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Games are too long (P.S. Everything you know about the world is dead or dying)

July 19, 2012

As a few commentators have realised recently, the games industry has reached a crisis point, the convergence of an uncertain digital future, consumer apathy at a console generation that has lasted since before time began, and people realising that reading the internet on a phone is at least as much fun as having adolescent testicles figuratively forced into their mouths online.

Actually,”crisis point” is too mild, the sort of thing that can be managed back on course by a diplomatically worded email or a brainstorm session where the word “hero” is used as a verb. As articles like this one from Dan Dawkins at CVG make clear, that is unlikely: people have stopped buying console games (the key, terrifying fact: in the first six months of 2011, 21 games sold over 50,000 in their first week of sale, in 2012 just four managed the same).

What’s actually happening is a full-blown panic attack at 20,000 feet, depressurised cabin and blaring profit warning alarm giving way to the mid-air realisation that your parachute is actually a solid brass statue of Bobby Kotick pissing in the wind as the plane above you explodes upon impact with a screaming wall of fuck.

I’m not going to write another one of these articles, as I’ve got nothing to add to the debate except panic – for which they’re well stocked – and confusing metaphors about parachutes (the reserve chute, if you were wondering, was going to be a stack of Online Pass vouchers that had 1. already been redeemed and, 2. were on fire).

Instead I’m going to zero in on a very specific part of the discussion to make a point about something that’s been on my mind for a while: GAMES ARE TOO FUCKING LONG. Much attention has been given to the fact that free-to-play and microtransaction models are eroding people’s inclination to pay for games. This might be true, although I suspect that people never had much of an inclination to pay for them, or indeed for anything, and are only now finding themselves with options to not to. Rather, I think we’re focusing on the wrong economy here (a phrase I may well have stolen from the actual Dan Dawkins this afternoon).

When I consider whether or not to play a game, my worry isn’t whether I have the money to spare, it’s whether I have the time. We’ve fallen into a perverse way of thinking about game length, led in a headless, tyrannical pursuit of value for money by gaming sites which are on 24-hour standby to write agitating headlines about upcoming single-player campaigns that dare to last for under six hours.

Full-priced games are now remarkable if they come in at less than ten hours, and many of the biggest – Skyrim, Mass Effect – offer vastly more. It’s not just the length of the campaign we’re talking about here, either. Online modes in the likes of FIFA, Call Of Duty and Battlefield represent a full year’s worth of gaming at least, before we even mention co-op modes and DLC.

Premiered at Sundance this year was a documentary called The Queen Of Versailles about a billionaire couple who set out to build the biggest house in America – a 90,000-square-foot tribute to the vacant tastelessness of wealth with its own baseball field. Except halfway through the documentary the economic crisis hit and the film instead became a story about senseless overproduction and the excesses of late-American capitalism (the billionaires ended up shopping in Wal-Mart), a metaphor for the wider crisis itself.

Of course it’s flippant to connect the grand financial irresponsibility of a wobbling superpower with the fact I don’t like to play long videogames, but I’m going to do it anyway. The games industry has similarly overproduced – top-tier games are multi-million dollar productions that take years to make and are held to a staggeringly high technical standard. They’re huge, impressive monsters – even the failures. Besides which there’s a sort of sector-wide feature creep, with deathmatch, co-op, and an intricate skinner box of meaningless XP rewards designed to keep players engaged for as long as possible. No wonder nobody’s buying any new fucking games – the ones they have are brilliant, and last forever.

And where people get the cast-iron balls to demand this stuff, I don’t know. I have my original copy of Streets Of Rage II for the Mega Drive upstairs in a box, which still has the price on – £39.99. That’s £66.75 of today’s money, for a game that lasts for three hours – a value proposition that’d have you stoned in the high street today, but never stopped it being my favourite game of all time.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. admiralneck permalink
    July 19, 2012 7:26 am

    Recently I went back to Red Dead Redemption, which I has previously played constantly for a month & got about a third of the way through. I decided I wanted to beat one of the challenges by killing two cougars with a melee knife. Two hours later I’d killed one. I expect to finish the game in 2015, just as ecological apocalypse wipes out 78% of the population.

