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One of the great things about the internet is how it allows us to communicate with others and learn things at ridiculous speeds. Being exposed to a wide variety of differing opinions and views and being able to gather information at the push of a button provides a lot of opportunity. Part and parcel of that development is the way in which we get exposed to new information about the things we enjoy. We can see into the processes for how our favorite stuff gets made, and in doing so gain a new appreciation for it.
Part of the task of analysis involves an understanding of the circumstances that lead to creation. When performing a thematic analysis of a book or movie or game, we can let the text stand on its own. But if we’re trying to understand the construction or design of the text itself, we need to know some background about the development process.
And in this regard, I feel that the adage of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” becomes a truism. There is a level of analysis that involves having a very vague knowledge of certain components of design, combined with our distaste for certain mechanics or puzzles or modes of exploring. The combination becomes a recipe for seeing things we dislike as malicious design – to deride exploration or difficulty or size as mere “padding.”
So I wanted to try and talk briefly about this problem, and how we can correct it. Or at least try to correct it.
So let’s start by talking about what it means to “pad” a game. Because there is some element of truth in the critique as a whole – there are sometimes efforts made by game designers to pad a game’s length.
To pad a game is to “artificially” lengthen it. This concept is already a bit vague, because there’s not a good sense of what the “natural” length of a given game should be. If we were to take the idea in its most literal sense, every game is padded, because every game takes some amount of time to complete that is largely determined by a creator. Even where player skill has some role in the question, the amount of skill needed is still something decided by the designer – the game could be made easier or harder, thus decreasing or increasing the length.
But this literal sense doesn’t really help us understand the concept, nor does it really reflect how we talk about padding. Because padding is specifically negative – it is increasing the length beyond what is reasonable. Again, “reasonable” is vague here.
What is generally meant by “padding” is placing some kind of challenge or barrier in front of the player that extends playtime significantly with no other reason than to extend playtime. I think it useful to differentiate padding from mere artificial difficulty – those familiar with arcade games may know the concept of “quarter munchers,” games which are incredibly difficult to encourage players to continually drop in more money. The two are related, but not quite the same.
Because padding is usually described in relation to “value.” The logic of the argument is that we as consumers associate a game’s value with the number of gameplay hours we get out of it. The longer a game lasts, the better it is. Thus, if you find ways to extend the game’s length, then you’re making a better game. But of course, putting in lots of side missions and new zones and adding more to the story takes time and effort and money. Much easier to find ways to “artificially” extend the length.
And so you can use this method to analyze many mechanics. Does a game not allow fast travel, or only in specific instances (such as Witcher 3 and Cyberpunk 2077 only allowing fast travel at designated stations, or Red Dead Redemption 2 only allowing it from the main camp)? That’s padding. Does a Metroidvania game have a ridiculously expensive item or something with a low drop rate, requiring that you grind for money or equipment? That’s padding. Does a game simply allow you to explore freely and thus get lost and confused, rather than laying out challenges in a sequential and easy-to-follow order? That’s padding.
If any or all of these seem like odd applications of the principle, it’s because the principle itself is flawed.
The Complexities of Design
As I noted, there is some grain of truth to the story. I mentioned quarter munching arcade games already. The way in which those games were designed around getting consumers to part with their money made economic sense (even if it meant that many of us never got to finish those games and left frustrated).
There is at least some potential validity to the idea that certain older games on consoles – which did not need to constantly deprive you of your money – needed to pad their length. Some games such as Ninja Gaiden were incredibly short, maybe taking about 30-45 minutes to beat if you knew what you were doing. So rules such as forcing you to restart an entire level if you died, or forcing you to restart from the beginning of the game if you lost all of your continues, were ways to keep players playing.
But the circumstances surrounding this practice are more complicated. Firstly, a large number of these games were often ports of arcade games with little changes – what we see as “padding” is really just a holdover from a different process. Secondly, the actual size of these games meant that developers really did need to find some way to lengthen the playtime. Since games were even more expensive then relative to now and memory sizes made long games harder to make, designers were originally left working with very little. And third, there was simply less understanding of best practices for game design. As a pretty new medium, there had yet to be the amount of research and experience we have now about what constitutes “good design.” So there was plenty of experimentation, and sometimes that experimentation didn’t work.
So let’s say for the sake of argument that every old game that feels padded genuinely was – the games are hard specifically to lengthen the amount of time you spend playing the game. Does that have any real bearing on the nature of padding today?
Not really, no.
The error that a lot of analysis falls into is equating frustration with padding. The old games were difficult, and therefore frustrating. We also “know” that the old games were padded by being difficult. Therefore, when we are frustrated with a game, we are encountering padding. The argument does not have to take on these terms, but it is the logic being used to support it.
