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There is a fairly well-known psychological principle that if you give people choices, they tend to be more satisfied compared to not being offered any choices. However, if you start to give them too many choices, then that satisfaction wanes, to the point that they become almost as unhappy as if you’d never given them any choices in the first place.
The principle itself is most commonly related to things like purchasing items at a grocery store. But we can adapt that same principle in thinking about video games. Because one thing that a lot of video games do is offer choices to players. Often this choice comes in the form of having a large open world or a sandbox where the player can perform a large number of tasks, some given by the game and some determined by the player.
The value of this choice is that it should, in theory, lead to greater player satisfaction. The more you can do, the more choices offered, the more ways you can play, the better the game should be.
But as we now know, that logic doesn’t actually hold.
I recently decided to pick up No Man’s Sky, a 2016 game that is both infamous and famous simultaneously. Infamous for its initial release that fell far short of what had been promised to players, and famous for the amount of work the developers put in to improving the game.
As I’ve been playing through it, I’ve been comparing the game to Minecraft, which I also replayed fairly recently. There are significant differences in the games, but they both rely on fairly similar gameplay loops: the player starts out with little to nothing, and needs to gather resources in order to build a base and a stockpile and all sorts of other things, and then go out exploring to gather more resources, and then repeat that process. Both games provide a sort of main questline for the player and shorter steps that correspond to progression within the game. This fundamental similarity makes them good objects for a comparison.
And the comparison I want to make is about the content put into games. Namely, I want to make a distinction – if you’ll forgive the crassness of the terms – between “stuff” and “shit.” Games can be filled with stuff, or filled with shit, and the difference is important for the player. Because stuff relates to a level of choice that feels meaningful, while shit relates to a level of choice that feels overwhelming. When the pressure to make games bigger and longer takes hold, it is important to be careful lest the stuff in the game turn into shit.
So I will examine these two games to help explain this distinction, and how there is both a certain amount of objectives that can be given to a player that can be too much, and that there are certain types of objectives that lack any significant meaning for the player, and thus feel worthless. By understanding both elements, we can see how stuff and shit differ from one another.
The Initial Comparison
To help explain the difference between stuff and shit, let me provide some basic background about the two games in question.
Minecraft has been around for quite a while, and has evolved an enormous amount over its lifespan. The basic idea of Minecraft is that the player gathers resources, then uses those resources to craft tools, houses, and other things, many of which are useful for surviving in the world or acquiring even better materials.
The game also provides players with a quest, though the “quest” is not explicitly stated. There are a variety of elements of the game that help direct them to this questline, but there is no specific mission or task that continually hangs over the player and directs them in any way. Instead, the player could play the game without ever tackling this quest. And indeed, even once the quest is done, the game does not end, and the player can continue in whatever manner they wish.
And the game also allows the player the play creatively. This can be done either within the context of “Survival Mode,” where the player is constrained by the game’s rules and potential dangers, or in a specific “Creative Mode,” where the player can move rapidly, fly, and create and destroy blocks at will.
As a sort of non-exhaustive list of options for what the player can do in Minecraft, they can:
- Wander around
- Gather resources
- Craft tools
- Build structures
- Fight enemies
- Discover mines and dungeons
- Fight bosses
- Trade with villagers
- Befriend animals
That’s quite a lot, certainly.
In comparison, No Man’s Sky is much newer, but also much bigger. The idea of No Man’s Sky is that the player is essentially an explorer discovering new worlds. These new worlds, of course, are different planets in the universe, which requires traveling to different planetary systems. Each planet has various plants, minerals, and animals to discover. And there are dangers, too, with various hazards, predators, robotic enemies, and sometimes even the planets themselves.
The basic premise of the game is that the player gathers resources, then uses those resources to craft various items to make better tools, build structures to aid in exploring, and create or upgrade weapons and other systems for fighting enemies. And of course, you use these various resources to make things like starship fuel so that you can travel to other systems and planets.
The game provides the player with a quest, but it is given much more explicit direction. The player has a log of missions that they can access from the menu, and also receives little reminders in the corner of the screen about their current mission and what their next task is.
The player can also play in a Creative Mode, where they don’t have to worry about resource limitations and other constraints (such as hazards, death, running out of oxygen, etc.). So the player can explore more freely without needing to worry about the dangers of the game’s worlds.
Again, as a sort of non-exhaustive list of things the player can do in No Man’s Sky, they can:
- Wander around
- Gather resources
- Craft tools
- Create upgrades
- Build structures
- Hunt animals
- Scan plants, minerals, and animals
- Fly in space
- Get into dogfights with other spaceships
- Speak with aliens and learn their languages (literally one word at a time)
- Fight off robots and predators
- Explore abandoned ships
- Run into random encounters out in space
- Purchase freighters and send them out on missions to gather money and resources
- Get and complete missions from space stations
- (Eventually) Receive special daily missions that can be completed for valuable rewards
- Acquire money to purchase items and other upgrades
- Break into buildings to gather items or information
- Gather valuable items to sell to vendors
- Gather resources to trade for crafting recipes
As you can see, the list is a good bit longer than the one for Minecraft. Which would leave us with the basic impression that No Man’s Sky simply has more for the player to do. And of course, all of this is still at the player’s ultimate discretion: whether you want to do any of these things depends ultimately on you.
Of course, I’m leaving out some components of both games. For example, both games have multiplayer, which means the games can be enjoyed with friends or other people in general. No Man’s Sky even has a dedicated space for meeting other players and teaming up with them, as well as a system to encourage players to work together to complete missions for special rewards. I leave out this component not because it is irrelevant, but because just focusing on what a single player on their own can do gives us enough to examine.