    And you’re right. The games is too damn long. And the players is too damn poor. I’ll probably only buy one game this year (Halo 4) because I’m broke & so is everyone else. When film/music/game industry bods complain that no one’s buying their product, the main reason is we’re struggling to afford food and rent. I know that as I become more hard up I will decide against buying a new game & instead decide to squeeze more value out of an old one (getting over my online multiplayer fears & spending three months being humiliated in Halo: Reach Team Slayer). If I hadn’t decided to do that, maybe I’d have scraped the money together to buy Prototype 2.

  2. July 19, 2012 8:57 am

    Yeah, but I *love* meaningless XP rewards. Basically my favourite kind of game is one with a nice, tight story mode – say six hours – and then an absolute shit-ton of stuff to do if I want to carry on in sandbox mode.

    Also, my favourite ever story-based game from the arcades – a fighting one called Vendetta – makes SoR seem like Lord of the Rings. I played it on MAME recently and what I remembered as a sprawling epic takes 15 minutes to bang through.

  3. July 19, 2012 9:26 am

    I think this fuss over console sales is entirely overblown. There’s a reason this year’s first six months were so huge – for the first time in a while, every major publisher didn’t panic in the face of releasing their game against Activision’s behemoth, and so games weren’t slipped into Feb/March. We had an incredible Feb/March for games in 2010 and 2011 for that reason. Last year, for whatever reason, publishers didn’t hide from MW3, and so this year’s Spring releases were more lacklustre.

    Also, no they’re not! Good grief, I know I’m old, but I remember when a game coming in under 15 hours meant it was a rip-off. Now the average shooter lasts around 4 or 5 – ridiculously short lengths for £50 products. Listing a couple of recent RPGs is a bit of a silly way of complaining about game length – of course RPGs aren’t 6 hours long – that would rather defeat the point. But if anything, Mass Effect 3 was a very short example of the genre, where in the late 90s/early 00s, 200 hours wasn’t a surprisingly length to see written on an RPG box.

    • July 19, 2012 9:48 am

      Points taken! Especially the slip into spring – I really assumed publishers would do the same again this year as it, you know, *worked*. But I’m not sure that length has always been the subject of this kind of scrutiny – I’m old enough to remember playing games for the Mega Drive which were built to be finished in one sitting, which didn’t even have a save function. And these games were built for significantly less money, and sold for around 50% more, than something like MW3, which on that basis I can’t accept as “ridiculously short”.

      But my point isn’t really just about length, it’s about commitment. Comparing campaign/story mode lengths is one thing, but multiplayer, co-op modes and tiered XP systems make just about every big release open-ended. Being *good* at any of them, exploring them in any kind of depth, takes a big investment of time.

      I’m not really saying that games should be shorter, or that this is any serious factor in this end-of-cycle slump. But I am saying that cries of “it’s too short” are usually unfounded.

  4. botherer permalink
    July 19, 2012 9:27 am

    Er – *weren’t so huge

  5. devilmaycare permalink
    July 19, 2012 9:43 am

    Nice to see some love for Streets of Rage 2. I’ve been banging the drum for many years about how it’s the best beat ’em up, if not game, of all time.

  6. July 19, 2012 9:44 am

    There are games that suit it and games that don’t – for most of its players, the fact that Skyrim is so gigantohuge is a massive part of the appeal. The real problem is an arbitrary length being used as baseline for all singleplayer experiences – if a dev came out and said ‘oh we’re making a two hour FPS, but we think it’s got a cool vibe and we can do everything we want in that time’, they’d be crucified. That kind of thinking is surely why Valve put Portal in the Orange Box, so no-one could complain they were being ripped-off.

    I’m not sure if I’m quite as experienced as John, but I don’t remember this time when all games were 15 hours. Most of the games I had when I was a kid were 3 hours long, if that, and you replayed them countless times until the next Xmas or birthday 😀

    Enjoyed the piece, especially the parachute metaphors!

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