How do we define video game content? Do all gamers define it in the same universal way? Do game creators define it differently than gamers? Well, publishers tend to define content in numbers and this is evidenced by the things they print on their game cases. For example, if you look on the back of a game box, you're likely to see numbers such as the number of levels, the number of maps or a lower bound for the number of hours of gameplay that you can expect from the game if you play through all its content. Sometimes they are more subtle and use attractive adjectives instead of numbers to convey the breadth of content you will obtain by purchasing their games. As for developers, I cannot say. Just by looking at the diversity of games available I can only infer that there are several schools of thought when it comes to content, at least from the developer perspective. What about gamers? This article intends to answer that question.
We all have certain games that we always come back to. And I'm not just referring to our favourite games. I mean there are games that go beyond our list of favourites. There are games that we have played so much that we know them by heart, that we can play through blindfolded. I knew people that played Mario Kart 64 with their toes because they knew the courses so well that it was boring to play in the conventional way. Perhaps it is the familiarity of the game that attracts us to come back to it thus producing a slippery slope. This is the principle of radio and hit singles in the music industry. If you hear a song often enough (on the radio for example), you will like it and buy it from iTunes, let's say. However, this theory cannot capture the dynamics of what makes a game more playable than another as we choose to play games based on our own perceptions and friendly recommendations, while on the other hand music can more or less be imposed on our ears. You may choose to listen to the radio, but you do not choose what is playing on the radio. So clearly games are not like hit singles on the radio. They need to offer something to gamers in order to get them to try them or to buy them.
What about nostalgia? Can nostalgia explain why we keep coming back to certain games? I think this is easy to disprove. Consider a game like Super Mario Bros. or Pokémon. These games were both massive hits when they were first released and the fans of the originals still love replaying those games as well as subsequent sequels that capture the same magic that the old ones had. But the new games are also massive hits, indeed the new Mario and Pokémon games are still attracting new players as well as old ones. Hence, nostalgia cannot explain why these games are immortal, so to speak.
My belief is that content is both invisible and implicit. Content is something so abstract that you cannot put your finger on it; it is the stuff that dreams are made of. It is unc1assifiable and indivisible. It cannot be isolated and analysed. It is like the heart of the game; if you take it out it is no longer a heart, but just a lump of ugly meat while the game becomes nothing more than a corpse. Also, the game must be born with its heart, it cannot accept transplants. Do excuse my rude analogy, but I think it is quite fitting.
So my idea is that a game that you can play indefinitely without ever truly getting bored must be a game that contains infinite content. And what content can be infinite but that which is invisible? Explicit content is only new and interesting the first time you experience it. For example, you only watch the daily news once. Nobody in their right mind is going to watch the exact same news report on the same channel on the same day more than once. There is nothing left for you to experience; once you've seen it you've seen it. The same goes for anything else. If a game has only explicit content like a story that you follow as the game progresses, you will not be likely to come back and play it again. You already know the story, why bother hearing it again, it's old news. In order for the game to be worth replaying it must contain implicit content. Consider a game like Halo. Why do so many gamers love playing through the same single player campaign so many times? It is because every enemy skirmish is unique. It's a combination of enemy AI, level design, weapons design and balancing as well as 3d physics. These things are implicit to the game and impossible to fully describe. Thus the content of Halo is infinite. Forget about the 5 hour long campaign, the less than a dozen weapons and the 4 types of enemies. The content is absolutely infinite and this is why Halo is still such a smash hit, even a decade after the original was released. I still pull my old Xbox out of my closet just to play Halo again!
Another example is Tetris. At a glance the game appears to be content anaemic. There are only 4 types of block configurations and they fall downwards and only downwards every time. Yet Tetris is one of the most well known and replayed games in the world and has maintained relevance for around 25 years! Remember those old shareware PC games and short one level long demos? Many gamers, myself included, who were very young in those early PC gaming days used to think that those were complete games. I didn't know that Doom had more than four levels when I was eight years old! I though that the demo was the game and I played it a million times! Such games that can be mistaken for complete packages despite being demos are made of the same infinite and implicit content that games like Halo, Tetris, Super Mario Bros. and Call of Duty are made of.
So what makes a game complete? Is it production deadlines or ripened ideas that are fully realized and implicitly ingrained into a video game? Ideas cannot be quantified and they cannot be haphazardly implemented. This is why it is so hard to make a hit game like Super Mario Bros., Halo, Pokémon or Modern Warfare. Although many try and reproduce games of that calibre, too many fail and you can see this by looking at the sales charts. No game can consistently outsell those games and create new fans with every iteration of the series unless the development team infuses their game with true content; the kind that makes a gamer play a game for ten years and still counting.
So the main point of this piece is that you don't replay games just for story or for gameplay. You replay them because they immortalize an idea that you find entertaining. For example, you don't replay Super Mario Bros. for 25 years to save the princess or because it's fun to jump with Mario. You replay it because it embodies elements of freedom and risk and reward. You play it because it's different every time, because it's still challenging even if you know the game by heart. Ideas are too complex to fully describe and this is why it's difficult to understand what makes a game a massive immortal hit. If it were any simpler, we'd all be living in gaming heaven as all game makers would know how to scratch our itch. As it stands very few do and I'm starting to get real itchy.