Are long games hurting the medium?

I’m not exactly sure where the mindset originated (though if I had to guess I’d say with young people without a large income), but for a large segment of the gaming community a game’s length is often viewed as one of the deciding factors in whether they decide to purchase/play it. It seems absurd to me, as after all nobody says they only read books that are over 1000 pages or albums with more than 20 tracks, but for whatever reason games are uniquely singled out as being required to provide dozens and dozens of hours of content, or else be written off as a poor value or even somehow degrading games as a whole with their meager offering.

This isn’t going to be an article about why I greatly prefer shorter games over lengthy ones, though maybe that’ll come in the future. Rather, that maybe the communal requirement of games to be X amount of hours long are in fact hurting the games industry and offering less to players than games which take far less time to complete.

Though gamers will often declare that they wish every game was as outrageously large as say, Skyrim, the fact of the matter is that on the whole very few people ever actually see even a fraction of that content. It’s not too surprising really, as most people playing games have jobs, families, and other responsibilities, so many aren’t going to have the amount of free time required to see a game through to completion. And yet the narrative around games is always that games don’t have enough content. That even though people aren’t even seeing most of what a game has to offer, it still needs to be there to give them the perspective of value. Part of me wonders if people simply don’t like finishing games at all, that they’d rather leave everything half-finished, but that’s another article.

Even a game as short as Octodad: Dadliest Catch was only beaten by 37% of players.
Even a game as short as Octodad: Dadliest Catch was only beaten by 37% of players.

So why are long games hurting themselves if most people aren’t even going to get all the way through them? Because regardless of whether anyone plays a game, or only plays part of it, time and money was spent making that content. Content few people are seeing even if they say they want it to be there. It means resources were taken away from other areas of development, being used to create more “stuff” instead of polishing the early moments which are what will be most important to most players and all they’ll actually see of your games.

It also often means that a lot of games start on a high and then gradually decline in quality the further the go on, as it makes the most sense to spend the most time in the opening moments than the closing ones which only a very small percentage of players will actually reach. But then who is this extra content really helping? For the people who actually do stick around long enough to play through all of it, it seems more likely they’ll feel their time was wasted and come away with a more negative opinion than someone who quit earlier when the game was at its best.

Alien: Isolation was a perfect example of this last year, opening with an absolutely astonishing sequence, but growing more tedious and dull as it progressed. Had the game been cut short, I have little doubt my experience would have probably improved, and might also be why the general consensus has been so positive, because I have little doubt most people didn’t finish it.

Open world games in general also seem to suffer from an over abundance of stuff to do, which while one of the hallmarks of the sub-genre tends to feel more like busy work than anything anyone wants to spend time to do. This mission might be cool by itself, but how many people are going to do all three-dozen of them scattered around the map. Looking at maps flooded with icons more often becomes overwhelming than exciting, letting me know I have endless amounts of stuff to do but most of it is likely just a slightly tweaked replication of something I’ve already done.

OK, this is just getting ridiculous.
OK, this is just getting ridiculous.

In my eyes then, I have to wonder: why does this need to be in the game? If most players aren’t playing it because they don’t have time or it’s just not very good, why not spend that effort refining the moments that really matter and making the experience as a whole a tighter, more condensed one instead of drawn out for the sake of hitting an arbitrary playtime? I’m not saying long games shouldn’t exist, as there are instances where a game wouldn’t be the same if cut short or that makes good use of its time, but more often than not it seems developers are elongating their games because they feel they have, to instead of having any compelling use for that added time. Which to me is more than a little wasteful.

One thought on “Are long games hurting the medium?”

  1. I’m not sure. There aren’t really that many open world games, and hardly any that are around The Elder Scrolls in terms of scale and hours you can put into. It’s them and genuine online games really. The latter generate added hours rather conveniently by depending on the “human variable” as I call it – PvP games and to some lesser degree co-op games never turn out the same and remain somewhat inherently refreshing because people always act differently. In singleplayer games it’s harder I guess as any AI soon reveals it’s patterns and schemes any halfway intelligent guy can outsmart sooner or later and will approach with method X or Y.

    I don’t have the impression that people take playing hours as important as you think. Sure, it’s always something that comes up when people write reviews and talk about games. But it never stands alone. Extremely popular games such as Call of Duty aren’t really known for their super-lengthy campaigns. I think there are quite a few people who actively avoid games such as Skyrim because their scale and the hours you can lose in them is daunting to them. They seek shorter games. And we have plenty of them too. More even I suspect – because rather few developers seem to be able to pull off what Bethesda is doing with Skyrim and the likes. I think the devs and publishers very well know that too much could be a waste of money and time; Bethesda can do what they like and know their titles will be sold still because they are just so damn infamous. They know there will be plenty of people who are going to put hundreds of hours into their games. Other studios can’t take that for granted as they can.

    As for me: It wouldn’t hurt if some stuff like in Assassin’s Creed would be more refreshing. But then perhaps it doesn’t always need more. Venice, Rome, Kingston, Nassau, the open sea – locations I liked to keep roaming for their great music and ambiance. The fact I didn’t really had anything important or mind-bending to do late-game hardly killed my fun. I was rather thankful there was still a bit to do, even if somewhat repetitive. No one was pointing a gun at me forcing to do it, and I suppose it wasn’t really that time-consuming to place half a dozen chests in Venice or so. I still liked doing it and just relaxing in my chair and taking the things in. For maps to have too many icons – well that’s AC to you, one of the biggest hand-holding cookie cutter franchises that has probably ever existed. But then the constant shining things of golden importance thrown at the customer is something that has become a bad habit in more games (Tomb Raider for example). Because we gamers are just too dumb to discover things on our own it seems and must guided every step of the way or we end up disgruntled on the other side of the planet.

    As for time-consuming elements: I would worry about other things maybe. Like achievements, trading cards, artifical economics, redundant crafting, social media links and likes or lazily attached leveling and customization mechanics. That’s what too many games seem to have these days. In Saints Row IV you can customize your character like stupid even though it’s not even a genuine online game. “Just cut that crap and get back to the basics” I sometimes want to tell one dev studio or another. Games had been fun before the era of every second title trying to imitate World of Warcraft or Minecraft.

Leave a comment