Featuritis is nothing new. For as long as computer software has existed, so too has the need for developers to broaden distribution and increase sales through the ceaseless expansion of features. It can be a conundrum in the software market. Assuming a product does everything it needs to do, is it still cost effective to add more features? What if there’s a perceived lack of improvement if you don’t add new features? Both can hurt the bottom line. Then there’s the looming problem of software bloat. My point is video games are software too. Their functions are as varied as the apps on the mobile market. One could argue and nitpick which games set out to do what, but I boil all video games down to two basic functions. Games as entertainment. Games as art. They can be one or both to varying degrees and the feature creep is a real problem they face as newer, bigger, and nexter gen things are released.

Part of the problem lies with us, the consumers. Somewhere between Hollywood (entertainment) and technology a problem occurred. A perception was born that a sequel or newer thing, by virtue of being newer, must be better. A movie sequel means more of the first movie, plus some new stuff. Another version of MS Office means an improved spellchecker. And video games? Well, Max Payne 2 means Max Payne again but with twice the pulpy story and bullet time, right? Unfortunately, no. And Max Payne 3, that means… worse everything but add multiplayer. The expectation that “more of” equates to better is the problem. Rather than fight a two-headed monster talking about entertainment and technology, let me focus on the entertainment; the art. The next thing doesn’t mean better – doesn’t mean worse either. It simply means the next thing.

“But Andrew, everyone knows all sequels suck.”

Ah, but you still buy them, don’t you? Of course you do. The profit margins for sequels over their predecessors, and that trilogies don’t just “triple the profits” but rather increases them exponentially, would prove you wrong. I’d go further and say that you and I, regardless of which sequels have let us down, still go into a new iteration of an existing IP thinking, “this time it will be better,” or at least bring something new to the table.

On the business side, the publishers/producers feed our hype-addled minds because, well, that’s what businesses do. Brand loyalty and advertising are the proverbial bells of the cashcow. I’ve got no quarrels with a profit driven enterprise seeking to make money off art or entertainment alike. I simply caution people when the clear modus operandi of a game seems to be to make money by any means necessary. Developers are told by their publishers to layer on the newer, bigger, better with bigger explosions and better kills. In the case of gaming it usually means to also add a new feature. Some of that is that newer technologies occur – faster CPUs, more memory, etc. So a game that was linear a generation ago becomes open-world on the new hardware. A game about scarcity and barely getting by now has a full SIMs/Minecraft slice-of-life minigame. The control and execution determine the success of the new feature. The jumps in technology determine the necessity. It’s important to innovate (to an extent; face it no one thinks Metroid Prime is a bad game because it’s “old”). It’s also important to filter the hype when determining if a game is exploiting the feature creep. When a company announces a sequel and a new feature, every gamer should ask two quick questions: Did it enhance or do more for this particular game? Or was it just bloat? If you find yourself getting excited because it’s just a new feature and it has little or no connection to the IP, don’t allow it to feed your expectations.

There’s another problem with the feature creep though. New features take money to develop and games have budgets. More money spent on a Minecraft minigame or a dating sim means less money spent on story and world-building. That’s frustrating when you can just go play Minecraft. Booting up another game to play Minecraft isn’t that cool when you consider that too many features detract from the pacing, budget, and cohesion of the greater game. It’s the old analogy of a clown on a unicycle, spinning plates, gurgling seltzer water, and juggling… and also the clown is on fire. Sure it’s a spectacle but it’s doing too much and something’s bound to drop. The worst case scenario is that the feature creep can lead to a watered-down or less focused product. The video game industry then gets away with the “more is better” fallacy. And then the next game comes out and your beloved IP has been diluted by degrees. Enough installments later and you may not recognize the new product versus its progenitor.

The disturbing trend has been substituting feature creep for substance. Games are skins of existing games with features added and the truly enriching, memorable parts, the parts that made us love the originals, missing. Logically it’s easier for a developer to add a new minigame than it is to explore what about the story, atmosphere, characters, narrative, and/or gameplay made the first so good. They just look at which games are selling now and add those game features. The game released is a veritable Frankenstein’s monster with no soul of its own. I’d give examples of games but honestly that’s not the point of this rant. You’ve played at least one game this year that fits the category. Right now you’re thinking about it and feeling hollow. There’s a disconnect between the good looking or well-produced game and any deeper emotion or lasting value.

I’m more pessimistic than others so I can see a world where the creep results in big budget, low-substance games made by teams of 1000 developer drones outsourced over three continents. Games that have features of other games but fail to have any life of their own or passion. That’s the extreme; the worst case scenario. I’m sure even the more optimistic can think of at least one game that was guilty of such a thing and feel a vested interest to make sure other games they love don’t go down that path. The good news, in either case is that we gamers can do something about it. Step one is to never be lulled or lured into the hype machine by the promise of a feature alone. Don’t buy into the fallacy that new features equal better. We can draw a line in the sand and say, “no, I don’t want a new feature. Give me more of the game!” Sequels don’t need to be checklists of things its predecessor did plus a new feature. That’s the formula we’re fighting here. It’s okay to expect a sincere attempt at a sequel rather than a phoned in cash grab – Metroid: Prime versus Other M.

I’m not saying we should never want or expect new features. I’m simply saying awareness and tempered expectations are the antidotes to featuritis.