There’s an interesting difference, if you compare games to other art forms like movies, in how they get consumed across different groups of people. With movies, there’s pretty much two categories of viewers: the big screen people and the DVD people. With minor differences within those groups, everyone has pretty much the same potential experience. Very few people turn the movie off before its end.
That is very different with games. A sizable portion of everyone who plays a game, especially multiplayer-enabled games, will put a huge amount of time into that game. That’s awesome, but those people are not in a majority. The majority of people who buy a game wont even finish the singleplayer campaign. For these people, the game was too long. This is something like the dark secret of game design, and its a reason that makes constructing games a bit sad — no matter how much love you put into your story, it’s unlikely that most people will see its conclusion.
You would never guess that this was the case, looking at game reviews. Reviews regularly complain about games being too short. This has happened to a range of great games lately — from Portal to Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and Mirror’s Edge — all games that I enjoyed a lot. What conclusions can we draw from this?
Well, first of all, if you are the kind of person who rarely completes games (like the average gamer out there apparently), game reviews aren’t taking your interests into account. I’m assuming here that being able to finish a game is more enjoyable than abandoning it along the way.
Second, we’re creating ever-longer games that cater to a portion of the gamer community who will not buy games that are too short, which means that at the same time we’re making sure that a majority of players will play even smaller part of the game. That’s quite a problem from where I see it — a small part of players are allowed to dictate how games are made, which actually lowers quality for the majority.
In addition to this problem, more time in games tends to mean more repetition. Content creation for modern games is incredibly expensive, which means that longer play means more play time made from the same content. Maybe that means more of the same kind of objectives (ever play Assassin’s Creed?). My own experience is that I’d much rather play through Uncharted on its Hard difficulty setting than play through a longer, but more repetitive game.
The result of this is a kind of scarcity of actual content in games. The longer we make any given game, the more diluted the experience becomes. We get more of the same enemies in the same locations, and more locations made up out of the same building blocks.
You can see this quite easily if you compare the soundtracks of different media. Movie music is a movie-length musical score which has changing music to the events in the movie, usually with common themes for parts of movies but with the music still shifting to each individual moment.
How much variation is there in game music? Sometimes, game music is a movie-length (yes) musical score, played straight or randomly to a game (usually 4 times longer than a movie). Sometimes it’s a song-length musical score played to each level. Sometimes it’s “dynamic music” which usually means tying musical start/fade triggers to action. I commented on game music before in Give Me Some Emotion, Maestro, where I suggested a more involved form of dynamic music for games with composers as first-class game developers, but that doesn’t go all the way — we also simply need an appropriate amount of music to cover the length of a game.
More enemies to kill in the same way, more of the same concrete blocks to make up new parts of levels, more of the same music and sounds, more of the same experience. These things all lead to the current playing experience you get from games, which tends to be a repetitive flat-emotion slaughter even if you look at non-shooter games. Yet making more content for the games would make them more expensive.
I think games as a medium need to focus better. Yes, shorter games would probably be good in the long run. There are some people who would wish that movies be 10 hours long as well — but those aren’t the main segment of customers for movies. In the end, bringing quality of games up needs more variation — in environments, in challenges, and in emotions. Then maybe the average consumer would actually have the pleasure of finishing the games they buy.
I don’t mean there can’t be long games here either. People obviously liked the The Lord of the Rings movies, despite their long run time. But those movies are still beautifully crafted all the way through, and do not lack the focus you would get from doing the same thing to other movies. It also has something to do with an insanely large budget.
For singleplayer games, the question then becomes how to satisfy the people who want longer play times? I sure don’t have that answer, and any comments are definitely appreciated.