Five seconds doesn’t seem like a long time. Actually it’s a tremendously short period of time.
But what if those five seconds are spent waiting for a video game. Does that context change anything? Do those five seconds then become significant?
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about loading times recently. Mainly because I’ve been playing three video games where loading times are either an issue, part of some debate, or short to the point where they are non-existent.
The first, of course, is Bloodborne. A video game so universally loved that loading times are one of the few things we’re allowed to complain about.
The second is OlliOlli 2: a game with next to no loading screens at all. A video game where pleasure is almost dependent on that fact. A game that is tremendously fun and compelling precisely because one can restart almost instantaneously.
The third game is Titan Souls. Let’s talk about that one first.
Titan Souls is a game that I am enjoying very much. I love the aesthetic, I love the sense of scale. I love how the game is literally nothing but boss fights; boss fights that aren’t necessarily tests of endurance or skill, but a problem to be solved. It takes concepts we’ve seen in other games – like Shadow of the Colossus – and strips them back fully to their barest elements. It’s great.
That’s been my experience at least.
But friends of mine had different experiences. When I mentioned how much I was enjoying Titan Souls they began complaining about it. “There’s too much time between deaths” “It takes too long to get to fights”. Those were the common complaints. Note: Titan Souls is a game where players die frequently and experimentation is necessary for progress.
Weird, I hadn’t noticed that at all. And that’s normally the kind of thing I’m acutely aware of: video games wasting my time.
After a while we identified a common theme: people playing Titan Souls on PS4, myself included, thought there was no issue. The time between death, respawn and the next boss fight was suitable, even ideal, allowing -- as it does -- time for the player to reflect before rejoining the fray.
Those playing on the PlayStation Vita absolutely disagreed. No, the game interrupts players. Disrespects their time. It takes far too long from death to respawn to boss fight.
So I tried playing on the Vita to see what all the fuss was about.
Oh. That’s what they were complaining about.
A load time. Non-existent in the PlayStation 4 version. A black screen that hangs for, I’d estimate, five to six seconds. Every time you die. Every time you head into a new room. The same pause. A loading screen you don’t have to deal with on the PS4. A big enough inconvenience to completely change someone’s opinion of a video game.
Of course, I can’t speak for my friends. They may have other, equally valuable reasons for not enjoying Titan Souls, but that seemed to be their major complaint. A complaint I didn’t have until I began playing on the Vita and noticed those very same frustrations. The change was instantaneous.
Deaths felt more significant. Not in a good way. Death became far more annoying. Again, not in a good way. Slight issues that I initially swept aside and ignored suddenly felt like game changers. Deaths I normally shrugged off became justifiable reasons to turn off the PS Vita and play something else instead. Those five seconds. That’s all it took. That was the only difference. A minor inconvenience. A tiny moment my lizard brain made an issue of. The instant respawn was gone and everything felt different.
I thought of OlliOlli 2, a game that worked very much like Hotline Miami when it was first released. Next to no loading. A restart or a ‘death’ results in an instant respawn. Crucially, the music doesn’t stop. It continues playing. The suggestion here: death is not the end point, simply part of the fabric that is the OlliOlli/Hotline Miami experience. Nothing has stopped, everything is normal. Keep going, we’re still having fun here. Death isn’t ‘death’. It’s a bum note on Guitar Hero. Keep on trucking, keep on performing. The show must go on.
That’s the five second difference. With Titan Souls even two seconds would have felt significant.
The elephant in the room here is Bloodborne. In Bloodborne you don’t ‘endure’ five second waits between deaths – it’s way, way worse. Pre-patch loading times were close to a minute in some cases, yet I didn’t feel the same frustration as I did with Titan Souls on the PS Vita.
I wasn’t alone either. Those complaining about Titan Souls’ load times were often the very same people claiming Bloodborne’s load times reinforced the game’s design.
Why the hell is that?
Both games are fundamentally different for one thing. Crucially, the time spent playing is different. Titan Souls is fast, twitchy; 20 seconds between respawn; death is all-too common. Bloodborne is different. Sure, it’s a game known for killing its players frequently, but death is rarely instantaneous. It often comes after a long struggle, or a dozen or so lesser enemy encounters. Simply put: if you’re going to be dying over and over again in a short period of time, those five seconds of waiting are going to feel extremely significant.
That’s not necessarily the case with Bloodborne. There’s a ratio here. Time spent playing to time spent waiting during load times is important. The times I was most frustrated in Dark Souls or Bloodborne? The boss battles it took me longest to get to but killed me the quickest. The Capra Demon in Dark Souls springs to mind here.
Bloodborne also has its retrieval mechanic.
In Bloodborne death is not the be-all-and-end-all. Upon death, players lose the Blood Echoes they’ve been collecting -- the currency required to level-up or upgrade your weapons -- but they are also allowed one single chance to get them back. This is often ignored, but remains key to that From Software 'feel'. It’s the main reason why Bloodborne (and Dark Souls) is so compelling. That currency you worked so hard to acquire – it’s out there. You can go back and get it.
One more go.
One more go.
It’s the difference between, ‘bugger this, I’ve had enough’ and ‘sure, I’ll wait through this inordinately long loading screen’. Crucially, it also reduces that feeling of frustration. It’s a release valve for that pressure.
A release valve that Titan Souls doesn’t have.
It means that every single moment spent waiting only serves to increase the frustration. For a game like Titan Souls -- clearly -- every second counts.