11.12.2007

Length

A straightforward post today: the games I play are just too long.

I'm currently playing The Witcher, which is a pretty great game-- a solid PC RPG with a unique tone-- but I've probably put 15 or 20 hours into it, and I find myself wishing it were over. Not because I'm not enjoying it, but because I feel like I "get it"-- I've seen what the game has to offer, I've played through the available breadth of interactions, and now I'm simply repeating the established inputs in slightly different contexts. Maybe I'm casting a more powerful spell at a new enemy, but it's only a surface difference from the same dynamic found in the first hour of the game; maybe I'm navigating a new dialogue tree with a new character, but only the words are different while the interaction is the same. The prologue and first chapter of The Witcher were so fresh, fun, engaging, and perfectly cohesive as a unit, that I wish the first six hours had been the entire game, and left it at that. At the rate I'm going, I don't know if I'll see the ending at all.

I have a novelty-seeking personality, and always want to consume as many different films as I can, play through as many different games as possible, listen to a new album, fully digest it, then move on to the next. I'm not an MMO devotee, and I don't usually replay games I've already completed. But even finishing single-player games in the first place isn't all that common, and I know I'm not alone. From what I've been told, according to market research, fewer than half the players of any given commercial game make it past the 50% point of the campaign, and the dropoff increases rapidly the further you go. So, fewer than 50% of players make it past the second island of GTA3, or past the Berserker in Gears of War, or past the castle in Resident Evil 4. And forget about actually seeing the end credits. So I ask you: if only half your players even make it halfway through your games, why aren't we making games that are half as long?

I think Portal demonstrates how much greater a game can be for matching its length to its content. Portal hit that perfect mark at which the player had learned all the available inputs and play techniques, been given just enough to master them all, and experienced a complete narrative arc by the moment the end credits roll. Portal was 4 hours long because it only needed to be 4 hours long, no more, and probably no less.

In the same way, how long does it take the player to fully absorb all the mechanics and artifice of, say, F.E.A.R.? After a few hours, you've got a handle on all the movement controls, the battle tactics, the slow-mo effects; you've become familiar with Alma, the replica soldiers, and the general tone and rhythm of the game. At what point do you transition from exploring a new set of experiences, to rotely going through the motions just to reach the ending? I believe that in most games the transition point comes well before the conclusion of the included content, and it's at this moment most people put down a game for good, forgoing half the game they paid for; I believe the research bears this out.

I want all games to be as tight and compact as Portal-- greater length should be reserved for games of greater depth. I want to absorb the atmosphere and full range of interaction a game has to offer, then reach a resolution before it all becomes stale. I don't like that my arc of interest in Rogue Galaxy, Rainbow 6 Vegas, Halo 3 and Persona 3 ended long before I completed their campaigns. I want to finish these things without having to trudge-- I want the six-hour game that I can enjoy and complete and make a clean break from instead of just giving up. A six-hour game is reasonable; I can burn through a six-hour game in a night if I'm really dedicated, or play an hour a night and actually finish it in a week instead of a month. I want an hour or two to get acquainted with the world, a couple more hours to master the techniques embedded in the game dynamics, and then a final hour or two to really revel in the depth of the systems and finally resolve all the narrative elements. I want this to be true of all the games I play: action, adventure, and RPG. Stop making me force myself to finish your games.

I want to see a structure like this: develop your core gameplay, refine all the systems, then create a full, cohesive, well-paced 6-hour campaign that expresses it all in a compact fashion, a campaign that can stand on its own, that follows a complete narrative arc and provides me a satisfying resolution. Put an entire game into the first island of GTA3, or the prologue and first chapter of The Witcher, or the first act of Half-Life 2, and release it at retail as the "base game." Let me take away that single experience if that's all I want. Then, release the remainder of the campaign in chunks-- "Extensions" if you will-- that add further hours of content onto the base experience. If I'm satisfied with just the base game, I've given you my money and don't feel cheated out of an ending; then, if I just can't live without more content, I'm free to extend the game by buying more chunks of content from you and adding it onto the end of the base campaign. Do I want the game to be six hours, or 16, or 26? That all depends on my level of engagement with the world you've created. But regardless of what it is, I don't want to feel like I've missed out on a resolution to the game's conundrums just because I didn't have the level of commitment required to slog through a dozen hours of filler. The GTA structure would be perfect for this kind of release-- the base game is the entire city with just the core story missions woven through it; further Extensions weave more missions and characters into the existing gameworld, or provide access to a new island. It's a gameworld that expands outward at the player's will.

Think of it: how often do you walk out on a film halfway through? I'd wager not as often as you buy or rent a game without ever finishing it. How is it not a red flag to the industry that the player rarely sees the ending of the game you've made for them? We need to open our eyes. Give me base games that I can finish comfortably, or extend if I so choose. Leave me wanting more, instead of feeling relieved when it's finally over.

6 comments:

Duncan said...

I agree with a lot of your points. I can name plenty of games which I finished solely to finish them, not because I was still enjoying them.

There's definitely been a concerted critical effort to legitimise short games, which I fully support, if only because the people who disagree are those who still believe length is actually correlative with value.

But I'm afraid of an overcorrection. You're absolutely right when you say that Portal is as long as Portal needs to be. So what's wrong with a game that's as long as it needs to be, but it needs to be 30 hours? I don't believe that a good short game is inherently better than a good long game, unless you're trying to absorb as many games as possible.

