This week we started talking about game length - are they too long? Are they too short? But then things started getting complicated!
Joining us this week is Dylan 'Gameboffin' Burns, Editor in Chief of Pixel Hunt and regular contributor to Hyper Magazine. Dylan is a great writer, and a stand-up guy. He recently transferred all donations made towards the Pixel Hunt 2010 Yearbook to the Queensland flood fund, which we think is a pretty cool thing to do.
Anyway - let's get down to business...
MARK: Alright Dylan ‘The Boff’ Burns – are games getting shorter these days? And does it really matter?
DYLAN: Hi Mark. First of all, thanks for letting me use the comfy chair. And I love your ‘What would Wildgoose do?’ screensaver. Ahem, game length. Yes, I do think that games are getting shorter these days, but not in the literal sense.
I think that we’re seeing an increase in the amount of titles where you become aware of the entire suite of mechanical/gameplay elements present in a game a lot sooner. A great example is Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. The whole game is structurally and graphically identical to Assassin’s Creed 2 – it’s just been rejigged to present a new city and new quests. If you wash away the new storyline for a moment, the gameplay experience that you’re having is incredibly similar to previous games, so that the journey of game discovery becomes shorter.
Race for an hour in NFS: Hot Pursuit and you’ve experienced pretty much everything that you’ll be doing for the next 10 or 15. Load up Final Fantasy XIII and, actually, no... don’t subject yourself to that. I guess what I’m saying is that developers are relying on our investment in games, in terms of money spent and engagement with social aspects such as Achievements or auto updates, to elongate game time artificially. This allows them to pump out yearly sequels with just enough new content that we almost don’t realise that we’ve been down that road before.
MARK: I just want to make it clear that I am not in possession of a ‘What would Wildgoose do?’ screensaver, because the response to said question is the same no matter what the circumstance. Ran out of food and water? Play Far Cry 2. Invaded by China? Play Far Cry 2. Copy of Far Cry 2 broken/worn out? Play Minecraft.
But, back on topic, I think what you’re saying is that developers are more content to stretch a single set of mechanics across a 5-8 hour game - rinse and repeat – and concentrate on fluffing said mechanics out with things like story, game universe, etc, etc.
I think I would agree with that. In fact – those are the kind of circumstances that are more likely to make me feel like a game is too long. A game like Metroid Prime for example – it’s a long game, but it felt short to me, because it was constantly feeding me new mechanics, new experiences, and linking them seamlessly into some of the best level design I’ve ever seen. Gears of War on the other hand – which I do love – often feels a little dragged out, mainly because it uses the same (admittedly awesome and well-polished) mechanics for the entirety of the game.
Is that what you’re getting at?
DYLAN: Definitely. I often feel that my play style has changed over the years too. Where once I would track down every quest in an RPG or find every hidden package in a GTA game, I am now more likely to just explore an open world for a few hours and then get down to the business of the main quest. I can see through the design curtain and am much less enthused to dance to its tune. So in that sense I don’t think that games getting shorter matters a whole lot, because if you trim the fat from other games you’re left with products of comparable parity. Of course, that didn’t save Mafia II from getting completely hammered by critics.
Another way in which developers are ostensibly ‘deepening’ our experience is with multiplayer. Providing an online space allows them to completely eschew those time consuming elements such as storyline and scripting. Simply design a level, nut out an upgrade tree, throw in 32 people and there you go, have fun for the next 20 hours. A six hour single player campaign is then (from a developer’s perspective) entirely justifiable, because you’ve got ‘awesome’ multiplayer, which places the enjoyment responsibility squarely on the players’ shoulders.
MARK: I think you’re being a little too hard on the multiplayer aspect of games to be honest – I think the days of throwing together a half-arsed multiplayer component are over. The work that has gone into, say, the multiplayer of Halo: Reach is incredible and, for me, represents the major reason for buying the game. Same goes, I’m sure, for fans of Call of Duty.
Multiplayer, if designed right, is fun forever. If it’s unbalanced and features terrible map design, it’s fun for precisely two seconds. There’s a real art to balancing and play-testing the absolute crap out of the multiplayer section of your game, and I have a lot of respect for the developers who get it right.
But on the topic of design - and seeing through the curtain – I wouldn’t necessarily say that seeing through said curtain is necessarily bad. In fact, I think there’s a lot of enjoyment to be gleaned from playing video games on a meta-level. Basically, I just want to be surprised – that represents value for money for me, and it represents a motivation to continue playing. I kept playing Mario Galaxy because it seemed like every single level was showing me something entirely new – I’ve given up on so many games quickly because I feel like I’ve seen everything they have to show in the first hour.
DYLAN: My multi-casual preferences are showing now, aren’t they? Okay, I’ll grant that multiplayer can be deep. My statement was aimed primarily at those games that simply don’t need multiplayer, yet jump on the bandwagon anyway.
Maintaining new ideas across hours of gameplay can’t be easy, I’ll admit. Mario Galaxy 2 makes everything seem so natural that when you look back over your experience the sheer technical brilliance suddenly comes to light. Another woefully underrated title of last year was Nier. Get past the dated graphics and iffy voice acting and you experience a game that is not afraid to experiment with all manner of crazy changes in gameplay. Even just the way in which the perspective shifts to side-on 2D whenever you enter buildings keeps things interesting.
We could just be expecting too much. A film script runs at 120 pages to keep you engaged for two hours, whereas a game needs many times that, sometimes into thousands of pages, in order to maintain player interest for tens of hours. Up until now, we’ve accepted the padding out of a narrative with repetitive design, but as we move forward I’m hoping that we’ll see more effort put into stories that constantly surprise us and make us think.