Less Is More

Games should be shorter!

It's the woe of every committed gamer: piles of uncompleted games. We all swear we'll go back and complete Vice City/Splinter Cell/Project Gotham/Mario Sunshine/Metroid Prime/Wind Waker but the sad reality is most of us will - most likely - never get around to resuming our valiant quest to conquer these epics.

Picking on any of the above recent classics, it's fair to say that all of them take well in excess of 20 hours to complete. Maybe more. And these are just the deserving cases; the elite titles that really warrant you spending weeks on end coming back to.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the cream of the crop are literally dozens of equally great titles of their era dating back probably 10 years or more that you still - every once in a while convince yourself in a moment of foolishness that you'll come back to and lavish the attention that any number of classic games over the years surely deserve.

And you know what the problem is? Games are just too bloody long. Pure and simple. I can hear the 'bloody journalist' comments already, but bear with me. This is something that's been happening for years before I got paid to play games.

Big piles of TBC

We review about 30 games a month here at EG, and in the name of good service we like to play through as much of them as humanly possible. But that's all well and good, until you work out how long it actually takes to complete the average game.

Now, I have no better idea of what constitutes an average game length than anyone else (no-one's exactly been counting have they?), but over the past twenty odd years that figure seems to have grown out of all proportion.

You see, it never used to be this way. When videogames first grabbed me by the scruff of the neck in those days of Grandstand TV games systems, smoky arcades, attribute clash and R: tape loading errors, the idea of it taking you 10, 20, 30 or more hours just to feckin' finish a game would've seemed insane. Even the most (seemingly) ambitious, vast, labyrinthine epics of the era like Jet Set Willy, Underwurlde and Sabre Wulf could be (theoretically) completed in a matter of a few hours, providing you were good enough (and they weren't bugged to shit).

No matter what genre you were into, be it adventure, arcade, platform, shoot 'em up, whatever, you could, with an elite level of skill, eventually crack these games in a few hours from start to finish, and happily move on, maybe completing several games over a weekend if you were really on a roll.

Then the CD era came along and everything went tits up. Cartridges had hinted at what was to come, with epics like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger commanding immense amount of time, but CDs really stuck the boot in. Almost overnight, publishers and developers made an enormous rod for their own backs and began producing the kind of epics that could feasibly last the average (and I use this term loosely) gamer several weeks or even months. "40 hours of gameplay!!!" screamed the packaging. "Over 100 hours of gameplay!!!" Oh, turn it in.

Out of Time

Now, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with giving the consumer better value for money, and therefore a longer and potentially even more enjoyable experience, but from my experience a worrying proportion of games will never get finished, and this is a crime. It's curiously unsatisfying and niggles away at the back of your mind like a thousand loose ends and adventures unfinished. It'd be like watching the first half an hour of a movie or reading the first ten chapters of a book, or listening to the first few tracks of a CD and leaving them to one side. Unless they were just really bad movies/CD/books, you just wouldn't be so utterly wasteful in your consumption of really high quality entertainment that you're enjoying intensely. But, in the land of videogames, we do it routinely.

Having asked around, and seen enough evidence of it over the years, it's clear there's a lot of us sitting there guiltily with a gigantic pile of really great titles. Classics even. So how many have we actually finished? Half? 60 per cent, ten per cent? Whatever, it's a grossly disproportionate figure that says a lot about how bloated the videogaming entertainment medium has become over the years (and remember, this exact same thing happened well before the freebies started arriving through the post). Ask yourself. Do you really only ever finish watching a fraction of the DVDs you buy? Of course not!

So what happens? How do we allow this situation to persist? Firstly, let's absolve the content creators from blame for a moment. Maybe it's a time issue for many of us. Post-school/college/uni, we simply don't have the free time we once had to idle away playing "silly videogames" as my dear mother describes them to this day. You get a job, a partner, maybe a kid, and a whole world of other responsibilities. For the majority of gamers, squeezing in the time to play games means - pretty much - not spending much time doing anything else in our leisure time. And surely that's a bit sad when there are so many other things to do in life? Like socialise for starters.

