After responding to Noel’s post on the size of games I soon learned it was a wide effort by developers to post their thoughts on this topic so I figured I’d throw my hat into the ring. I’ve had this topic in my head for a very long time and it’s been frustrating hearing friends' and reviewers' opinions on games. Other developers have covered this pretty well already so not sure what else I can contribute beyond just a rant :P.
I’m curious where this metric came from in the first place. I would imagine it had good intentions when it was first uttered, but somehow got mutilated, deformed, and abused as it seeped into the vernacular of reviewers and gamers spreading through genres where this metric becomes utterly useless. A common argument I hear is “$X dollars is a lot to spend on a short game”. I tried applying this metric to my own gaming experiences to see if I could glean any sense of rationality from it.
- Tribes, Tribes 2, Tribes: Vengeance – All combined I spent about 80-100 dollars total for all 3 games. How long did I play those games? Years. Something on the course of 5-6 years. In an economical sense, these games were practically free based on the “Length of time” I spent with them. Those were my younger days when I probably should have been spending more time outside, but hey, I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything now.
- Starcraft/Starcraft 2 – Another one I spent years playing. When SC2 was announced along with the collectors edition I didn’t have to think twice about paying $100 dollars. The game hasn’t even been out for very long and in terms of time spent, I’ve probably reduced the hourly “rate” to pennies on SC2 alone.
- Battlefield 2, Battlefield 2142 – Played these religiously over the course of a year combined.
- Call of Duty 1,2, 4, MW2 – 4 $60 dollar games. Again, played them enough to where it was practically “free”.
If you haven’t noticed, all the games that I spent extraordinary amounts of time playing are almost exclusively multiplayer. I’m a sucker for multiplayer games. When it comes to getting these games, price isn’t a factor in deciding whether I’ll play them or not. The fact that they are social/multiplayer games the biggest influence is: who out of my friends and online buddies are going to be playing it? Length never even came into the conversation. The quality of the shared experiences was what kept me playing long past the “expiration date”.
Ok, ok, so ‘length' in a multiplayer game is almost a moot point. But it’s also a crutch many games hang themselves on. In order to pad out the “length” of a game, many games add a multiplayer aspect. Some are very welcomed and exhibit great design, while others seem like an after-thought for a back-of-the-box bullet point. So you could possibly make the argument that not only is length some sort of metric used by the audience, but some studios/developers are feeling the pressure as well.
How about single player games? Let us look at the evidence:
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Campaign
I played through this in one sitting. I remember my first playthrough my jaw was on the floor during some of the set pieces. They set out to create a balls-to-the-walls action game and they did it. Reviewers played it and what did they say? They couldn’t shut up about the “length”. And despite there being no “standard” for length they kept saying an ‘average' shooter’s single player tends to be longer. Time and time again the ‘negative' on CoD4 was that the campaign was short. The news of a ‘short' campaign for such a large title made headlines on many big sites.
At the end of the campaign I did have a thought about length: I was sad this awesome experience was coming to an end. But the compactness of it I think was its biggest strength! CoD4’s design philoposhy was to create a ‘hyper-realistic' experience that gets you as close (if not closer) to a big budget action movie as it could. If it was longer, the player becomes fatigued from the relentless action. A longer campaign would make them walk away not remembering the “whole” experience, just bits and pieces of it out of context. The game’s length was also another plus regarding the target audience. This was a mature game, namely for an adult age group. Most adults don’t have 40+ hours to dive into a solo game. So I applaud them for that. Why make something that the vast majority of your demographic won’t even see? The single player as an ‘experience' was worth the price of admission alone. Not on length, but quality. But it seems some use those two words interchangeably.
This little gem of a game from an awesome indie studio was amazing from start to finish. I’m not going to go on about it again as 2D Boy and others covered it pretty thoroughly. It took me 4-5 hours to beat. For those still trying to “rationalize” length, stop it. This game is an experience, not a damn feature film (which by the way, no one criticizes unless the film is too long it seems).
This game is where my frustration hit a boiling point. What’s amusing is the media didn’t really know how to approach a game that was genuinely pushing boundaries in game mechanics and at times it seemed they just defaulted to “it’s short”. Same goes for Portal. What does it say about the medium if people’s only complaint is “it’s too short”? I actually had a bit of an argument with a colleague who was stoked to buy the game, but once he read the positive reviews he decided against it because they said the campaign was short. OMGKDJFLA:JDWIO:JI#@R)@RJFDSFDL. Sorry. Got all angry again.
This time it seemed more perpetuated by the audience than the media. To the media’s credit, they focused on the game’s novelty and fresh gameplay mechanics, but still in passing mentioned how short it was. Just looking at this comment thread of all the ones who gave up the chance to try a truly unique game because it was “short” was quite saddening. I spent at least 20 hours playing that game. Not 3-4 as the single player was measured as. Why? Because it wasn’t even ABOUT the single player. This game was raw mechanics, freedom of movement, and anyone that took the time to dabble in the Time trials and the DLC knew it. They made the awesome concept of Quake Trick jumping accessible to a wider audience. Sadly due to the conventions of modern video games, anything not labeled ‘story', ‘campaign', or ‘single player' is considered a side-offering and should not be put up for consideration in the ‘total length' metric. It’s as if these same people didn’t play Geometry Wars. That game is a single damn screen, and it barely had any complaints about “length”.
At the End of the Day…
I sometimes feel games that get judged on length are treated by a different standard. Take a game that involves a system or a pure mechanic, like The Sims. No story. No levels. Just pure play. Something you enter and leave as you please. Another example: Geometry Wars. The whole experience is contained within a few short minutes. It makes no big claims of story or progression. Did length ever come up in the conversation? No, because length is ‘seemingly infinite' and as a result not part of the discussion. Give a game a finite story, or a finite set of levels and regardless of the mechanics and the depth of the gameplay it seems “length” is suddenly a talking point again. Weird huh? If length is the only thing one can discuss about the merits of a game, then is the game not deep enough or are we not engaging it enough?
If you got this far into my rant then length is apparently not an issue for you, so go on ahead and read other developers' take on it:
- Jonathan Blow of Number None
- Ron Carmel of 2DBoy
- Chris DeLeon
- Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye Games
- Eitan Glinert of Fire Hose Games
- Cliff Harris of Positech Games
- Chris Hecker of Spy Party
- Scott Macmillan of Macguffin Games
- Noel Llopis
- Peter Jones of Retro Affect
- Lau Korsgaard
- Martin Pichlmair of Broken Rules
- Greg Wohlwend of Intution Games
- Jeffrey Rosen of Wolfire
- Michael Todd
- Alex Amsel of Tuna
- Steve Swink from Enemy Airship
- Matt Gilgenbach of 24 Caret Games