The first minigame I remember enjoying was the Blackjack sequence in PS1 game The World Is Not Enough. Although it only needed to occupy about 2 minutes of game time, as you played a few hands to buy some information, this author was hooked and carried on playing until he had several trillion dollars in disposable funds.
Now minigames are an essential part of most game releases, especially those that claim to be “open world”. Developers have realised that it doesn’t matter how large or beautifully designed a game world is, if there’s nothing to be done outside the main story it simply won’t engage players.
There is an important distinction to be drawn between ‘mini-games’, small activities or side missions to be completed in parallel with the main story, and meaningless ‘collection’ quests; aptly summed up in this column. Rockstar Games – famed creator of gritty, open world action adventures like GTA and Red Dead Redemption has taken both approaches, with markedly different results. While many remember the GTA San Andreas flight school with fondness, few could name the collectibles you were asked to retrieve (oysters, horseshoes, spray tags and pigeons if you were wondering).
GTA V, recently re released for next gen consoles, offers a huge range of mini games – from gambling to darts. Well designed and eminently playable they might be – but what value do they offer? If I wanted to play a game of virtual golf I’d buy a copy of PGA Tour, not play the much clunkier version GTA offers me.
On the other hand, Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series has been refining its “extra-storyline” activities since day one. In the original release trivial pickpocketing missions served no purpose other than grinding towards 100% completion. After a long process of trial and error, installment #7 (Unity) has found a balance which is genuinely enjoyable. Mini games are used to add options into the main storyline, or encourage the player to explore the beautifully rendered revolutionary era Paris.
Even casino game developers are wising up to the value of mini games in engaging players. For example, British bookmaker Coral has recently launched a dedicated mini games site, for casino or bingo games with interesting side bets, bonus rounds or interactive elements.
As the games we play grow increasingly vast and complex, minigames will continue to form a larger part of the game experience. This in turn means that a greater proportion of our overall game satisfaction will rest in the activities available outside the main storyline, so developers can no longer afford to treat them as optional extras.
A good mini game adds something for the player, be it excitement, diversion, special items or just a deeper look into the story. If developers stopped massaging play time figures by sprinkling pointless collectibles and instead looked for new ways to engage players in their storyline, they’d quickly see the benefits.