One of the goals of a game designer is to create an engaging, challenging, and immersive experience that leaves the player filled with awe, wonder, and excitement. However, often that’s not what our games actually do; genres have fallen out of favor over this and it’s the sort of issue that becomes more and more relevant as our games are being targeted at an increasingly mainstream audience that doesn’t want to sit through fifteen hours of gathering materials for a MMORPG by killing the same monster ten thousand times.
Padding can loosely be defined as anything that does not add to the game except to serve as part of the operation of the game. For instance, every time you fight a monster in a dungeon crawler, it likely exists just to provide a source of experience and potentially drain a little health from the player in order to change the game’s state, but doesn’t have any narrative role or provide a meaningful change in the player’s experience. This is the sort of experience which is unlikely to be memorable and will likely cause a loss of interest in certain players.
On the other hand, this is the sort of thing that games really rely on pretty often, and sometimes the padding allows the game to still function within the context of the player’s exploration; in Oblivion the wilderness would become very boring were there to be no foes wandering in it. Padding also serves as a means of practice for both players and characters, allowing players to go back and get a better degree of familiarity with crucial skills or make their characters more powerful so that later confrontations will be less difficult, and to a certain degree it must still be maintained in this role. Outside of this, however, padding is largely useless and detracts from the gaming experience.
There’s a couple ways to get rid of padding, however, without entirely removing it wholesale. One of the best ways to do this is to link it to additional narratives, but this is expensive both for writers and content designers who will then be forced to create individual sub-narratives. A passable solution is what I call the “material culture” solution where instead of explicitly creating side-mission narratives you simply add lore database entries or evidence of a past event in the middle of the environment, allowing players to be engaged in their discovery if they choose to or blaze past the area, only loosely examining it. Dead Space 3 actually did this very well, particularly with its co-op sections. Bethesda Softworks’ games often include a sort of tertiary story mode for padding, where everything has a role and you may just not realize it yet. Skyrim had this be dynamically generated throughout the course of the game through random quest givers, but even their Fallout games and Oblivion, not to mention Morrowind, drew heavily on this concept of giving every environment its own important narrative. Even Dishonored drew upon this concept, albeit at a much more shallow level as it was not an open-world experience.
Another way to do this is making nonessential game experiences optional; this is something that a lot of games have done for a long time, but it’s something that also runs into issues. If one were to remove padding entirely, a lot of the time to sort of “slip in” character development and setting exploration gets taken away, and it means that the entire game is at full throttle. At first glance this may seem like a good thing, but this also means that you have to cut a lot of stuff out of those nonessential moments and weaken them for the players who do choose to play through them on account of having to take narrative devices from these less important scenes and put them into the more crucial universal experience.
The core thing to remember about padding is that it does have a purpose, but its purpose should not be to add length to a game; the reason Skyrim succeeded so well is because every hour played in it feels purposeful and deliberate, where a similar amount of time spent on Mass Effect just reveals times where Shepard must shoot another alien, again, because he/she needs to get to the next objective and they’re in the way. One of my favorites, Dungeon Siege, is guilty of this to an extreme; with more foes than there are citizens in Rhode Island blocking the hero’s path, many of them supposed to be “natural inhabitants” of the environment rather than the forces explicitly trying to stop them.