The Time Sink Problem: Mass Effect 3

Posted March 16, 2013

Mass Effect 3 has a key problem, one that faces much of the industry. The game is too long. Not because its loaded with interesting content but because its bogged down with fetch quests and aimless wandering.

We need to treat our player’s time as valuable. There are so many interesting ethical and moral dilemmas in the Mass Effect universe. We should want people to think: Is synthetic life legitimate or a good idea? Is it better to kill the few to save the many? What are the limits of stress on a warriors mind? We shouldn’t be bogging that down with “Guess I gotta spend ten minutes scanning for this doodad I’ll forget about, for this person I’ll forget about, to make this ambiguous meter fill up.”

The argument is that if you take away this stuff than why go to the citadel. Exactly, why am I wasting my time wandering around the citadel? Why are we wasting development time to waste player time? What matters are meaningful conversations and if there are none in an area, cut the area. There are ways to see the citadel and hear the feeling on the ground, without killing hours going back and forth between loading screens trying to hear all of one conversation. As an aside, we should be beyond loading screens at this point.

The main problem is that we need to cut stuff but we can’t. We need the concept of editing in game development. It can happen a bit in small to medium size productions. In AAA however, hiring VO and coding something only to throw it away is hard for us to do because it costs so much to produce in the first place. If I said to the team, “Hey could you guys get rid of all these overheard side quests and galactic wandering, they really slow down the game.” I’d be lynch mobbed. Resistance to change course is difficult on that scale.

What is there to do? Is there anything we can do besides bite the bullet and have the analogy of an editor, who cuts ruthlessly at the end of a project? We do cut things so is it a matter of experience and knowing what to cut? From what I’ve seen poor vision can have this effect, so perhaps it’s an instance of leadership failure. Maybe at AAA size, the decision making is so spread out that a central vision becomes impossible.