Is it indicative of bad design if players decide they won’t finish a game? It certainly suggests the presence of an alienating flaw in the gameplay, especially if the player had previously found the game enjoyable. There are definite measures developers can take to encourage the player all the way over the threshold, assuming they understand why the player stops in the first place.
There are two reasons why a player will abruptly stop playing a game that they otherwise liked. The first is difficulty, whether it manifests itself as an insurmountable obstacle or surmountable but frustrating. For developers whose games are explicitly about story first and foremost (Mass Effect, Metal Gear Solid), the concept of gameplay difficulty is problematic. It’s an unusual contract these games have with the player: they exist to tell the player a story, but must actively sabotage their efforts to hear it. Difficulty is so integrated into the origins of the art form that it becomes, for these narrative-focused developers, like an archaic article in the Constitution that is uncomfortable in a modern environment but must be honoured out of tradition.
Many gamers, however, are very protective of challenge's place in the medium. Such is the cachet of the Halo series that its Legendary difficulty mode is heralded as a crucible for hardcore credibility rather than a masochistic exercise, and those same hardcore gamers might consider design approaches intended to help the player reach the end restrictive and desperate. It’s always a poor match when players who don't want a challenge hook up with games that provide one, and vice versa. Players who feel overly punished will resent it, so too will those who feel coddled. It’s the former group who will find games hard to play and consequently give up on them.
These gamers occasionally are offered assistance – dynamic difficulty levels, cheat codes, super-easy modes – but some games will only do so begrudgingly. Ninja Gaiden condescends and taunts before helping out and Jonathan Blow's official Braid "walkthrough" is a reprimand aimed at those who would seek such a thing. The attitudes of both those games have probably irritated even the players who could beat them.
It can happen like that, or for a second reason: believing that they have essentially got enough out of the game. The player, despite their previous appreciation, assume that they can predict the remaining experience. It’s probably, they think, the exact same thing that they have been doing, only incrementally harder. That is not a strong motivation to continue. There are other games on the table, and players feel that even without the ending, they've formulated enough of an opinion to speak intelligently about the unfinished game. Again, no one tactic will get every player to finish a game (and some players, fans of a particular niche, will endure any encumbrance for the sake of the core gameplay), but certain companies have attempted to convert the indifferent.
The Orange Box was released fifty-one weeks ago. Since then, Valve has talked about how the comparatively brief durations of Portal and the Half-Life episodes resulted in more people finishing their games than usual. That's a factor, certainly: 40 hours of more of the same is intimidating, and the player may reasonably feel quite satisfied after only 15. But the percentage of player completion has more to do with Valve's design philosophy than the length of their games. The notion of being "on rails" has negative connotations to some, but the intermittently tedious Half-Life 2 hoverboat sequence would have been compounded had the player been allowed to explore and get lost. Tight pacing and strict boundaries keep Half-Life's momentum consistently high, whereas the wide, open spaces of Grand Theft Auto and Oblivion improve agency but destroy any sense of urgency or coherence. Freedom in game worlds means the freedom to discover dead ends and get bored.
Half-Life also makes a point of frequently rearranging the terms of engagement, introducing new toys and withholding others. The player knows they need to be relatively alert and engaged to succeed; the basic combat manoeuvres taught to them in the tutorial will not suffice. Spore, for the most part, operates on this same model: the player learns that evolution is an exciting prospect because the gameplay promises to change along with the creatures. The final space stage, however, is Spore at its most difficult and complicated – and it’s the single longest stage by far. The player knows the end of the space stage will not bring about another reinvention. All they have to look forward to is that it will eventually end – and when they think that, why not end it at that moment?
Games have also tried using story to hook the player; offering an extra incentive to the gameplay. It is not heartening to frame the contributions of game writers as added value or completion insurance, but sometimes writers are able to work well even within those limitations. Until its recent installment, Grand Theft Auto’s stories were fun but shallow. It made sense at the time, as Rockstar was inviting players to mess around in its open world; not to finish its campaign. But, consequently, it was a series whose scope made it prone to digression and easy to abandon. Evidently Rockstar agreed when they prioritised narrative in GTA IV -- even when it would, in the initial stages, restrict players from the freeform behavior that made GTA popular. Rockstar’s marriage of narrative and gameplay wasn’t flawless, but it was far from the worst case example of its type: where disconnected levels are limply bridged with cutscenes of soap opera twists and ostensibly comic characters.
Story won't compel the player to the finish line when developers make it easy to ignore. Stories in video games (and in otherwise good video games, too) incarnate as aimless and confusing Frankenstein’s monsters, created to meet the lowest of expectations. Mirror's Edge inhabits a defiantly vibrant and attractive world, and its first-person-parkour approach is intriguingly visceral. However, its story is presented in stiff 2D cutscenes that are completely contrary to the game’s primary theme of movement and therefore does not appear relevant to the gameplay. Furthermore, given the premise of the unjustly accused fighting for revenge in a white-washed, corporate future police state, DICE have done gamers the favour of making the story disposable and cliché.
Few games will go all in and make story the reason to play the game, or argue that players who do not give it their full attention are wasting their time. Stories can't always be predicted like minor variations on base gameplay can. Half-Life weaves a Lost-esque cryptography, BioShock approximates a philosophical thesis, and their conclusions are integral. If players check out early it will not be because they think they’ve effectively seen it all. These games, using story in this manner, stand a better chance of keeping the player engaged all the way through. Compare two RPG classics: the reason to experience the entirety of Planescape: Torment is to work one's way towards a thematic conclusion; to answer the very atypical question of whether the main character will die; and to see Black Isle and Chris Avellone's treatise on morality, existentialism, selfishness, betrayal and heartbreak climax. The reason to get to the end of Baldur's Gate II is to kill the bad guy.
The stories of Half-Life, BioShock and Braid are prioritised and celebrated and thus are good reasons to finish the games -- but none of them go to Black Isle’s lengths. They are structured in layers, making sure that the player will only ever see as much as they are interested in. Further clues, backstories and subplots all exist for those willing to look for them, and all of these games give the impression that that’s the kind of player they really want. There's not much value in a critical read on Braid that neglects any narrative interpretations, and the game – and Jonathan Blow, in his walkthrough and in public statements-- implies that the only condition under which players should reach the end is if they earn it.
One final tactic – easy and commonplace – is the "game completion" metric. The ultimate statistic is a counterargument to those players thinking they’re prematurely done with the game as it distributes their meagre 51% completion available to all the player’s Xbox Live friends. Achievements and unlockables fall under this same category: temptation. They are gaming's most superficial incentive and they're aimed at the obsessive, who would likely finish the game anyway out of compulsion.
There’s no good answer. A plurality of gamer types, and of tactics to keep them on track, makes silver bullet solutions impossible, and we should also consider how many game developers even care about whether players finish their games. This is not an article that can offer practical, tested advice. It will, however, point to all of the above methods used to hold the player’s interest and identify their common inspiration. Everything, an astonishing story; an array of achievements; an arsenal of creative weapons, are there to keep the player in awe of the world. They are aware that there is always another nebulous challenge, or a secret to uncover. It’s a question of who achieves mastery, the player or the game? Who knows more about how the game is played? Because they get to say when it ends.