If you read any of my articles, you would have understood that I have a lot of love for AA and indie studios. I often excuse and forgive many negatives from their offerings, because they are often overshadowed by many of their inherent positives. For a while now, I’ve been meaning to talk about a particular aspect of those studios and haven’t really figured out how, but then I played Maneater and now I have a “case study” for an aspect these studios have to deal with unique to them.
Before I get to that, first let me tell you how I see Maneater: For all of us, Maneater is an action game with RPG elements, about being a shark. You go from pup all the way to mega-shark, upgrading various elements along the way, that allow you to tackle harder enemies and bigger groups of prey; along the way there’s a satirical story to frame everything around, collectibles with some more attempts at comedy and to populate the fairly-sized world, and a fairly developed combat system that aims to be button-mashing fun rather than deep and challenging. On a personal level, Maneater is a great way to look at the difficult decisions most AA and indie studios have to make on a project-by-project basis; obviously, Maneater is centered around a great idea that, in execution as well, is very fun, but would require a certain amount of resources to execute. You’d need to have a big map with lots of prey and enemies, in order to give the player plenty of opportunities to engage with your core loop, as well as having different biomes and areas to provide visual variety and different paths that help with the sense of progression and freedom so vital to open world games. Furthermore, the art style requirements, balancing of various elements and mechanics, character and enemy models, as well as all the other elements of the game, may require a level of commitment and resources that would push the game beyond the $20 mark, and this is where things get complicated: Most people, when buying a game beyond the $20 mark, are not looking for a tight 4-6 hour experience, but Maneater’s experience works best when it is kept within that limit.
So, do you scale back the scope of the game and make it more “indie” or do you find ways to make the game into a 12 hour “AA” experience? One look at the game shows the decision made by Tripwire; Maneater is stretched to 12 hours making most of that experience feel tedious and repetitive. It is by no means a failure of a game; a lot of the game works as intended, it is surprisingly well-polished (besides a weird bug that made me turn on subtitles each time I start the game) and fun experience. However, when Assassin’s Creed makes the same decision for a 40-hour experience and stretches it to 80+, I can’t help but feel disappointed by that, but with Maneater I can’t help but feel sympathy for the developers. I know a lot of people will see that $40 mark and ask for a lot more than 6 hours, and I understand why this game costs that amount of money; I would happily pay that amount for 6 great hours, but most people would probably wait for a sale or right the game completely off. I also, for this game specifically at least, understand why this game needed to look like it does, has the systems and world it ended up having, and has the various “filler” content that stretch thin its great concept and fun loop. If I were reviewing the game, it would certainly be a negative (and it still is), but the alternative in this case, is something that would probably leave me very uninterested and probably would not have the amount of buzz or marketing around it.
It is a shame for the half of the game that is genuinely entertaining and fun; going from pup to megashark, while “equipping” various body parts that look ridiculous (like electrifying teeth and fins) that help you become the terror of the sea, is a great experience. But after the 6-hour mark, finding all the collectibles is something I did because I wanted to review the game, not because I wanted to keep playing; entering combat was so I could definitively say that it did not change significantly in my opinion, not because it was fun. In their justified pursuit to prolong the experience so that most people would find its value proposition worthwhile, the devs made their game somewhat repetitive and for the most part devoid of challenge or a sense of progression.
I did not expect to be pondering these decisions when I started Maneater; honestly, I was just excited that a “shark-PG” was a thing that I could play. Furthermore, I got it at a lowered price due to using a coupon on the Epic store so I wasn’t really disappointed with the value proposition even if it would have been a shorter experience. But, after the 6 hour mark, this question was the only thing I wanted to think about; maybe the developers just made the game they wanted to make and don’t think about pricing or value propositions, or maybe they simply missed the mark on curating the content for their game, or most likely I’m just less drawn to massive open worlds with checklists as I used to be. I know a similar, longer experience will come in the future and have me gleefully run around another massive world, doing the same things over and over again, without any tediousness or staleness creeping in, but in this case, I would happily pay full price for a shorter, more impactful and efficient experience. Regardless of why Maneater is twice as long as it should have been, this article is not a dunk on the game – on the contrary I think it is quite good. It is, above all, a personal sympathy for developers of all scales and sizes, an attempt to be in their shoes and understand the difficulties and tribulations of game development and publishing.