Ever since my dad held me up to a Pole Position cabinet to steer as he worked the pedals, I've been absolutely hooked on games. It just took me 25 years to figure out that I loved writing about them too. I don't have any particular genre biases, I'll play just about anything that involves pressing buttons (that's probably why I shouldn't visit hospitals...). This blog is just the thoughts of a guy who loves games, but is occasionally frustrated when they squander their potential.
Recently, I’ve been wrestling with a truth I dared not utter: I firmly believe that the industry would actually benefit from shorter games instead of longer ones. I’ve suspected it for quite some time, but whenever I got close to realizing it, my inner hardcore gamer would spring into action: swiftly taking this idea and locking it in the deepest, darkest basement of my subconscious it could find, leaving it with only a leaking pipe and stale MRE’s to survive on. The only thing to comfort him were his plots of revenge: the numerous elaborate and deeply satisfying ways I would make Uncle Joe pay for locking me down here…oh…wait. We were talking about videogames weren’t we? Shit. They said this would happen if I stopped taking the pills cold turkey.
So, yeah. Game length! For quite some time, gamers have ballyhooed the fact that games seem to be getting shorter and shorter. There was once a time when all games were expected to give you a good 15 to 20 hours of fun or they were considered rip-offs. Nowadays, you’ve got the campaigns of Uncharted and COD clocking in routinely under 10 hours, and I actually think things could be taken a step further.
Why? There are several reasons, really. Primary among them is the strengthening of narrative. Quite simply, if games are to truly make the next step and finally offer up our “Citizen Kane,” there needs to be more care put into storytelling. This is really, really hard to do with a game that’s over 10 hours long. How many times have you been playing something and by the end, you have no idea why you’re standing in a missile silo across from this guy in a Halloween costume who's holding a gun to your girlfriend’s head? Sure, lazy or more aptly—non-existent writing is partly to blame here, but this is also a problem when a game is just too big for the story’s britches.
A lot of games really just need to be in the 4-8 hour range. Imagine tight, cohesive story lines similar to movies, consistently paced to keep the player engaged. Hell, maybe we could finally have some decent character arcs for once. A more story and character driven medium also has the possibility to draw the attention of more film directors like Guillermo del Toro; potentially broadening the appeal of games the likes we have never seen.
Another positive aspect of games being made drastically shorter is the removal of the fluff and time wasting that is such a plague today. Admit it, every game has them: the fetch quests, the backtracking, the ubiquitous RPG elements. These are all artificial lengetheners that absolutely no one enjoys. After awhile, they start to resemble a kid that writes a paper and starts repeating themselves in different ways to meet the page requirement. Quite frankly, I don’t have time for this shit anymore. And who does? With more and more great games coming out every year, and many gamers starting families of their own, there is just not enough time to be a good grown up and be a good gamer at the same time. With the advent of shorter games, a person could conceivably finish a game in a weekend, and still have quite the satisfying experience.
Speaking of finishing games, shorter games also equal higher completion rates. According to some studies, only 20% of people who start any given game will actually see it to completion. This makes it obvious that the problem lies not in difficulty, but in excessive length, and waning of player interest.
Backlogs: they're not just for hoarders anymore
This brings me to another point: for far too long difficulty curves have been cascading down a slippery slope towards games just playing themselves as the player watches. The advent of substantially shorter games would herald the return of actual challenge and the requirement of skill. This isn’t some new concept either. If you’re old enough to remember, most games from the 8 and 16-bit eras could be completed in a couple hours, provided you knew what you were doing. If not, a game like Ninja Gaiden could take weeks, or even months (or in some cases a couple days and a team of professional gamers). Back then, backbreaking difficulty was not the sign of a broken game, but a feature. Kids wanted their bang for their buck in playtime, so designers happily obliged by killing them. Over, and over, and over. The mere thought warms my icy curmudgeon heart.
Another great reason for short games? Price. And this applies to all parties involved. There’s this huge contingency of gamers (that I used to be a part of) that bemoaned shorter games. I think this complaint is not rooted in enjoyment, but instead the need to feel value in a purchase. Lets face it: buying a video game has always been quite the investment. Every time a gamer commits to a purchase, he’s forking over fifty to seventy bucks of their hard-earned cash. So of course people want to get their money's worth. That’s why if a game’s length is halved, the price should be too. Can you imagine how many more games people would play if both the price and time commitment were more akin to going to the movies? You shell out $20-$30 dollars and a few hours of your time and in return, you get a satisfying and complete gaming experience. No backlogs, no struggling to find time to play, no story amnesia, and no gaping hole in your pocket.
Now there’s going to be plenty of naysayers to this plan. This mostly has to do with the false equivalency between length and quality(at least that’s what I tell my girlfriend). All you have to do is think back a little to realize that this is hardly the case. Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Portal , Limbo, Resident Evil 1-3, Silent Hill 1-3, The Uncharted series, Heavy Rain, Rez…All unforgettable games that can completed in under 10 hours. In these cases, abbreviated length actually helped leave a lasting impression. As the old saying goes: “Always leave em wanting more.” Besides, just think if we applied the same logic to movies. Transformers: Dark of the Moon was almost three fucking hours, and by the end of that I was gnawing on my wrists like a coyote in a bear trap. In a similar vein, I think L.A. Noire would have been a much stronger game if it were about five hours shorter. Even a good story can overstay it’s welcome.
Only three hours but stays with you much longer.
Despite much of gamers’ crying and gnashing of teeth, I think that the entire industry is ever so subtly setting up for this paradigm shift. Looking at the writing on the wall, the Wii U may be the last time we see a physical media based console. Even today, bite-sized dlc episodes are becoming the norm for most AAA titles, and it really wouldn't take much of a push for an entire game to be released this way. And would that be so bad? Your favorite studios releasing great games every three to six months, instead of one to two years. This means they get a much more steady flow of income, and gamers get a steady flow of good, affordable games. And if someone really missed their 20-30 hour gaming experience, they could always wait for the trade at the end of the year.
Now after writing some 1200 words rallying for shorter games, I would be remiss in not clarifying that all games need not adhere to this standard. Sweeping epics like Skyrim and trilogies like Mass Effect all have their place in the world. The core problem isn't that games are too long, but games that are artificially long. Developers, listen up! Stop wasting our time and we'll start giving you more money. It's as simple as that.
Don't listen to cryogenically frozen British spies...games don't need one of these to be please.