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Opinion: On 'Completion Anxiety Disorder'

In a new opinion piece, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander wonders why gamers are completing fewer and fewer games these days -- and speculates that the usual excuses, like time shortage and a culture of impatience, might be paper tigers for the real culprit.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

March 11, 2008

10 Min Read

[In this column originally posted at sister editor weblog GameSetWatch, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander wonders why we're completing fewer and fewer games these days -- and speculates that the usual excuses, like time shortage and a culture of impatience, might be paper tigers for the real culprit.] If you're reading this column, you definitely own at least a couple video games. You probably own several, and some of you are the custodians of an innumerable collection that you meticulously arrange and then photograph for posting on internet forums. And you spend at least a decent chunk of your time playing, and another portion still of your time coveting the next purchase. But what percentage of them have you ever completed? Beaten, conquered, finished, whichever your pleasure. I recently spoke with Naughty Dog Studio vets Dan Arey and Bob Rafei on the launch of their new studio, Big Red Button Entertainment, and they theorized that the average gamer confronted with the average game is more likely than not to leave it unfinished -- and it seems a reasonable estimation. Rising retail costs mean that for most, it's damn near painful to crack the wallet open at the game store, and yet implausibly, despite the larger financial investment, it actually seems like we're finishing fewer games than we once did. We demand more engaging, immersive and enduring game experiences -- and then we don't finish them. What's wrong with us? Do you suffer from Completion Anxiety? Looking for answers? Yeah, me too. Symptoms And Possible Causes There are a few easy theories close at hand as to why we're finishing fewer games. "Failure to Complete" almost sounds like a condition for which we'll start seeing prescription drug ads on morning television, doesn't it? And as a matter of fact, size, length and depth are involved. It's quite possible that in these areas, modern games have outgrown the available free time of the average player in all of these areas. And a core portion of the gaming audience has begun to age, meaning time is even more at a premium. Despite this, next-gen games can no longer escape the court of public opinion unscathed should their available gameplay hours fail to equate, in the player's mind, to the dollar value invested. For just one example, early next-gen title Heavenly Sword took knocks in reviews and, more broadly, in public discussion, for being too succinct. These days, few (if any) companies can get away with charging $60 for fewer than 60 hours of gameplay. To be fair, games are now much bigger and larger than they used to be. 16-bit veterans who used to spend months at a time whittling away at a platformer in their clumsier youth can now buy it on Virtual Console and knock out a victory in a handful of hours. Nonetheless, we've demanded deeper experiences for years -- those old games are generally a nostalgic snack, not a long-term project. Now, extensive and complete multiplayer campaigns have become increasingly essential to a title's success. Multiplayer's supposed to add value in that it's infinitely replayable, as users create a different experience amongst themselves each time. Yet many users end up spending far more time on the multiplayer component than they ever did on any single-player campaign -- so doesn't that mean time's not the culprit for Failure to Complete? Problems Paying Attention? So if time's not really the issue, then maybe our attention spans are dwindling. We live in a wired society connected to multiple sources of various stimuli at any given time during the day -- and gamers tend to be more tech-savvy than most. Could this have atrophied our ability to sit still and concentrate? We can now hold a gathering of our friends, assign tasks and cope with an evolving environment without ever having to get up and get dressed, thanks to online play. And while doing that, we can put on the TV, order our dinner, pay our bills and call our parents from the very same chair, all at the same time, all without having to wait for a minute. It's easy enough to theorize that living in such a world has made it difficult for us to engage fully with any one single thing, or to invest time in it, if time is what it demands. WoW fans, for one thing, don't seem to have a problem making time for their hobby. And the most oft-cited reason is instant gratification -- the game can scratch that itch with a relatively low investment of attention, behaviors that are almost automatic, small rewards on the way to bigger ones. Are we an audience of gamers who just doesn't want to put time and effort in for the payoff? Unable To Do The Things You Once Did? Maybe it's more persistence, better problem-solving skills we need. Are today's games too difficult for us? I was recently having that completion discussion with Arey and Rafei because their new studio work is predicated on the idea that frustration and inaccessibility is the reason why many gamers don't finish. During the interview, Arey proposed, "Can you imagine what the film industry would be today if you could only watch 60 percent of a DVD and then stop?" What, indeed. Especially given that we're welcoming a wider audience of players into our world and want to continue doing so, the pair told me that a dynamic difficulty level, that lets the players control how they're challenged, is the key to a taller stack of finished titles in every gamer's home. How many, of the past several games you left