[Klei Entertainment's Jamie Cheng gathers prominent independent developers in a simultaneous group discussion on what critics expect from game length, calling for a halt on the critical tendency to weigh or value a game according to its duration or content volume.
In order to call attention to the topic of game length, a group of independent developers have dubbed today “Size Doesn’t Matter” Day, and shared their various thoughts in their respective blogs. My own thoughts are below.
What I’d like to discuss today is the critics role in shaping the expectations of consumers and why we should stop asking questions that try to quantify the game experience in terms of game length or content size.
The Critics' Role
In every medium, the critics play a vital role in creating awareness and shaping expectations. In the video games industry, this is done primarily through previews, interviews, and reviews. The questions and topics that a critic chooses shapes what is important about the title, and a trend of questioning across titles shapes what consumers look for, or at least notice, in the games they play.
Hence, when a journalist asks How long is the game?
, no matter what the answer, there is an immediate value being placed on the number of hours is takes to complete the game. Likewise, How many levels are there?
gives value to the amount of content.
Never mind that many games are unquantifiable in terms of content or game time (Tetris
is the easy example) -- even in linear games where it is (more) quantifiable, it’s still an irrelevant and ultimately harmful question.
The Definition of Value
The shaping of expectations trickles directly from the consumers to the developers and publishers. With every preview and review discussing quantity, there adds more incentive for the developers to think that it’s an important facet of the experience.
The result is we often hear developers or publishers talk about how much "value" their game / product provides for a player -- with "value" placed squarely in the wrong place. Look at how much content our game has, or how long it takes to unlock everything! I don’t know about you, but it’s been a while since I valued a book based on the number of pages it has, or got excited about a movie with the selling feature "over 6 hours of running time!"
Thankfully, gamers aren’t actually looking for that. At times, they may sound like they do, but the evidence from Braid, Portal
certainly speaks otherwise. It’s not even about the aging population of gamers, where we have less time to spend; it's simply a matter of not wasting players' time. If your experience is best told in three hours, please, for goodness' sake, don’t add another three hours of the same damn thing just to pad my gaming time -- that, contrary to popular opinion, removes value.
Worse Than Irrelevant
Of course, I’m not the first one to mention that that the length of a game isn't really a relevant question. But my point is that it’s actually worse than irrelevant and indeed harmful to the creation of quality video games. While gamers are looking to developers to create new experiences, developers distribute their resources in order to create a product that will sell. Having a constant pressure that more content is better very actively diverts resources away from the core experience.
Let’s take a look at what happens when we remove the pressure of an ever increasing amount of content, features, and game length:
-The core game mechanics improve, as developers spend their time and money on improving the game rather than the play time.
-Storytelling gets better, as players actually reach the end of the game, and developers can spend time with the later levels, knowing that the majority of players haven’t stopped playing.
-Pacing improves, as no fillers are needed.
-The variety of games increases, as not all games lend itself well to continual play.
I believe critics should ask questions surrounding whether the experience was compelling -- whether it fulfilled its promise of engaging the player. Using a book analogy, if a book starts awesome, and then abruptly ends, the response isn’t "I only spent 4 hours reading it!". It would be "the story wasn’t fully developed, and I felt it ended abruptly." Similarly, if a book drags on, people don’t say "it was kind of boring, but at least it has a lot of pages in it, so it’s great value." They say "it dragged on, and I got the message in the first half of the book." Time spent reading just isn’t mentioned, and indeed, isn’t the point.
We Are Not A Commodity
I can agree on one thing regarding time and quantity: there is a minimum expectation. A novel that is 10 pages long isn’t a novel, and a movie that is half an hour long would cause people to question the value of their dollars. Hence a retail game does have a minimum expectation, and a downloadable title has a different, smaller expectation.
But I think we can move beyond questioning every developer if they are reaching a minimum quantity bar. That bar, as evidenced by Portal
, is quite low.
A commodity is something that has no special distinguishing feature from one product to the next. For example, a floor cleaner is a commodity. In these cases, quantity matters -- a lot. The converse of that is a specialty item, where the distinguishing factors define it. This is where video games lie, and where I believe we should be placing value. And where value is placed is definitely affected by what the critics draw attention to.
The questions and comments that critics choose, whether it be a preview, an interview, or a review, matter a great deal to the industry. They are not the sole movers in the industry, but they do matter. I’m simply advocating that critics use their tools carefully to encourage game developers to choose a better
game over more
Links To Other Developers' Thoughts On Game Length
Thanks for reading this far! I encourage you to also read the thoughts of the other developers who have weighed in on the topic today. Please share what your own thoughts in the comment boxes below!
Jonathan Blow of Number None
Ron Carmel of 2DBoy
Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye Games
Mike Gilgenbach of 24 Caret Games
Eitan Glinert of Fire Hose Games
Cliff Harris of Positech Games
Chris Hecker of Spy Party
Scott Macmillan of Macguffin Games
Peter Jones of Retro Affect
Martin Pichlmair of Broken Rules
Greg Wohlwend of Intution Games
Jeffrey Rosen of Wolfire