More in the bottle: the dubious value of game length
August 23, 2010
Whenever a game is previewed, a writer is going to ask about the length. Whenever the length of a game is given in a review, there is bound to be someone in the comments wailing about the state of modern gaming, and it’s always the same gripe: "Since when is it okay to release a game at X price that’s only Y hours long?" Last week a group of developers wrote a series of articles arguing that more isn’t always better, and that a focus on length is destructive.
Measure satisfaction, not time
This week, Klei Entertainment will release Shank on both the PlayStation Network and the Xbox Live Arcade. The game will sell for $15, the length is more Limbo than Baldur’s Gate, and I hope they will forgive my slight bending of the embargo by saying it is a game you should buy.
Klei CEO Jamie Cheng argued in Gamasutra that there is a minimum requirement for length, and it is lower than developers and publishers believe. "A novel that is 10 pages long isn’t a novel, and a movie that is half an hour long would cause people to question the value of their dollars…" he wrote. "But I think we can move beyond questioning every developer if they are reaching a minimum quantity bar. That bar, as evidenced by Portal, is quite low."
The idea is to create a satisfying, high-quality experience, and that’s not always a matter of length. "If your experience is best told in three hours, please, for goodness’ sake, don’t add another three hours of the same damn thing just to pad my gaming time—that, contrary to popular opinion, removes value," Cheng explained.
The issue is satisfaction: what does it take to for gamers to be satisfied by the experience? It’s not an easy question, and the answer is a moving target. While researching another story, I ended up sharing notes on Alan Wake with Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade. "Whenever I play a game by Remedy, by the end of it I’m satisfied," Holkins told me.
It’s a feeling I share: Max Payne and Alan Wake are not long games, but they tell good stories with a beginning, middle, and end, and their characters are interesting. On paper, six or eight hours may look criminal for a $60 game, but since when is a painting sold by the foot? A poem by the word?
Ask anyone who has traveled to the Louvre what they think of the Mona Lisa, and you’ll usually get an answer along the lines of "It’s actually rather small."
Do gamers say they want longer games while not actually behaving as if they do? Hello Games admits that only 10 percent of players ever finished Joe Danger, and most game writers only made it to the halfway mark. Why not cut your losses and make shorter games?
"Was it a wasted effort to add those last few levels that most people don’t see, though? Is it valueless?" Hello Games’ Managing Director Sean Williams asked in Edge. "For me it’s the finest part of the game, we’ve spent 20 hours building to that final level. Those 10 percent are our most valued players: most have mailed us afterwards or sent us levels of their own. They understand the controls and mechanics on almost the same level we do. We love them."
This is always going to be personal
There are no absolutes in this conversation, as gamers have different budgets and differing amounts of time to spend playing games. Putting a value-judgment on time is dangerous for reviewers, as more does not always equal better. Presenting the information about a game’s length to the readers so they can make up their own mind is the way to go, especially since there’s not always a clear case that a game’s length is a plus or a minus.
Remember, when you spend more for a nice bourbon, you’re not getting any more liquid in the bottle. Would you rather play a tightly constructed and paced 10-hour game, or a meandering 20-hour game? With downloadable games being released for $15 or less, there is now room for games that last three to six hours and deliver something satisfying in that time.
This post has been written by Ben Kuchera on August 23, 2010 12:35 PM couresy of arstechnica.com.