How much game do we want in our games? How many hours of entertainment do we expect to get before we say that, yes, our money was well spent? Twenty hours? Forty? 100?
A frequent lament of gamers this generation is that games are becoming shorter. They yearn for the days of shooters with thirty hours of gameplay, and 100 hour epic RPGs. However, developers often claim that relatively few players actually get to the end of their games. Whether it’s because of uneven difficulty, boredom, or simply a lack of time, most people will never see the end of the adventure they’ve spent so many hours on. With this fact in mind, and the skyrocketing cost of producing triple A games, should developers continue making games that take weeks to complete?
There are a few ways developers extend the length of time we play their games. The most obvious way is adding a multiplayer component. For many gamers, multiplayer is the primary reason they buy a game. There are people who haven’t touched the single player campaigns in Halo 3 or Call of Duty 4. When the gameplay comes together just right, there are possibly hundreds of hours of enjoyment to be had in shooting strangers over the Internet.
Not everyone enjoys traditional multiplayer gaming, though. For some, the joy comes from experiencing a well done story. Developers make a choice on how long to make this story or campaign, but some have added ways to extend that experience through replayability. For some games, it’s nothing more than having multiple difficulty levels. Some games add optional collectibles to find. Collectibles add an incentive for exploring the game world thoroughly, and the best ones have a direct impact on the gameplay. Assassin’s Creed’s flags had no impact on the gameplay, but it did give the player an excuse to see parts of its cities that the story itself doesn’t take you to. Occasionally, these led to some beautiful vistas in the cities and kingdom. Crackdown’s collectibles were more satisfying, as finding the agility and hidden orbs improved your character’s stats.
Others add cooperative play to the mix. Playing with friends can make the most mediocre game more enjoyable. Throw in something like Halo 3’s skulls and campaign scoring, and you have multiple kinds of experiences to be had in the same story.
Let’s talk about the length of the story though. Whether playing alone or with friends, the length of a campaign, and whether or not it’s long enough, is a highly subjective but critical aspect of feeling as if you’re getting your money’s worth from a game. For me, the hours spent playing a game don’t matter to me as much as the feeling that they were hours well spent. Having just recently completed Okami, I can say that it was a great game. My main problem with it is that it’s so obviously padded for length that several times I contemplated giving up on it. Why did I have to fight many of the bosses twice? Why did I have fight one of them three times? It didn’t further the plot at all.
Some of my favorite games of the past few years have been relatively short affairs. Portal is the obvious example. Short, sweet, and as close to a perfect game as any I’ve yet played. I would have paid $60 for it. Call of Duty 4 has a fairly short campaign that could probably be beaten in one six hour sitting. Yet, it packed a more dense variety of locations, settings, and types of gameplay than many 40 hour “epics.” Half-Life 2: Episode One fixed my primary beef with its predecessor, Half-Life 2. For me, Half-Life 2 offered plenty of variety, but for the first two-thirds of the game it felt like each segment overstayed its welcome by an hour or more. On the other hand, once I hit Nova Prospekt, the game goes into overdrive for me and I don’t want to stop playing until I reach the end. Episode One, though, offered a dense variety of situations that lasted just long enough for me to feel satisfied, and so far it’s my favorite entry in the series.
As games and the consoles that play them get more expensive, this will become more of an issue. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of experimentation as far as pricing for downloadable titles on consoles. Five and ten bucks used to be the norm, but now we’re seeing fifteen and twenty dollar titles. Every gamer has a different idea of what a downloadable title is worth, so you get arguments over whether or not Braid is worth 1200 MS points. There’s the sense that XBLA, WiiWare, and PSN games aren’t “real” games because they’re so short. It makes more sense to me to judge a game’s worth on the overall experience though, not its length. Again, that’s a highly subjective thing to say, so I wouldn’t presume to force that viewpoint on other gamers. However, it may become a more common viewpoint out of necessity as the trend towards shorter games continues.