Friday, August 7, 2009

My game is longer than yours

There has been much debate lately as to a trend emerging that games are getting shorter and shorter. It is certainly true that some of the biggest recent games have been notably shorter than previous big releases. Games like Gears of War, Bioshock, and Call of Duty 4 (to name a few) were all less than 10 hour affairs.

But is this a good thing?

Many think not, and they may have a point. After all, console games, at $60, cost more than ever before. Add to that the new trend in microtransactions and downloadable content that a lot of people think (and not unfairly) is content that should of been in the game at launch anyway, and you can see why some gamers aren't too fond of shorter games.

Yet it wasn't too long ago that some games were actually advertised for being particularly long. I believe it was one of the Final Fantasy games that claimed to clock in at well over 50 hours. And surely, if you actually play a game for 50 hours you are getting more bang for your buck. But can a game even hold your interest for 50 hours?

Not for me it can't. For my part, once a game hits about the 8 hour mark I begin to grind through the gameplay just so that I can see the ending. Good games can reach 9 hours before this happens. Great games, just 10. The simple fact is that games, by their nature, force you to do similar tasks over and over. By giving you a new weapon or ability the game buys itself a certain amount of freshness and extends its life by an amount of time. In the last few years we have seen developers add in so-called "palate cleanser" levels that act as a short-but-sweet distraction from the main part of the game. Usually it works (HL2:Ep2 antlion turret segment), sometimes it doesn't (GoW2 tank segments, looking at you); but it is clear that the segments are there to extend the life of the game by giving gamers a break from the repetition of the main gameplay bits. Developers are taking note.

I don't think it is a coincidence that the best games coming out have been smaller. What's more, I think it all boils down to simple logic: The longer the game is the harder it is to pack it with fresh content. Long games end up having to use fatty, boring filler segments. In the August '09 issue of Game Informer, John Carmack essentially agrees by criticizing his own Doom 3 for being too long. It is because of games striving for length that we saw the now infamous design tactic of retreading through a level emerge (In what was one of the few universal criticisms for the game, Halo was infamous for this).

Furthermore, by design long games encourage "shelf level events". The term, which I first heard used by Viridian Games (great design blog), means any in-game event that moves you to take the disc out of the drive and stop playing, indefinitely. Typically, it means big game breaking bugs that make you reload to an earlier save, or a frustratingly hard sequence. But after so many hours, when you are getting bored anyway, the threshold for what will turn you off from the game lowers dramatically.

Was that Final Fantasy game 50 hours+? Maybe, but I don't want to bother playing it to find out.

Full disclosure: I hate JRPGS as a rule anyway. Maybe Final Fantasy whatever was great...
No it wasn't.

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