As games have gotten bigger and more complex, the available space to include optional content within the framework of the title has allowed for some pretty entertaining gaming distractions to take place.  In previous generations, extra stuff typically ended up being a collectible mini-game, possibly some speed-run style tracks, or the ever present (in rpg's especially) card game.

I remember spending hours on top of hours playing Triple Triad, the card game featuring characters and summons from Final Fantasy 8.

With the 360 and PS3, things have gotten a bit more complex.  Sure, you've still got your extra tracks, card games (I'm looking at you RDR and FC3!  Seriously, stopping for a hand of poker with all the problems your character's got?), and collectibles, the games of this generation have thrown everything but the proverbial kitchen sink at us in an effort to keep our eyes glued to the systems in our bed or living rooms. 

Wait just a minute.  I can explore now?  Screw the story, let's kill some rare monsters!

The Final Fantasy titles in particular have always included content that is just compelling enough to turn a forty hour adventure into a two-hundred hour time sink.  I honestly must have played eighty or more games of Blitzball in Final Fantasy 10.  And not just to get Wakka's ultimate weapon either!  I kept playing the occasional game well after maxing out that turds stats just for fun!  Final Fantasy 13 offers another example in the monster hunting (or whatever you want to call it) introduced shortly after your arrival on Gran Pulse.  Twenty hours later my vastly overpowered characters were back on the path set, but man that huge open plain offered some fun after the extraordinarily linear first two-thirds of the game!

Did you know you can get to Gran Pulse in just a few hours if you dodge encounters early on before the rewards do anything and skip all the cut-scenes?

Those 30% odds hits are always countered by 90% odds misses!

XCOM: Enemy Unknown has such a different game structure than what most console gamers are used to that it's almost hard to tell what's optional and what's not.  All I know is that I always end up bee-lining for carapace armor before even attempting to build an arc thrower and plasma weapons before storming the alien base.  Hell, I've waited out a dozen or more random battles before the final encounter just to play with the psionic powers and develop one or two more soldiers up to the maximum rank.  If it weren't for the ever-present 'next objective' update on the screen I'd probably still be powering my squads, wondering when the game plans on ending...

If you're careful with your resourses and money you can have five sattelites operational before the second council meeting which ensures long-term financial security...

 I should really get around to getting the last two dragon masks.  My carefully arranged shelf in Windhelm has the space...

There's not really much to say about the wealth of content Skyrim offers that hasn't already been said before by myself and others.  I still haven't beaten it...

Without question the most under-used skill-set in the game is pickpocket.  Nearly half the npc's in the world carry enchanted loot worth a small fortune.  Even just a few perks won't go wasted...

Don't mind me fellas... Just snapping a few photos of your camp.  Holy ****, a tiger!

Far Cry 3's moniker as a 'Skyrim with guns' is relatively apt.  Between the mostly linear story missions, the wealth of side-stories, the hunting and collecting, and the (shakes head) poker, it's got the genre nailed.  This time with modern weapons and a dramatically faster pace.  I shared a story on Twitter the other day that applies.  It went something along the lines of 'Just spent twenty minutes losing 250 fake dollars in the hopes I could win 750 all in a game where money means little (#FarCry3)'.  I'm at the point in the game where it's time to head south, but instead I've purchased all the available maps and am hunting down letters of the lost, memory cards (by clearing camps), and loot-boxes I missed the first time around.  I'll get to the story as it's not nearly as bad as some media outlets have proclaimed, but for now I'm really enjoying the ' Predator' feel I get from stalking my way through the jungle, killing everything non-Rakyut I see...

Hunt and craft early and often!  The difference between two and three guns and four or seven medicines can't be overstated!

I've had an enormous amount of fun with all four of the games mentioned above.  And despite the title, I've finished FF13 and XCOM and certainly will finish FC3.  Skyrim's a bit of a mystery as I'm a bit strange with my Elder Scrolls play-throughs.  I don't like re-starting a character after more than a week, so every time a new game's come out in the last year, Skyrim gets shelved until I'm done with it only to be renewed with a brand new character to lose in the world again.  Once I get to around level twenty, another game will catch my eye and it's back to the shelf for another round!

Any of you guys get so lost in the side-content that the story becomes 'optional'?

In AC Brotherhood for example I stopped playing because I was too busy leveling my assassins to care about the story anymore.

Do too many options hurt or help games in your opinion?

Does it influence your purchasing decision or your 'drive' to finish the title?

I'm still on Twitter @Ashaman3000 if anyone likes talking games at odd hours!

Thanks for reading ladies and gentlemen!