New retail releases used to be whole: You bought a box with everything inside. Now, due to digital delivery of extras and patches, the game you load on Day One is often a shell of the game you’ll play one year hence. The same blight will sully Nintendo’s upcoming shooter Splatoon, though the spring release is just the latest in a long line of games that, in doling out a consistent but meager helping over a long period of time, are pushing against the prevailing appetite of the present: To eat everything all at once.
Nintendo is not known for adhering to trends. But if the Kyoto-based entertainment company can be blamed for following the crowd in any capacity, it is in their planned release strategy for their squid-based Wii U shooter and its slow roll-out of extra features in the weeks and months following launch. The online multiplayer mode will only have five maps, and you’ll only be joined with random splatterers; new maps will be unlocked throughout the summer, and a free update in August will allow you to make a team full of friends and add even more features to the pool.
And while our new reality of unfinished games is somewhat regrettable, the consequence is a much needed salve to our bingeing habits. Too many play an entire $60 game in a weekend of gross indulgence and ask, “Is that all?” This is the reason Netflix dumps entire seasons of programming on their servers in a single day: Because we, the insatiable, will gorge ourselves sick. Perhaps by accident, videogame publishers are realizing, or wanting us to realize, that less is more.
Warner Bros. Interactive and Rocksteady are bringing out Batman: Arkham Knight on June 23, 2015. But that’s not quite right; they’re only releasing the first part of the game on that date. You need to purchase a separate online-only pack that will download subsequent levels and characters over the remainder of the year. From the website: “This season pass… delivers new content every month for six months featuring new story missions,” etc. Think of the retail copy as the pilot of a TV show. If you like what you see, you can buy (and play) more.
Even the industry accepted term for such post-release digital offerings, a “season pass,” apes television lingo. Game creators often say they push for cinematic experiences that rival movies; the truth is that, in order to keep their game in the hands of their fickle, OCD, completionist customers and push back a sale to a used games store, videogames have veered closer to a format mirroring pre-internet broadcast TV.
Evidence is everywhere, from the episodic story chapters of Telltale’s wildly popular games based on The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones to the purposeful tele-visual style of Alan Wake. Highly-touted add-ons to already released games have stand-alone titles, much the same way special episodes of already-popular shows were labeled as made-for-TV movies. Yes, I’m equating House of Wolves, the new expansion for Destiny, to Saved by the Bell: Hawaiian Style.
Twenty-five years prior, Sunsoft released Batman for the NES. According to HowLongToBeat.com, the average playthrough of the entire campaign takes about ninety minutes. I own that cartridge; I don’t know if I ever beat it. Even so, I love that game, and I own the entire thing in a small plastic cartridge that sits in a box underneath an old television. If I plug it in, the contents are available to me. If I buy Batman: Arkham Knights at a garage sale in the year 2050 and pop the disc into my old, dusty PlayStation 4, I’ll only own a percentage of the overall game.
Some are worried that such online-only components presage a future where all virtual culture is potentially lost, the way a scroll on papyrus withers to dust. While digital archiving is a real and important concern, there is something to be said for experiences, be they live events or short-term availability, that come and go. They remind us to live in the present. We pay attention more, knowing this may not be replicated again. In this way, certain videogames are replicating not television, but radio.
Splatoon’s pre-release “demo” was a series of online-only “testfires” that lasted one hour each. If you were not available at that time, you couldn’t play. Some cried foul. But those who played were left with two things: The desire to play more, and the feeling of being a part of something fleeting and exclusive.
Nintendo has a history of toying with such limits; their Satellaview add-on for the Super Famicom in Japan used satellite broadcasts to beam audio directly to game players that would not otherwise fit on the slim storage capacity of the era’s cartridges. But they also featured games that you only played during a particular broadcast, as if synching up a film with a live radio show. Many events took place over the five years of the service, linked to horse racing games, golf games, fishing games, or even music composition software. Even Nintendo’s most popular games used the service. Starting on August 9, 1995, a special version of The Legend of Zelda for the Satellaview system was broadcast once weekly for four weeks. By September, they were no longer available.
Splatoon is dipping its toes in both waters: with the pre-release “Global Testfires,” Nintendo is using limited play times and expiring demos to build up anticipation (and funneling all players into a narrow window in order to stress-test servers). And once released, we can’t see everything all at once, instead being forced to wait before uncovering the entirety of the experience. The same holds true for the upcoming Batman game, and likely many others to be revealed at next month’s E3 expo.
While modern games continue to push the limits of technological advancement, many publishers know that the only way to keep our attention is to experiment with delivery techniques of the past. Prominent mobile games, however, are a strange amalgam of the traditional retail “everything’s-in-the-box” model and the new patchwork of digital upgrades over time. The King series of puzzle games (which I will conflate into Puppy Saga Candy Garden) exists not as a singular experience nor an episodic storyline; its reliance on microtransactions feels like a dangerous combination of always-on radio and old standards of pay-per-view. You can play for free, but if there’s something you really want but can’t get otherwise, you drop some coin. Other successful mobile games use variations on this theme. In very few of the most popular titles, though, do you pay once for the entire thing.
Whereas our need for instant gratification leeches into everything from news (a daily newspaper feels twenty-three hours and fifty-nine minutes late upon arrival) to food (why grind coffee beans when you can puncture a Keurig pod?), videogames have somehow resisted, maintaining the potential for curiosity and collective wonder so vital to not only discussion but a healthful balance of play with non-play, AKA life.
We once asked, “Who shot J.R.?” As a nation we waited months to learn of the unlikely assassin. The anticipation was part of the experience. Now, through the combined efforts of lump-sum delivery, Twitter, and pre-release leaks, all it takes to learn of a pivotal story conceit or hidden feature is a marathon viewing session or clicking on a trending hashtag. Whether Splatoon and Batman: Arkham Knight will warrant the masses’ patience remains to be seen. But the waiting, you see, is part of the fun.
Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.