…and Not a Thing to Do
The initial comparison might leave us with the impression that No Man’s Sky is ultimately the better game. Because having more options means that the game will be able to entertain us longer, and thus makes it a better value. Not to mention that the premise of having an infinite (or near-infinite) number of worlds to explore with a single character makes the game much more expansive that Minecraft. Thus, it’s bigger and better. Clear victor, right?
But here’s where the distinction between stuff and shit comes into play. Because while they both have fairly extensive lists, for Minecraft that list feels like a list of stuff, while for No Man’s Sky it feels like a list of shit.
I’ll begin by laying out the basic gameplay loop for a Minecraft player. You begin with very little, gather some basic resources, use those resources to craft some tools, use those tools to get better tools, and sort of repeat that process. The points of progression are fairly logical: you start out with wood tools, then you gather stone to make stone tools, then use the stone tools to get iron, and then use the iron to get diamond. And while the gameplay is repetitive, the driving force behind it is the player. How much iron or diamond you want to collect is going to be determined by two things: first, how much you want to collect, and second by the necessity of what the player wants to do. So you can find yourself with some valuable diamond, but decide you want more, or decide that you’re going to need to get more for some specific purpose later on. In either case, the task is determined by the player.
In No Man’s Sky, you start out with a tool that you can use to gather resources, and you complete tasks and missions to upgrade the tool. You also need to find a spaceship, repair it (which means gathering other resources), then build a base, then start completing various missions given to you by NPCs. As you go out to explore, you’ll come across space stations, where you’ll trade with vendors and get additional side missions to complete for rewards. You’ll also need to gather resources for many purposes: getting money, getting other currencies for upgrades, further building up your base, etc. Part of this is whole loop is driven by the player – what do you want to do? – but a good deal of the tasks are driven by the game telling you what to do. You can, of course, ignore those requests, if you so choose.
But this comparison helps us understand the distinction between stuff and shit. It would be easy enough to say it’s a matter of how many things are in the game, but that wouldn’t quite capture the problem. It’s also hard here to talk about “meaningful” interaction, because there isn’t necessarily more meaning to the resource gathering in one game or the other.
But what we can point to are two important factors.
One is the relevance of the player’s direction of the gameplay. That is, while the game might have a set of “tasks” to complete, to what extent are those tasks created by the player versus being given to the player? Minecraft settles more for the former, and No Man’s Sky the latter. But giving tasks to the player, especially when those tasks are highly repetitive, essentially pushes the player toward becoming bored. Because the exact same task can be perceived differently depending on the player’s motivation. The exact same task could be the product of the player’s own volition, and thus will feel fulfilling, even if the task is basic. Meanwhile, a task that is essentially forced upon the player is going to feel like a chore and thus unfulfilling, even if the task is complex.
So filling a game with stuff is about giving the player options that let the player figure out what they want to do, rather than telling them continually what to do. Even things like side missions in No Man’s Sky – which are entirely optional – feel more like forced tasks (in part because you kind of need to end up doing them to help accumulate some of the resources in the game, and for other purposes). Whereas the same actions performed through the player’s own volition would feel more fulfilling.
The other important factor is the interconnectedness of the tasks. The basic gameplay loop of Minecraft works so well because so much of it relies on gathering resources, and resource gathering is fairly important for creating the things you need. Both in terms of short-term gameplay and achieving the long-term questlines. In comparison, No Man’s Sky’s various tasks all feel somewhat disconnected. You have so many different resources to collect, which serve many different purposes (some of them are for items you’ll need, some to create items you don’t really need, some to create items to sell, etc.), and the various tasks you’re given provide so many different rewards, that sometimes it feels unclear what the ultimate point of certain elements are. Money seems to be useful for certain specific functions, but the cost for some of them can be absurdly high. Another currency (called “nanites”) also serves some specific functions, but the functions that are fairly low-cost feel somewhat pointless, whereas the ones that are high-cost are – again – absurdly high in their costs.
So filling a game with stuff is about making sure every task the player is given feels connected in a clear way. Not only can a player do something, but there is a reason why they would want to do it. Which refers back in a way to the first factor about the player directing their experience. In No Man’s Sky so many elements of the game just feel unclear in their purpose. They are things the player can do, but it’s not clear why the player would want to complete them. Especially since they don’t seem to provide the kind of rewards necessary to make them feel genuinely worthwhile without repeating them to the point – if not beyond the point – that they become achingly dull.
These two factors can help us to point out the difference between stuff and shit. Stuff involves the player feeling that they are in control of their agenda and gameplay and understanding what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. When you take away these components, the things in the game start to turn into shit, because they feel like they’re thrown together without purpose. They feel more like “here’s something to do,” which is not a feeling that should be conveyed to a player.
As easy as it may feel to say “more options means a better game,” just throwing things in is a bad solution to the problem of keeping a player entertained. In essence, merely adding things for the sake of adding things, or for the sake of having a lot of things to do, or to fill space, ends up with keeping the player occupied. Which is a different result.
So in adding tasks into a game, it’s important to try to think about whether what’s being added is ultimately “stuff” or “shit.” Which gets to why the task is being added, and what it is ultimately going to accomplish. In addition, it means asking about the player’s relationship with that new content. Is the player going to have a reason to complete this task? Is the player going to want to complete this task, or are they going to complete it because the game is telling them to do so? Does the player understand why the task should be completed? These are important questions to pose.
We could, of course, say more on this subject. We could examine in more detail the idea of simply having too many things to do in general. But for our present purposes having this simple distinction in mind is useful for thinking about how big games, and the content in big games, ultimately relate to the player’s experience.