Because much of what we often associate with padding is actually a design decision made for other reasons. Why might a game like Dark Souls be incredibly difficult and offer the player very few hints about what to do next? It’s not to make you play longer, but to encourage you as a player to engage with the world more and explore and puzzle through problems. Why does a game like Red Dead Redemption 2 limit your fast travel? Because allowing the character to zip around the game world can ruin the player’s immersion. Why does a roguelike game like Binding of Isaac rely so much on random items to change up runs? Because it forces you as the player to learn and adjust your playstyle according to what you get.
All of these aspects can still be frustrating. People can find Dark Souls too hard. People can wish that RDR2 was more like Skyrim. People can wish that Binding of Isaac didn’t have so many bad items. And the existence of those systems can absolutely cause playtime to increase. If you struggle with difficult bosses, need to run around the game’s world, or just lose a bunch of runs, then naturally getting through the game will take longer.
But padding is to lengthen playtime for the sake of a longer playtime. It is to add for no other reason. But the mechanisms I’ve described are put in for other reasons. The greater length is a side effect, not the purpose.
Ironically, if we did not know about the practice of padding – if we were unaware of the origins of designers essentially toying with us as consumers – we probably would not have these same complaints. We’d still be frustrated, but we would be forced to voice that frustration in a different way. Even if that frustration is just to say “I don’t like this.”
It is an error of analysis to take our raw feelings and immediately transform them into principles. Even if our dislike of a game and its systems helps us understand what constitutes good game design, we need to be more careful with how we describe that dislike. Carelessness leads to us drawing the wrong lessons, wrong lessons which eventually get applied to create newer bad games. If we want to address problems, we need to know what the problems really are.
I don’t really think the concept of “padding” as a complaint is completely worthless. But the more I see it used now – and I have certainly used the complaint myself in the past – the more I am uncertain that it really means anything.
There are probably some examples, even within modern gaming, of literal padding. Of a developer adding in a system or challenge that is wholly unnecessary and is placed simply to make the game longer. As long as the length of a game is something to boast about, there will be some pressure to pad. But these examples are likely fewer and farther between than we think. What we often see as padding is instead just a challenge we don’t want to spend any (more) time with.
If we are going to use “padding” as a complaint, I think we need to stop and think more carefully about what we really want it to mean. We can use it in the narrow context I’ve described here – which generally comports with what is meant, even if not with the many examples of its usage. Or we can start from the ground up and decide on a new definition and set of examples to help us arrive at a new understanding. Whatever the case may be, taking time to really think about the relation between our personal frustrations and what “good design” looks like demands more thought.
2 thoughts on “Talking about Games: The Pitfalls of Analysis”
Taking away the aspect of accusing a developer of malicious intent, I think largely what constitutes padding or not is just always simply going to be in the eye of the beholder. The definition of ‘artificially expanding the length of the game’ is a decent start, but I think the further add to that is, ‘…without adding any value to the experience’ which is probably never going to have an objectively agreed upon meaning. xD
You touched on the ‘value’ piece already, but I think I’d argue that ‘length’ isn’t really a very common metric for people’s perception of value any more. Of course, I don’t have anything more than anecdote to go on here, but it certainly seems in a lot of conversations these days, if anything, is to the contrary, wishing for lesser length and higher quality throughout rather than the ‘epic’ 100+ hour RPG story campaigns of old.
… Having said that, there is absolutely a lower bound on that after which again it becomes a value call…
Perhaps padding is like art. You just know it when you see it. 😉
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You’re right that there’s always going to be that little element of subjectivity buried in there. I’d actually be happy with saying that “padding” has no real meaning, were it not for the accusation aspect in the first place. “The game was just taking too long” is a perfectly valid reason for quitting a game, whether that’s at hour 1 or hour 10.
I definitely don’t want to claim that *everyone* prioritizes length as the core of value. Just that length is an easy metric for people to fixate on, which means people fixate on it: games will still boast in their marketing materials about their length, the number of sidequests available, the amount of dialogue written, etc., and you can still find plenty of people talking about a game being long in positive terms without necessarily referencing the quality (which is of course mixing the two together – no one would praise a game *only* for its length if they didn’t generally enjoy what they were doing). A lot of people definitely talk about the quality of the time they spend, and we should. It’s just that when you aren’t sure how to spend your money – especially if you don’t have very much – a game’s promised length can be pretty enticing.
I’ve just started getting worried about…something. I’m unsure how to properly put it into words, but it’s this weird way of talking about the intent behind a game that sees developers as nothing more than greedy vultures trying desperately to trick players into giving up their precious dollars. I’m working on another essay on the same topic from another angle, but there’s something about how fights constantly erupt between players and developers that feels, well, wrong.
Or maybe I’m just making too much of a single word.
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