boast a large amount of features, simply because they present their mechanics and features in a way that isn’t overwhelming. Feature fatigue in the videogame world is referred to as ‘feature creep’, which is a constant addition of features tacked onto a product that expand beyond the initial goals of the product. This can lead to games being overwhelming, but it can also be used well if controlled. Take the knife on the side for an example of good feature cree- no wait, that actually looks dangerous. I wonder why...
It is important to realize that certain games thrive off of features that aren’t necessary, as that is a good thing. Some designers seem to believe that simplifying a game to the point where it is just a strong core mechanic is enough to make a good game. This brings the limits of the game closer to the player and makes them more visible. A world of choice becomes limited to a fishbowl where the player feels like they can only do what the developers intended, rather than doing anything they want.
This beautifully piece of art below shows the basic idea of this connection between the developer and the player. Mr. MeGusta and Mr. Fuuuu are two players of the same talent and experience. MeGusta picked up a game that has a lot of little features, and the green circle represents everything he can do in his game. He will mainly stay inside the black circle, but every once in a while he will leave his boundaries, and realize just how big the world is. Mr. Fuuuu on the other hand picked up a game where the developers put very few extra mechanics in. He sees that MeGusta can do some quirky, little things in his game, and he tries it in his game, but he is limited by the game. The rules of any game should try to stay as far away from the players as possible.
J.R.R. Tolkien created a living, breathing world in Middle Earth. There were always talks of distant mountains and worlds that were never explored in the books. When asked if he would ever go to those distant mountains in his books, he replied,
Well I can’t do that. If I go there to tell you about those stories, then I have to invent more distant mountains to the distant mountains because those serve to make the world that we’re in realistic, because there’s always stuff about our world that we don’t quite know about. But if those elements are there, then the story works that you’re telling.”
Using this distant mountain theory, it is safe to assume that adding features into a game that a user might never even realize are there really could make the game better. When the user discovers that they can read books in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, or play card games in Red Dead Redemption, they realize that the game world is their world, and that they can do more things than required during the game. Even if the user uses the feature once and never touches it again, knowing that there is the potential to do little things makes the game that much more immersive, and makes the game experience better.
This can also apply to games that have features that are vital to the core gameplay mechanic. Portal 2, for instance, has become a cliché in the world of game design when talking about learning curves and feature additions. Valve expanded on the core gameplay from Portal 1 in adding repulsion gel, propulsion gel, conversion gel, and water. In addition to the mechanic of teleporting portals, these features could very easily have been overwhelming do the user. But, because the mechanics are introduced at an easy-to-comprehend pace, the game feels intuitive and simplistic. By the end of the game, the player is doing things that they never could have imagined themselves doing at the start of things.
Some games I wish did feature creep. I would have liked to jump in Fable 3. Sure, it wasn’t necessary at all, but since so many other games ‘feature’ a jump button, I felt limited by the game, and the world lost a little bit of its vividness. Many games that boast a good/evil mechanic give you two choices to either burn an orphanage or personally adopt all the kids. Even adding a third choice to walk away and ignore things makes the game experience better.
Feature economics is the concept of how many choices or experiences one game mechanic can give the player. Weapon-switching, for instance is a mechanic that can have both poor economy and good economy. The Witcher 2, for instance, has a few signs (spells to aid you in combat) that you can choose from. They could have just used the scroll wheel or numpad to control which spell you had, but instead there is this cool control doohickey that lets me select right away what I want, is visually appealing, and is used in situations other than just combat. This is great feature economy, because CD Projekt added a feature that is intuitive, gives the player a good amount of choices, and makes the game better. Sure, it’s not needed, but it helps improve the game and bring it to the high level of quality that it is at.
To all developers, please consider feature economy when you are thinking about what to put into your games. You may have this AWESOME idea which adds one little thing to your game, but think about where you can take it. Think about the player. Will they see more potential in this feature? Will they feel restricted by this feature at any given time? Does the feature not reinforce or strengthen the theme of the game? If the answer to any of those questions is no, then rework the feature. Take your idea to people and see what they think, get recommendations and feedback.
Also, when implementing the feature, consider your target audience and think about their learning curve. Are you making a casual Facebook game? Don’t throw the player into a deep inventory and stats system. Just because you think something is cool doesn’t mean it’s cool. Step into the body and mind of the people that will play your game. What do they want, and how much of a challenge do you think they intend to get out of your game? Learning curves is a blog post for another day though, quite possibly next time I will be back to write about that.
Stepping back from that tangent, ‘feature creep’ is something that should not be avoided at all costs, but rather embraced and controlled, to add to the game world and create a deeper game that gives players extra opportunities- if they want them. Make sure each feature is worth it, and go through each point of it separately and judge how much you really need it, or whether it’s just filler. Don’t be afraid to kill your own ideas, your project might benefit from it. A couple too many times I’ve fallen victim to both throwing filler content into games and not judging the scope of my game. DON’T MAKE MY MISTAKES. Good luck in the future, and hopefully soon everyone will be feature creeping around like Michael Jackson in Thriller.