Finish Him: Why we constantly leave games undone

The busy fall season is barreling down on us, bringing with it the promise of lots of new games to occupy our time. We tend to look forward to the next big thing, while the last big thing and the one before that falls by the wayside. We can hardly be blamed for constantly upgrading to the next powerhouse game or innovative idea, but on the whole we gamers have a horrible track record of finishing what we've started.

To get an idea of just how bad our habits are, I took a look at Trophy and Steam Achievement stats across PC, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation 4. Steam has been offering stats on achievement completion for quite a while, and Sony introduced it alongside the launch of the PS4, with some stats for PS3 games as well. I should note I focused mostly on older games, to make sure the stats weren't skewed by new players still buying and making their way through. 

Among PlayStation players, lengthy single-player games seemed to be one major culprit. Only 33% finished Batman: Arkham Asylum on Normal, but almost 50% at least completed it on Easy. Uncharted 2 fared slightly better, with 45% completing it on Easy and almost 37% on Normal. God of War 3, a marquee game for PlayStation fans, boasted a much higher 51% success rate for completion. Still, it can't be encouraging for game designers that a success rate just above half is higher than average.

Shorter and less challenging games are more likely to have players see it through to the end. Journey, a narrative experience without failure states, had 71% of players reach the dramatic ending. However, even brevity has its limits. The Walking Dead: Season 1 received critical praise across the gaming spectrum, and plenty of players at least finished the first episode. 80% reached the conclusion of that first entry with Lee and Clementine, but the other four episodes are a slow downwards slump. By the time Telltale reached Episode 5, less than 30% of the total playerbase saw it through to the end.

It's also telling that games with multiplayer components are hobbled from the start. Since some players are only interested in one mode or the other, we see a sharp split among the players even starting the campaign. Resistance 2 had similar finishing stats to other games, but a very early Trophy only had approximately 80% completion. That means 1/5 of the player base probably never bothered touching it, and that's for a series not known for its multiplayer prowess.

Grand Theft Auto 5 may be the ultimate example of games with a sharp drop-off in completion. Thanks likely to its reputation as a playground more than a story-based game, the vast majority finished the first Trophy that barred progress to the rest of the city. After that, almost half of players simply stopped engaging with the story at all, and apparently just explored Los Santos on their own. Only 57% of players received the second story-based Trophy.

Newer game data does seem to skew the results, but not in the direction I would have expected. Both Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes and Infamous: First Light actually have higher than average completion rates--67% and 46%, respectively. That's no doubt partially because they're so short, but also likely because early adopters are the people most likely to see a game through to the end. 

Steam, which has gained a reputation for offering deep discounts that result in libraries full of unfinished games, actually has a surprisingly better track record. Almost half of players finished Tomb Raider, for instance. Even when multiplayer is a selling point, as in the case of Call of Duty: Black Ops, 47% have finished the single-player campaign.

Games are long, complex, and require problem-solving to complete. By their nature they would never reach 100% of their intended audience. Realistically we should always expect some percentage of players to leave them unfinished, but the numbers are absurdly high. We have trouble focusing and finishing after the initial rush of a new game wears off. As we head into another busy season of releases, we should keep in mind how rare an accomplishment it is to actually complete a game.