But while that's unquestionably true for many of you (although not Tom), that doesn't hide the fact that game creators keep making bigger and more bloated games (outside of the looser infinite replay value inherent in sports titles). It's unquestionable that the games we've encountered over the past decade take most of us more time than we have to spare to complete.

If we only bought two or three games a year, then this might not be an issue (and for some of you this may well be the case), and you'd be right to want your 'money's worth', but the undeniable fact is that the price of games comes down extremely quickly - sometimes within a matter of weeks.

The Price Is Right

Again, let's check how this situation of a vast uncompleted games collection perpetuates and persists. Easy. Fast forward a few months and a quick glance at the racks will result in you dealing with the classic gamer conundrum: the sale. Faced with some gloriously cut-priced releases that have been on your list for some time, you can't resist. Oh, and what's this? "Three for a tenner" you say? Shit, I'll have six. Actually, screw it, better make it nine. Nine games for less than the price of one new one. Wow. Before you know it, you've got a pile of really great games that you've been dying to play for eons, and because they're not that new, you know you've got the kit to run them without having to take out a mortgage to upgrade your rig. Excellent. If we're talking consoles, then even better.

So you get home, studiously play through a bit of Deus Ex, maybe some Half-Life, Tomb Raider II's still looking good for its age. Hey, isn't Grim Fandango an underrated classic? Gotta love those old LucasArts games. It's all going well; for a few weeks you're feasting on games for next to nothing, and then what happens? A brand new killer app hits the shelves (or worse - two at the same time) that have been delayed for years, and you'll drop everything to play them. Of course you do - you need to keep up. You wouldn't miss this for the world.

So you do. If it's that really special game it'll be 3AM sessions, red eye, rushing home to play, whinging girlfriend, concerned employees, caffeine addiction, spots, terrible food, weight loss and a general lack of personal hygiene. Call the cops!

Ok, that's possibly a little extreme, (and if it isn't then you probably need help) but at the very least, attempting to complete a modern videogame almost demands such levels of obsession. Or weeks on end of steady play.

But what about that pile of cheapo classics you bought the other week? Or that curiosity purchase you bought at a discount price? Now and then you'll dip into them, maybe if a mate comes round and wants to see it, but in reality you're fighting a losing battle. Maybe you'll do the decent thing and purge your insanely cluttered pile and trade them in, but for many of us, having them sat there is somehow comforting. Because we'll get back to them one day, right?

Can't look back

If that was a pile of DVDs, or a pile of CDs, or even books, the chances are you would come back to them, because putting a CD on for half an hour while you're getting ready, or spending 90 minutes of an evening watching a movie is easy. These are bite-size things to do. Getting back into a game you're 30 per cent into having left it on the shelf for a month or ten is a different story. The chances are you've forgotten what the hell happened in the storyline (which you weren't really paying attention to anyway, judging by the standard of most terrible videogaming narrative). Worse still, you can't even remember what you're supposed to be doing, or the controls. All those combos and tactics you were so good at - it's all a blur now, and of course the game's that much harder now. Bugger it. Let's put this new one on.

And so it goes on. The very nature of videogames and the advancements in technology keep us excited, and that perennial child-like excitement tempts us into buying the latest, greatest version time and time again. It's worked for me for the last twenty odd years, anyway. This longing for the new also forces us to prioritise, and the priority is generally playing the latest thing out there, resulting in that gigantic pile of dusty games you're absolutely categorically going to play. Sometime. Soon. Never.

So the next time you moan at a game being too short, ask yourself whether you'd have any less fun if they were half the size? The likelihood is no, because many of these games you'd never finish anyway.

And besides, if games were shorter, wouldn't they take less time to develop? Rather than take three years making a 65-level epic, why not make it 15 levels long, get the game out quicker and save a whole pile of money. You see, in the era when games were generally shorter, they were also cheaper to make, and the developers behind them tended to make more games and experiment a little more.