unfinished, were either too hard for you to finish or too easy for you to remain engaged with? If you could have had control over the difficulty level, would you have finished the game? I'm still not convinced that dynamic difficulty wouldn't result in a few too many hollow victories for my taste -- what's the point, after all, of overcoming a challenge that you've set precisely in your comfort zone? But then, that's assuming that difficulty level is the issue at all. I'd say, in fact, that today's games have gotten much easier. Loss Of Pleasure And Interest? Now, the tricky one: Maybe it's just that a lot of these games aren't very good. You didn't finish them because you were bored. You weren't frustrated because it was too hard, but because it was too unwieldy, difficult in the wrong way, or you just hated the characters. We talk a lot about the promise and potential of games as an engaging storytelling medium -- but words like "promise" and "potential" are words we use when something could be there, but isn't there yet. Game design is trying every day to raise that bar, and what "does it" for some players won't do it for others. Still, it's a safe bet that there are many games with which you can't necessarily find fault, that are still sitting and waiting for you to haul through that last leg of the journey. While you've probably abandoned plenty of games because they were just terrible or you didn't enjoy them, it's likely there are just as many others that you're not exactly sure why you never got around to winning. I've got plenty of such titles. In most cases, I'm much further than halfway through, averaging perhaps 40-20 percent left to go. They're good games. I want to finish them, or so I say. And yet, I just can't, or don't, or won't. It isn't an issue of time, it isn't an issue of my attention span, and it isn't an issue of engagement. I've dumped some 95 hours just into Pokemon Pearl, doing repetitive behaviors over and over again, so I've obviously got plenty of time and attention. Those games I haven't finished? I think about them, even write about them rather often. It's not necessarily an engagement issue either, unless it's on some subtle level beyond my cognition. There's Hope... So while we've suggested that even the most decent of games go unfinished because the investment required is too steep -- time, money, attention, skills, patience -- how can we really say that, when everything we as an audience say and do suggests we want to be immersed, we want to commit that investment, we want to be challenged? Except for the price -- of course we all would like games to cost less -- we're actually most frustrated when a game doesn't provide that depth of experience, when it's over too quickly, when it's too easy, when it lacks places for us to make an enduring emotional connection. What if it's just that, after investing so much, we just don't want it to be over? You poured hours into your character. You navigated an inscrutable chain of events to obtain his weapon. You grit your teeth against boss battles, and you came to care about your character's success. You fell in love with the world -- why would you want to face its ending? After all that work, there's probably no replay value left unless you're hardcore. And even then, the second playthrough is an architecture, a science experiment, a manipulation, not a new discovery. Failure to Complete analogizes us to the social archetype who breaks up with their partner just when they start to fall in love. Who bails just when it looks like this could be forever, or who flees at the first suggestion of commitment. Don't we have relationships with some of our games? Think about it -- it begins with attraction, when you see an appealing description, a good preview, a sexy trailer. Then comes the skepticism, the scrutiny of the developer's previous efforts, the steeling yourself for disappointment. The swapping gossip with your gamer buddies after the first "date," the sense of careful, hesitant joy as you start to get drawn in. At first, the new game was all you could think about. And then, once the novelty has worn off, you realize you're comfortable. You're satisfied -- and coming to the game's end result might exhaust the possibilities. You love the game while it's still young and exciting, so much you don't want to visualize yourselves married and aged. You're afraid of disappointment. Maybe you sense the game taking a turn for the odd and you're afraid of the pain of betrayal. You fear that the ultimate result of all your work will be a letdown. Or you're just afraid of being alone and starting over again when it's all done with. A shiny new release catches your eye, and before you know it, you've ditched your old companion for the excitement of a new relationship. Is our obsession with multiplayer gaming really a deep desire to play everything with our online friends? Or is it just that we want gameplay that will never nosedive on us, never break our hearts and never be over? As for me and my 95 hours of Pokemon Pearl, I'm about to go and buy all of the rest of the portable Pokemon games I don't have, so that I can collect more Pokemon from older games. No expense of time, money or affection would be too steep, because the nearly-impossible task of completing the National Pokedex means that I'll always have something left undone in a world that I already trust. Even if I can complete the National Dex, I'm sure the next game will be out by then. I feel secure in the relationship. That's why, despite requiring a good deal more investment than any of my other still-unfinished games, I recently completed the story. Maybe I still need treatment for my Failure to Complete if I ever want to have longer, deeper, more sizable gaming sessions. But this is a good start, I'm sure.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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