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Game vs. Mini-game: Post Crunch Playfest Continues

June 27, 2008

Tonight was Wii night. I went through my play pile that has accumulated since approximately 6:30 when I had a rather tragic buying fit.

I selected:

Here’s the nutshell of play: RRR and TC are typical Wii mini-game to mini-game play while GWG continues to be great for its game play, length of play and the history behind the series. In short, they’re all mini-games made good.

In TC, the patient died three times, and after trying for a fourth, my 7-year-old got scared enough that she asked me to stop playing. That was a dynamic I hadn’t really predicted. I complied, and then thought for a moment: why am I failing 4x in the first mission of the game? Help me out, man. Let me keep the guy alive long enough to understand your interface and get into the game. Let me feel like I have a chance. Let me learn without the pressure. I don’t care if I’m inept, but don’t tell me that I fail 4x over. The entry level rats in RPGs are way easier than this (and the players are probably happier, too).

Anyway, the guy’s still dead, but the festival du mini-game got me thinking about a complaint I’ve heard some audiences and some developers level at the Wii – namely that its games have no real staying power. I guess the assertion is that because some games are a series of connected mini-games, they have no real glue to hold them all together. One mini-game to the next is a lot like surfing one machine to the next in an arcade… not that there’s anything wrong with that.

When I am enjoying a game, there are times when I’ll want a very involved game that will keep me firmly planted for hours at a time. Civ Revolution did that to me a lot recently, and I’ve sat through ridiculously long games of Risk. Other times, I just want a quick game of Chuzzle or Carcassonne, and I’ll game surf much like I might do inside a single Wii title, inside an arcade if I ever went to them anymore or in my own office when I am going game to game.

All this got me thinking about a rather odd corollary: length of play in board games and video games, and the classification of one as a game and the other as a mini-game, not quite worthy of the distinction as a game in its own right.

I suspect this thought was precipitated by my nearly nightly round of Knizia’s Flea Circus with my 3 year old (who shows good taste in games, not that she has a choice since I’m buying, but hey). Flea Circus lasts about 10 minutes tops. Dragon Parade, another light Knizia game, has about the same length of play. We’d not consider either of these games mini-games or something less than a game, though the play dynamics, length of play and scope of the game would certainly qualify them for that in the digital world.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 28, 2008 5:54 am

    Maybe it isn’t so much duration as it is complexity?

    Today games like Pong or Pac Man would be considered mini games because they are simple games. It is very easy to jump in and out. The controls are simple and the goals a few (hit the ball back, eat all the dots, avoid the ghosts)

  2. June 28, 2008 6:54 am

    The same thing could be said about the average FPS, tho. The controls are simple and the goals a few (kill the enemies, pick up the medpacks/bullets, avoid the enemies).

  3. June 28, 2008 10:19 pm

    Hmm, your comment makes me think about the role of Story in these types of games, Brenda. Why is Half-Life more of a “full game” than Pac-Man? Part of the reason I can think of is because there’s a story in Half-Life to put all the repetitive action into a context. Not sure I buy this completely, but it’s what lept into my mind.

    Of course, I think that most arcade-type games would qualify as “mini-games” these days. The whole point of arcade games was to separate you from your quarters, so each game experience was intended to be limited in order for the next person (or you) to put in their quarter and play. We didn’t call arcade games “mini games”, though.

    Interesting to think about, at least. 🙂

  4. Carl permalink
    June 29, 2008 12:31 am

    I’m not sure I get your definition of mini game.

    To me a mini game is a game, inside another, whose main mechanics and goal are radically different from those of the overall product (Game). It has nothing to do with play length. In TC and GWG, you are given main a set of mechanics that you use to get through every situation inside the game (product). Situations change but the game/goal is always the same. While I’m not familiar with the board game you mentioned, I’m pretty sure the mechanics don’t change much till you reach the end. So I would not call any of the aforementioned game mini games. I guess the term mini-game is used to be able differentiate games (activities) from games (product/overall goal).

    Rock Paper scissor is a game. If I have to compete with my sister to get the last piece of pie by playing RPS, head or tail and tic-tac-toe, RPS is now a mini game.

  5. June 30, 2008 2:42 pm

    The average FPS has much more complex controls than something like Pong. You could hand someone an old school paddle controller and explain how to play Pong in minutes. If I fired up Half-Life 2 and handed someone a controller it would take a lot longer. See http://www.howdoiplaygame.com for an example of that.

    @Carl, I think what you’re describing is an Easter Egg almost. If I hid Halo on one of the computers available in GTA IV…would Halo be a mini-game? Geometry Wars from Project Gotham Racing 2, however, is an excellent example of what you describe.

  6. July 1, 2008 8:28 am

    Definition of mini-game aside, I think the salient characteristic is having multiple distinct play experiences under one title. If in Rayman or Trauma Center the player plays multiple scenarios/encounters/levels that have interfaces or choice options and sequences with little or no similarity to each other, I’d call that a string of mini-games. Regardless of the characteristics that define the difference between a “mini” and a so-called normal-sized game, continuity is the key.

  7. July 2, 2008 8:03 am

    @Dan: It’s not just complexity. Flea Circus and Dragon Parade are ridiculously simple. So is Blokus, for that matter. Or really, any board/card game that can be played in 10 minutes or less.

    Come to think of it, rules complexity in board games probably scales with play time. I mean, who would sit through a 20-minute rule explanation for a 10-minute game? But an hour-long rule set for an 8-hour game is acceptable.

    @Carl: I think the idea isn’t that a particular video game *is* a mini-game or not, but that it *feels* like one. I would consider mini-game to be a genre, similar to “casual game”, consisting of mechanics that tend to be found in mini-games within larger and more complicated games.

    I don’t think the distinction exists in board games because, by and large, mini-games aren’t a staple of board games. If enough board games included smaller games embedded in them that were gratuitously different from the larger game, we’d probably refer to certain types of simple board games as “mini-games” also. But the board game community just hasn’t added the distinction to its critical vocabulary, because there isn’t a critical mass of games that require it.

  8. Dan permalink
    July 11, 2009 11:20 pm

    To me a game is like a chicken dinner, whereas a minigame is a bag of potato chips. I eat the chicken dinner at a nice leisurely pace, savoring every moment, and my hunger is satisfied when I am done eating. I may even begin thinking of how great its leftovers may be (sequel?). The problem is that I have to start up the oven, set the table, and afterward do the dishes (Look for a save-point? Doesn’t quite fit, but oh well.)

    The bag of potato chips, on the other hand, just requires me to get a hold of the bag, open it up, and munch (simple instructionless gameplay). The enticing smell of those cheddar-covered, fried potato slices pulls me into the meal with no concern of long-lasting nutritional effects (Storyline, plot?). Each bite begins with a devastatingly high peak of flavor, which quickly levels off and leaves me wanting more (replay value, addiction).

    I think that analogy turned out a bit better than I originally planned. Too bad my comment is about a year late.

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