The Frontier Game: Perfection is a Tall Order
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The Frontier Game: Perfection is a Tall Order

There’s a certain type of game I like to call the Frontier Game.  Pirates, cowboys, colonialists, space explorers; any game where the player participates in the hazy cusp between civilization and wilderness can be a Frontier Game.  A tale of romantic adventure, where history is written, legends are born, and brave, enterprising “heroes” seek fortunes of dubious legality. Where the real treasure isn’t the gold itself, but the fame of being the one to find it first.

At first glance, these games seem rather simple to make. The execution is so straightforward, and they’re so steeped in legend and myth, that it looks like the only way to screw it up is by failing on purpose. So, why don’t we see more of them?

The Distant Dream

Much like the people they’re based on, the idea behind these games has far outgrown its source material. It sits just over those hills, gleaming with promise and reward, but the thing itself always seems just out of reach. Taunting as much as it beckons, driving people to ruin as much as it inspires their greed.

Even the people who reach it come to find that the weight of their expectations makes it far too heavy to carry back.

As straightforward as it is, the Frontier Game  is so vast in scope that no one game could ever hope to encompass all of it. The player is always a rough-and-tumble entrepreneur, the setting is always an unexplored landscape with just enough people to have ports without being unified. It’s where the two intersect that the problems start cropping up.

To Make a Fortune

Imagine you’re the captain of your own space ship. It’s nothing fancy, you’re just some person who buys goods from one planet and sells them to another. Maybe you heard of a rare mineral that’s abundant on an uninhabited planet, so you set out to mine it. Maybe you get attacked by space pirates on the way, and have to fight them off. Then, when you set foot on the planet and start mining, the local wildlife takes offense to you walking around on their turf. Perhaps someone got there before you, and you have to follow them to some other place so you can buy the goods and complete your contract.

Seeing the problem yet? At a bare minimum, we’re looking at game that is one part full-fledged shooter, one part full-fledged ship simulator (building, travel, AND combat), with at least one expansive world or other area to explore, and a solid framework for a player-based economy. And speaking of players, it needs to have MMO-tier multiplayer and servers, since being the only person out there would defeat the point. The only relief is that the developers might not have to worry too much about making monsters or enemy AI, since the players are expected to do all the player killing.

These aren’t small games. They’re big ones, and they’re tapping into a concept as old as civilization itself. People already know what they want from these games, and if even one part of that is substandard it ruins the whole thing.

We aren’t talking about a happy compromise between all the different parts, or anything reasonable like that. No, everything has to be literally perfect in a Frontier Game,  because it’s trying to emulate an experience that’s not only been a part of our entire history, but has been romanticized to hell and back so much that the devil himself had to set up toll booths and traffic guards.

Oh, and all of this has to be done on the budget of one game.

Where No Man Has Gone Before

The developers who try to make these games are probably as bold and ambitious as the very people those stories are based on. Perhaps it’s no surprise they’re just as likely to fail as all those frontier-men we never heard about. I don’t have to name names, everyone knows at least one Frontier Game  they were excited for that didn’t pan out. Likewise, everyone knows at least one Frontier Game  they’re looking forward to, and getting just as hyped over as the last one.

There’s gold in them there hills. Maybe, hopefully, someone will manage to bring it back. And when they do, we’ll be there waiting for them.

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7 responses to “The Frontier Game: Perfection is a Tall Order”

  1. >
    Worked for Demon’s Souls. Actually, most of the games I’ve bought in the last seven years have been ones I never heard of before, usually months or years after their release. I might have a bit of a subconscious bias against over-hyped games, since I always expect them to be shitty and incomplete on release. Which, you know, tends to happen more often than not. But still, it’s a thing at least one customer (me) does.

    I mean, you could probably make an argument for the constant evolution of technology forcing sales cycles to be shorter just to keep up with it, but indie games are showing us that tech advancements don’t really mean all that much when the gameplay is good enough. I’m seeing games like Undertale and Darkest Dungeon make good money, and they just sit around on a digital store page looking pretty.

    What if the constant tech advancement, the ‘new platforms every couple years’ thing, is only arbitrary? What if everything about this industry is all just engineered horseshit, meant to force an artificial business model? What if, by putting games on a digital store page and letting users rate them according to their own experiences, a game can succeed by just being a good game, instead of trying to be sold at top dollar regardless of its actual content, just to satisfy an industry that can no longer keep up with the pace it set nearly two decades ago?

    I honestly think a game can sell on its own merits, if given the time to. There are real-world examples of this happening, too. I could probably be convinced otherwise though, if given a good enough argument and a bit of evidence.

  2. >
    perhaps but a relatively short hype cycle can work very well as proven by fallout 4.
    in fact i would say fallout 4 has caused a shift in the industry from announcing your game years before its ready to announcing it within a year.

  3. Oh, eugh. There’s never a good reason for death threats.

    I always figured the funniest way to go about avoiding hype would be to just suddenly release the game out of nowhere. It’s like, “hey guys, check out this awesome trailier!”, “sweet, when’s the release date?”, “oh, it came out two days ago, wanna try it?”

  4. Oh they definitely were irresponsible about what was said to be in the game, but the some of the community did send death threats when the game was delayed a month. That doesn’t help anyone.

    I think a well managed community, communicative developers, and reasonable expectations would be great, but sadly that’s another item on the pile of “wishful thinking”.

  5. Those games, plus the old Pirates of the Caribbean game, that upcoming Skull and Bones one, Red Dead Redemption, EVE Online, and I think there might be one or two more I’m missing (probably more pirate ones). EVE is hands-down the most successful of them, but it also doesn’t have all the traits of the game type. Space games make up the vast majority of these, which I suppose is to be expected (“The final frontier” and all that). I’m surprised there isn’t one for the bottom of the ocean, to be honest. I don’t think most people realize just how alien the ocean depths can get.

    I’m not so sure Oregon Trail would really fit in with the others, since it kinda ends when you get there whereas all the other games start at that point. It sure does have the spirit of it, though, and I agree that an updated version might be pretty spiffy.

    While there was some unrealistic player hype going on with No Man’s Sky, the number of unfulfilled promises made by its developers is well documented (that post does take later updates into account). Like I said previously, players everywhere seem to want this particular game type to succeed far beyond any of the others, and we already tend to have too-high expectations for normal games, so they’re bound to disappoint even when they’re borderline perfect. In NMS’s case, though, I think most of the blame falls on the devs. Maybe they simply bit off more than they could chew, but they were very irresponsible about it.

  6. So Star Citizen, No Man’s Sky, Elite Dangerous, and everyone’s favorite memory “You have died of dysentery” aka Oregon Trail would fit here, I’m assuming.

    Thinking about it, a redone Oregon Trail would be pretty cool, but I’m willing to bet a lot of people would hate on it for “artificial difficulty” because they insisted on fording a river that is nearly impossible to Ford, or get screwed by RNG because they only brought one replacement axle.

    I think a problem the general population has with games like this is they expect one thing and get another. Look at the community that over hyped No Man’s Sky for example. Trailers showed very little gameplay besides “walk around and see cool stuff” and people expected (and made up stories) about what was not in the game at all. This led to severe backlash after the game was released, as people thought one thing or another would be there and were angry when their sometimes ridiculous expectations weren’t met.

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