Sunday, November 6, 2011

Red Dead Redemption or: How I learned to stop complaining and love the grind

I have a love/hate relationship with sandbox games. I love the unbridled freedom that a sandbox offers, and the ability to become completely immersed in and explore a setting. A well designed sandbox can frequently deliver a setting with more impact and depth than a linear story ever can. Yet this freedom is often a blessing and a curse, for that exploration can end up feeling like a chore rather than the excitement it should be. Having to spend lengthy periods of time "doing the commute" rather than just "having fun" often makes these games feel less enjoyable than they otherwise might. This is rather a double edged sword, because sometimes that commute can be the very thing that exposes player to random events within the gameworld that truly make it feel alive.

The potential increases vastly if you're one of those people who like to make sure they've "experienced everything" and try to go for those "100% completion" statistics. I've never bothered to even try for one of these. I never found any appeal in hunting for packages, pigeons, nirnroot, flags, feathers or any of the other countless tedious efforts that always seem to plague such endeavours. That is, not until Red Dead Redemption.  For once, I found myself with the dedication to achieve that "100% complete" goal, and for the most part, it was actually quite fun.

Thanks for the ride, John Marston

What is it about Red Dead Redemption's "grind" to achieve this goal that made it seem much more attainable and enjoyable than previous equivalent outings? Simply put: variance. In order to obtain this completion, greater emphasis was placed on making the means to do so more varied and complex. Completing the core quests of the game will give you only about 60% of the "total completion" for the single player game, yet most players are likely to have more than that by the time they reach the game's conclusion. This is because the task is far more enjoyable than hunting down 100 pigeons in varies nooks and crannies hidden around the gameworld. It consists of numerous other tasks: obtaining rare weapons, completing gang hideouts, completing jobs, being a bounty hunter, story "side quests", exploring the gameworld, buying safehouses, obtaining outfits, winning minigames and completing "challenges". With this assortment of tasks, the player always has something different to tackle in pursuit of this goal.

Even better is that as the player progresses towards this ultimate goal, they are given numerous rewards along the way. The four "challenges" (hunting, survivalist, sharpshooter and treasure hunting) each provide the player with different bonuses at the halfway point and upon completion. Many of the 13 available outfits provide different advantages to the player. This system of continual reward gives the player a sense of achievement during progression on par with the best skinner box motivations used by MMOs and levelling systems. The player is rewarded along the way, giving them further incentive to keep persevering with the grind. In addition, some of the tasks required can be completed simultaneously, either directly or indirectly by facilitating completion of other goals. To unlock a particular outfit, you may need to win at one of the minigames, which will contribute to that aspect of completion at the same. Also, you may need to collect a particular flower, which is located in the same region as an animal you may need to hunt, or a treasure you have to find.

What a great way to score some hatshots!

Ultimately, RDR makes the goal of 100% completion seem not only achievable, but also as something that can let the player feel like they have "achieved everything", at least as far as the singleplayer component is concerned. There are a handful of achievements/trophies that will not be collected as part of this experience, but the player will definitely feel as though they've gained most of the game's virtual rewards as well. Providing a clear end point means that people wanting to pursue such a task will not be left with that feeling of "just a little bit more" that so frequently preys upon those playing MMOs. Moreover, it's not a stupendously inane task requiring an utterly barbaric level of dedication like Gears of War 3's "Seriously 3.0" achievement. Sorry Epic, but that's just plain stupid. There's no other word for it.

I don't imagine I'll end up any more dedicated to the task of 100% completion for future sandbox games, but if designers are looking for a method by which to motivate players to pursue these kinds of virtual goals, then Red Dead Redemption provides an excellent template by which to encourage this kind of perseverance.

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