It's Not All About Length
This week's Gamasutra Question of the Week is:
How important is the length of a video game for you, as someone involved in the industry? Is there a particular 'hours per $ purchase price' that makes sense, or are there other sensible measures of replayability beyond simple linear mission modes? How should the game industry address this problem in the future?
I can see Richard Bartle gnashing his teeth in anger as I type. The question is so badly worded that it's almost a joke. It shifts from 'length of a video game' to 'measure of replayability' (whatever that means) half way through and then sums up by asking how this problem should be dealt with - who said there was a problem?. I was going to answer on the Gamasutra site, because it's a subject I do have opinions about, but I think I'd best keep my answer to this little read forum instead...
The article which leads to the question stems from a letter by Zoe Nichols. You should take a moment to read it but in short she'd go for quantity over quality if there was no other choice. Her ideal, I think, would be cutting edge technology in a game which offers 24+ hours of gameplay. She thinks that's what $70 should buy her... I disagree with her wholeheartedly, except perhaps for that last point, but only because I think $70 is far too expensive for a video game.
Personally I like to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I've probably completed less than a quarter of the games I have played. In fact it's probably less than that(can you have less than 'less than'?). Here's a list including one or two from each of the platforms I have owned over the years:
Dr Who and the Mines of Terror (BBC)
Cybercon 3 (Atari ST)
Crash Bandicoot (Playstation)
Advance Wars (GBA)
Burnout 3 (PS2)
These are all games that I really enjoyed and I didn't complete any of them. I could probably list all the games I have actually completed from memory (it would include Another World (ST), Out Run (Arcade), Wario 4 (GBA), Half Life 1 & 2 (PC)). And often it's a complete let down to play right to the end anyway (Half Life 1 being a prime example). Unlike Zoe I'd go for 6 hours of gameplay over 24 in most cases. Perhaps not in games like Burnout, but certainly in anything which purports to having some sort of story. I hate story in games, but levels are okay, and often the levels are wrapped in a story for fairly obvious reasons.
My dislike of long games is coupled with a disdain for the way games are priced. Give me Advance wars with 10 levels for £10, then sell more levels for £5 a pack. Half Life could have been half as long and still satisfied me. Some games are just so hard that it seems no-one will ever see their denouements (Cybercon 3, Lander). And for those cutting edge, virtual worlds; those story driven adventures into alternate realities which are going to cost £40 no matter how long they are, what I want is six hours of amazing game play. Six hours of faultless, coherent escapism. I can think of nothing worse than a game like Deus Ex. A sprawling melodrama ruined by endless inconsistencies (it aims to be a real world but, as usual, only 10% of the doors open and half of the items in the world can never be collected).
If the scope of a game was reduced dramatically but the effort and attention to detail refocused then we might start to see truly convincing game worlds. Set a game entirely in an office block, but make everything work. Every phone, vending machine, computer, drawer, trolley, everything. I know some people in the industry are aiming for this. I had the pleasure to once work (indirectly) with Paul Holmes who always dreamed (I think) of creating truly convincing game worlds (see Hunter, one of his earliest efforts). The best examples are often still text based games (MUD 2 continually surprised me right up until the moment I prized myself away from it).
In fact, I'd go one further. I'd be happy if I sat down to play a game on my XBOX 360 knowing that the experience would last 45 minutes, and no longer. A tense, action packed race against the clock set in a game world which was so densely populated with convincing characters, objects and incidents and so amazingly rendered that I wouldn't have time ponder it's inevitable inadequacies. Then, when I'm done (be it success or failure) I could chose to play again, perhaps making the same choices, perhaps different, or maybe as a different character entirely and on a completely different arc.
It's not that I've got a short attention span or anything, I just think that games are too long (and often formulaic). It reminds me of Lost and 24 - except with games there's no advertising revenue driving the content on into an almost never ending stream of mediocrity. I want my games to be like Edge Of Darkness. I want a six part drama of world class proportions not 144 episodes of never ending, repetitious dross! (And I want Bob Peck to come back to life, dammit.)
But if Zoe's in tune with the masses (and I fear she is) then I'm not going to get it am I?