August 01, 2005

Life is Too Short

by psu

These days, the average large scale action game is clocking in at between ten and fifteen hours of gameplay. This brings howls of complaints from the hard core gaming set and the gaming press. Over and over again, you hear people complain about the main failing of an otherwise excellent game: "It was too short". This is nonsense. Ten hours is, if anything, usually too long.

First, there are my own physical constraints:

I can't play any game in a set of long uninterrupted sessions. For me, a two hour session is pretty long. If I manage to get one of these per day, I can be guaranteed to annoy the other members of the household. So let's say optimisitically that the maximum amount of time I get to play is two hours per weekday. Also, remember that I am old and sucky. This means that if you include replay time due ot death, stupid savepoints, and other insults, my actual wall-clock time for a "ten hour" game is closer to twenty hours.

God of War provided the best recent example of the "I am old and sucky time dilation" effect. There was one area that takes 5 minutes of game time to clear actually required about an hour or more of real time to play because the goddamn camera didn't let me see the freaking jumps and I died 35 times. This sort of thing makes a game feel a lot longer. In any case, even the shortest of the short games gets me two full weeks of ultra-violent entertainment. I think this is a reasonably good value on a full priced game.

So, I don't really think game length is an issue, except that most games are too long. That is, most games, even the good ones, are not good for ten whole hours. Most recently, I could have done without the part of the second act and all of the third act of Riddick, which pretty much just stopped being fun and turned into a repititious maze of vents, shafts and really really horrible AI. Like many games, by the end the only thing that kept me going was wanting to see that last cut scene.

Large scale single player games have to work hard to hold on to your attention:

1. They must construct a fairly large and complicated game world, and convince you of its fidelity.

2. There must be enough content and variety for the game to stay interesting.

3. Consistent pacing.

In the case of Riddick, the game has to make you believe you are in this huge space prison. In the early parts of the game, this was done very well. But later in the game the place lost its sense of inner consistency. Riddick also failed to provide enough variety. There really were only two or three different kinds of enemies (small and dumb, and large and dumb), and only two or three different ways to get rid of them. God of War did a nice job with the game world and variety (at least in my opinion). But, for me at least, some stupid jumping puzzles and gratuitous backtracking threw the pacing off. Prince of Persia also had a relatively awful pacing problem at the end of its first act.

Most games eventually fail along one of these dimensions and this is why so many games sit on the shelves unfinished. You start the game and everything is fine, but ultimately something in the mechanics or narrative or gameplay wears out its welcome and you put the game down. Once you put the game down, picking it up again requires that you reconstruct the world of the game in your head again, which means that you will reaquaint yourself with whatever wore out its welcome before. So you put the game down again. in addition, the more complex and rich the game world is, the harder it is to go back to it once you have left. This fact alone keeps me from retrying many games that I've put down (let's see... KOTOR 2, Thief, Zelda: Wind Waker, Beyond Good and Evil, etc).

What is interesting to me is to contrast this situation with games that I have spent much more than ten hours playing. Consider Counterstrike. Our local Counterstrike crew played off and on for maybe six months, mostly humans-on-bots, on the same set of a dozen or so maps that came with the game. Each round was about 5 minutes in length, and we'd play four to five rounds on each map before switching. I would estimate that that we easily played 60 hours of Counterstrike over six months.

I find this to be an interesting paradox. God of War , Riddick, and similar games combine multiple settings, diverse gameplay styles, embedded narrative and all the other tools of AAA game production, and yet can only stay interesting for about ten hours. How can Counterstrike, with its 12 maps that have been around for five years and bots that while fairly sophisticated are also pretty predictable, stay interesting for six times that length (actually, longer, I feel like playing more now)? I think three factors contribute:

1. Short rounds in a simple world.

2. Excellently tuned and consistent gameplay.

3. Just enough variation.

The key here is that the game is designed for replay value rather than for a long initial campaign. A given round of Counterstrike is pretty simple. You are in an Office building, and you need to rescue the four hostages. You always spawn in the same place, with similar weapons, trying to get to the same goal. Within this framework, the gameplay is tight and enjoyable, and the game engine throws in just enough variation to keep the game from being repetitive. The short rounds mean if you are having a bad day, you get to try again quickly. All of these things make the game easy to play over and over again.

I find that sports games like Project Gotham and Madden also have this nature. You can play them almost indefinitely in short spurts, against either computers or real people, and continue to have fun. These games do basically the same thing as Counterstrike, but in a single player environment. Simple worlds (a race track, a football field), familiar rules, and good gameplay make the games easy to replay for long periods of time.

What we are observing here is two sides of a single design question: do you design the game to be a compelling and lengthy world, or do you design the game to be short and replayable? The best games manage to hook you in both ways at once. They keep you interested in playing by some brilliant combination of narrative, world design, and gameplay design. Thus, you'll hear of people playing both the light and dark side of KOTOR, twice. Or other people who might be playing through Zelda or Final Fantasy XXVII for the 18th time. For me, the two single player games that came closest to doing this were Halo 2 and Resident Evil 4, both of which I played twice.

But games like these are rare. Most games, like Riddick, ultimately fail to provide enough brilliance to keep you sucked in for their entire length. Long before their ten hours are up, you've put the controller down and walked away. Life is too short for games that are too long.


Originally I got to thinking about this issue because almost every review I read of The Chronicles of Riddick complained that the game was too short, and I found it to be about 2 hours too long.

As usual, by the time I thought up this idea, other people had already written it down first. Ernest Adams did a particularly nice job discussing both gameplay and narrative from the standpoint of replay value.

He also has a nice piece on the design of sports games.

Posted by psu at August 1, 2005 06:15 PM | Bookmark This

Fundamentally games are either about execution or about content consumption. This is the primary difference between Riddick, Halo, Everquest, FF vs. CounterStrike, Soul Calibur, PlanetSide, WC3, Diablo 2, and Madden

Games that emphasize content consumption are the ones that have a limited length and the point is to progress. Execution based games test your abilities constantly, over and over, by keeping the content the same (levels, monsters, etc.) and varying the situation.

Posted by Brian Hook at August 2, 2005 11:33 AM

After swearing off the gaming press recently, I got a demo disc in the mail with of God of War on it. I experienced the same thing, taking an hour to complete a short section of gameplay. Who has the patience to fight the same boss over and over again? So I agree, 10-15 hours is plenty, and is it just me or are games too hard these days.

Also, I had the experience you describe with Black & White. 'I loved (LOVED) Populous, I hate B&W, maybe I'll dig it up and give it another go.' I finally had to throw away the CD to stop myself trying it again. Anyway, I still won't believe game reviews.

Posted by YA at August 5, 2005 05:23 PM

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