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Opinion – The Witcher 3's Side Content Should Be A Model For All Open World Games

by Ben Reeves on Aug 24, 2015 at 02:01 PM

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If all games were like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I’d be in a lot of trouble. For the last several months I’ve been staying up late, sacrificing time with my friends and loved ones, and even shirking my household responsibilities in order to play this massive game. I would hate the game for consuming my time if I didn’t love it so much. Part of the problem is that The Witcher 3 can take upwards of 160 hours to complete. Another part of the problem is that most of those 160 hours are composed of compelling content that I actually want to experience. Whereas most massive open-world games pack in a lot of side content that's about as interesting as styrofoam, The Witcher 3’s “filler” content has just as much meat on its bones as the main campaign. I'm worried that upcoming games like Fallout 4 have a lot to live up to now.

The argument over game length is an old one. There are many opinions about the perfect length for a game, but every gamer has different needs. Some gamers – usually those who are younger and have a lot of free time – are eager to sink their teeth into a game with a nearly limitless amount of content. Meanwhile, gamers with less free time and more disposable income are more keen to pay for games that deliver a powerful experience with a shorter time commitment. 

For the last several years, I’ve sided with the latter group. Video games have always been a hobby of mine, and I spend the majority of my free time playing games, but there are a lot of games I want to play, and it's hard to get to them all while balancing my other responsibilities and relationships.

I don’t think I’m the only one with this dilemma; a recent study from CNN showed that less than 10 percent of people who played Red Dead Redemption actually finished it. There are probably a lot of reasons why people petered out on Rockstar's acclaimed western game, but I suspect that its massive play time was one of the primary factors. This is unfortunate, because Red Dead Redemption is one of the most beloved games of last generation – praised for its gameplay, characters, and atmosphere. It’s sad that most of the people who paid for it never even reach one of the most rewarding endings in video games.

Just one of The Witcher 3's massive landscapes

And sometimes it seems like games are only getting bigger. News recently circulated that Bethesda’s upcoming Fallout 4 could have as much as 400 hours worth of content. Even if that number is complete marketing fluff, 400 hours is an incredible amount of time to spend with any piece of content. Few other forms of media require as much devotion as massive open world games. Four hundred hours is an incredibly valuable amount of time; in that same period you could watch around 200 films, or read literary classics like War and Peace, Atlas Shrugged, Lord of the Rings, and the entire Harry Potter series – and still have time left to watch their film adaptations (based on average reading times). Of course, how you spend your time is entirely up to you, but I sometimes it doesn't feel fair for developers to ask their fans to spend that much time with one piece of media.

The real problem is that a game's length isn't always equal to its worth. Many lengthy games use cheap collect-a-thon side quest or repetitive game design to artificially lengthen the experience. I remember growing particularly frustrated with The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword while collecting fairy tears and other worthless doodads – which were part of the main quest – just so I could get to the next dungeon. These frustrating game design sequences irritate me not only because games are supposed to be fun, but because games are designed to be compelling. They meet our emotional needs, which encourages us to play more of them, so it feels like a bit of a betrayal when that content isn’t meaningful. If you've ever had trouble tearing yourself away from a game, it’s probably because that game was designed to make you want to keep playing it. Sometimes long games pray on our internal desires to collect, conquer, and feel competent. 

This is why I love what CD Projekt Red has done with The Witcher 3. Most of its side quests are connected to bits of story or action sequences that would normally be at home in a game’s main storyline. There are side characters and stories in the Witcher 3 that pull at my heartstrings and inspire my imagination. Many side quests are intimately connected to character from the main storyline – to the point where ignoring some of these quests will actually effect the main quest. Simple monster-hunting quests usually bore me, but in the Witcher 3,  these quests are usually connected to an interesting dramatic sequence or other piece of monster lore that’s actually worth reading. I feel like the developers at CD Projekt Red actually value my time, want me to enjoy every minute I spent with their game, and aren't just trying to artificially inflate their game clock to appease gamers who have a lot of time to kill. I don't want to go back to collecting random cave troll hides, I want all future open-world games to follow this model.

The Witcher 3’s side content reminds me why I enjoy spending my free time playing games in the first place. Video games are an impressive form of modern craftsmanship. They can inspire us. They can take us to new worlds. Sometimes they even push us out of our comfort zones, teach us something about our world, or force us to look at society from a new perspective. So if games are going to remain one of the longest forms of entertainment, then I hope they continue to rise to meat those expectations. And any game that can do all of these things will easily justify 400 hours worth of my attention.