To return to your film analogy, if you go to see a 3+ hour movie, are you really going to be as engaged in the final half-hour as you were in the middle? And the reason people don't walk out of films more often that is probably more to do with being in a crowded theater. When you give up on The Witcher you don't have an audience. I'm sure there's a lot more people who change the channel or shut the DVD player off halfway through.

I think when people give up on games it has a lot to do with their quality. Certainly, if there's still 15 hours to go that's very discouraging. But I stopped playing Dark Messiah of Might and Magic with about half an hour left. It wasn't a very good game and I was sure the effort it would take to finish it wouldn't be worth it. Likewise, Morrowind and Oblivion are of comparable length, and while I played Morrowind on-and-off for a year, I raced through Oblivion in two weeks. I'm simplifying your position, but I don't think there's some arbitrary threshold of length that will ensure everyone will complete your game even if really sucks.

Steve gaynor said...

Yeah, the 'six-hour game' is a fairly arbitrary designation; even for the certain types of games I'm thinking of, it could really be the 'eight-hour game' or maybe the 'ten-hour game.' It all depends on the breadth of interaction and depth of setting and character provided.

But I think that the film analogy is apt enough. I think that if films tended to be 5 or 6 or 9 hours long, even with intermissions, we'd see many more people walk out before the end. Film theatres would probably fail altogether, or start screening movies in 2- or 3-hour chunks. The game industry keeps on making 8 hour movies. People don't stay to see the end credits. It's bad news.

As to the idea of a game 'needing' to be 30 hours long in the same way that Portal needed to be 4, I just can't think of an example that would. The commercial game that requires 20+ hours to play out the entirety of its possibility space would be something altogether different that the games we've played thus far. Even a game like chess, that people can spend years playing and replaying, usually only takes an hour or two to go from first move the checkmate. And it's that hour or two I'm talking about, not the following dozens or hundreds or thousands of hours of replaying and mastering. It's those following hours that are totally optional.

Russ said...

I also agree with your points that many games develop a game play mechanic only to repeat them ad nauseam until the game ends twenty hours later. I also see your point that movies tend to discourage people as they get longer (the Lord of the Rings trilogy could not have been released as one movie). So how about a different analogy: books.

Many great novels can be quickly read, even serialized. On the other hand, there are those that can't be quickly read, such classics as David Copperfield or War and Peace, which many people start but don't finish. Length becomes an issue in the same way for games because the player or reader doesn't have the patience, the time, or maybe even the desire.

You are right that Portal only needed four hours to tell its tale, and a very good one at that. They developed the core concept to perfection and built the perfect amount of game play around it. I think this game would have been perfect for, and probably originally intended, for a service like Xbox Live Arcade, falling into the category of games like Alien Hominid. Some games, like Mass Effect, may need thirty or (most likely) more to tell their story. Not because they game play is constantly changing, but because the world is that deep. When I look at many of the “sandbox” style games, such as GTA or Oblivion, I see a straight forward story line that will probably take about twenty or so hours to complete. What I think you see as “Extensions” are the game’s diversions and side-missions that extend the game length to two or three times the central story line, maybe even into the hundreds of hours. Since they aren’t required, they are already built in extensions that the player can choose to explore or ignore. Game length at this point becomes whatever the player wants it to be before he moves on to something else.

Gwydeon said...

Portal only needed 4 hours to tell it's tale, because its tale was only a back drop for the game. Portal was about the physics and your interaction with the puzzles, not what the insane computer was babbling on about.

Comparing 'The Witcher' to 'Portal' is... well you know where this statement is going. The two are so diametrically different in design, scope, and delivery that they have similarities only in that they are games and on the computer. I challenge you to find a role playing game with any depth or story worth mentioning that can fit in a four to eight hour spread.

Steve gaynor said...

I'm not looking for examples of 6-hour RPGs that have already been released. What I'm saying is that a game like The Witcher has fully expressed its range of interactions within that four-to-eight hour window, but goes on to tell a 30-to-50 hour story.

A game like Super Mario Galaxy, for instance, contains at least 20 hours of content for anyone who cares to complete it, and every single galaxy you visit over the course of the game adds new and unique interactions to the actual gameplay experience. Super Mario Galaxy "needs" to be 20+ hours long because it has a volume of unique interactions that requires 20+ hours for the player to absorb and enjoy.

Match the length of your game to the breadth and depth of its interactions. If I've absorbed all your game mechanics and dynamics within the first six hours, give me a story that comes to a satisfying resolution within six hours.

A7A said...

First and foremost I would like to question if it is inherently a bad design choice to use the same kind of game mechanics in order to expand the narrative. Although I myself also often quit games before finishing them, but more often not further than 1/3 through (I've become good at this, same with movies, which I'm proud of because I know people that stick right through it even if they are having a bad time), I can certainly imagine how the same gameplay, only harder perhaps, could give a different setting and a different part of the narrative a new meaning and as such be justified.

Maybe by giving the player unbalanced weapon settings in the start and then taking away the better weapons, maybe by forcing the player to use non-lethal weapons in lethal weapons in a lethal way, or subverting the same dialogue options, giving them a different meaning.

Secondly, am I the only one who thinks Portal was too long? The part when you started escaping the facility actually was superfluous I would say. Maybe it had some meaning that I didn't grasp from a narratical point of view, but to me it just seemed as the same type of puzzles once more.

On the by and by, let's hope Divine Comedy won't take as long to play as to read; I don't believe in miracles after seeing the trailers.