Teamwork

Let's take a couple of Brit developers as an example: Team 17 and Revolution, both about to release new games that have been years in the making, and somewhat depressingly sequels to boot.

Between autumn 1992 and 93 Team 17 released Project X, Assassin, Superfrog, Body Blows, Overdrive and Alien Breed 2 at about 24.99 each. Even as a cash-strapped student I bought and completed every single one, and played every one of them to death. They were absolute masters of every game they put their hands to, not one was a licence, only one was a sequel, and importantly, they didn't take 40 hours each to wade through. If you played them for that long it was because they were eminently replayable, rather than just tediously requiring you to pay attention to a long and winding yarn and completing endless amounts of gameplay.

Revolution, meanwhile, captivated me and my mates as a British LucasArts with the double whammy of Lure Of the Temptress and Beneath A Steel Sky. Again, great games with oodles of atmosphere that didn't bore the arse off you with bloated epic-length gameplay.

Of course, the 3D era expanded the need for bigger teams, extended development periods and expanded budgets. But why did this bigger-better-faster-more mentality have to extend to making most games so inordinately long?

Many times over the years we've heard industry luminaries harp on about episodic content, and games being too long, but with the notable recent exception of ICO, Pikmin, Sly Raccoon and the two Max Payne games, it's a struggle to come up with many more examples of games that don't outstay their welcomes.

Whatever you think about Steam, and Valve's valiant attempts to introduce an online content delivery mechanism for its forthcoming games, the opportunity is there for a developer to take the bull by the horns and try out a system of giving the people what they want, and when they want it. At the moment, giving people 20 to 40 hour's worth of content at 40+ is comparable to forcing the viewer to buy the entire 24 box set before they've even watched a single episode.

Here Is No Why

The future is short and sweet. I long for a future when games are delivered in short sharp chunks like all the best visual entertainment is. The first level, or series of levels of a game, could be considered a pilot episode for a series. If the game's good enough, the publisher and the punter likes it, and there's a demand, more episodes get commissioned. A developer really shouldn't be making 30 or more levels of a game only to find out that everyone hates it and no one wants to buy it.

Almost any level-based games (which is most games) can be episodic, and this presents the publisher, the developer, the retailer and ultimately the consumer with a potentially idyllic scenario. Firstly, if we're assuming games are delivered in bite-sized chunks, the consumer ought to be able to trial a game at a cheaper price (or for free if we assume the shareware/demo model). This gives the consumer the chance to take more risks, make impulse purchases and if they like it, they can demand more episodes.

From a developer standpoint, releasing episodic content has potentially massively advantageous consequences if approached the right way with the right content. Not only is the opportunity there to make more money out of the project over a longer lifespan if it works out (especially if they deliver it straight to the end user, Steam-style), but if the project doesn't make a splash, they may have saved years finding that out. Malice, anyone? Ok, this is a massively simplistic argument, not taking into account the years many developers spend making the game technology, the engine, and the animation system and so on, but with all that in place the principle of making shorter games - or breaking up exisiting games into smaller chunks - still holds weight.

For the publisher, is it better to have developers making more games, more regularly, or have them maxed out for years on one project? Longer games equals longer development time. The equation is fairly clear. If they considered splitting up those epic projects into shorter chunks, the commercial potential and lifespan of projects could be massively improved.

For the retailer, for example, having six 'episodes' of GTA or any other blockbuster over the course of a year would be an interesting proposition too, with games capable of extending their shelf life all year round, with a collector's 'box set' rounding all this content too, maybe with extra levels or a 'director's cut' for the real die-hards. All round, it's clear that things need to change.

This little rant has taken a little longer to run through than I initially imagined, but it would be just as interesting to hear your arguments. I realise much of what has been said is a pipe dream in the current model, but the over-riding point is that we rarely get around to finishing most of the current games however great they are. Simply speaking, making shorter games makes so much sense on so many levels. How you deliver those is a question for the publishers and developers to consider...

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