Ban The Boss
Zen Game Design

The 40 Hour Millstone

First published in CTW (Computer Trade Weekly), issue 877 (1st February 2002)

Video games are widely criticised by their players, a common complaint being that a game is too short. Critics (both professional and amateur) judge value for money in relation to the number of hours that it took them to finish a game. There is the perception that a full-price game should last at least forty hours, to give full value for money. But where did such a figure of expectation come from? And is the need for tens of hours of gameplay slowly being eroded, as a new type of player begins to buy games?

Classic arcade games could not be completed. Space Invaders, Pac-Man and their ilk depended on challenge to lure players back, not the promise of some end sequence as a pat on the back. There was no plot or causal continuity to these single-stage games - when a screen was cleared, the game repeated, often with increased speed and difficulty. Phoenix, a multi-stage game, preserved this repetition and acceleration of game play, but the variety it presented through its levels lent an air of finality to the clearing of the 'final' screen. This introduction of variety into games, and the sense of finality that came with it, led to games necessarily acknowledging their defeat once all created material had been experienced by the player. And so video games became mortal, gaining a natural life-span just like the rest of us.

With the addition of varied stages, games also began to present stories. The addition of story material, primarily in the form of cut-scenes, gradually became a saleable aspect of video games. The narrative-based video game is now an accepted form, with franchises such as Capcom's Resident Evil series exploiting continuity of story through sequels. This narrative format imposes another restriction upon game length besides the finite nature of game material - that of story pacing. A story cannot be told satisfactorily unless timing is employed in its telling. Extending a story beyond its natural limits, for the sake of game length of for any other reason, can only weaken narrative.

Game length thus becomes a balance. Developers must currently attempt to eke as much play as they can from the pre-defined materials. At the same time, they must pace their games in a satisfying manner, and also make it clear to the player that an end is achievable. After all, modern game players (both casual and hard-core) expect to be able to finish their games.

This balancing act has proved to be a thorny problem. Longer games are often paced poorly, relying upon recycled materials within their structure (such as repeated combat sections which supply players with nothing but arbitrary in-game 'experience') or requiring the player to traverse their environments from end to end on ridiculous (but progress-blocking) lock/key puzzle errands. Even in non-narrative based games, these techniques can easily frustrate the player. Meanwhile, tighter games are marked down in reviews for being too short, despite being thoroughly enjoyable creations.

One demographic sorely hit by game-extending design fudges is the casual player. A 'casual player' may briefly be described as someone who enjoys video games, but in small doses. An epic-length game may take a casual player months of evenings to complete. This is fine if the player enjoys the process, and there is definitely room for grandly scaled games within the casual market. But more often, the player is alienated by the very factor that is supposed to deliver them their value for money. The majority of players would far prefer a game which they enjoy finishing and then wish for more of, than sprawling games that they are forced to abandon a quarter of the way through. And the advantage of this, in business terms, is that the player is then more likely to buy the sequel, or other games by the same creators.

The best of both worlds is possible. Games requiring control skills (extreme sports / stunt performing games such as Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, or arcade-like experiences such as Jet Set Radio or Crazy Taxi) can present finite experiences with superior replay value. Similarly, creating bonus games from existing material (as seen in the majority of survival horror games) prolongs the life of the game for hardcore gamers, without denying the casual player a resolution. And, as Super Monkey Ball on GameCube shows, well designed multiplayer 'bonus' games can make much of an existing design, and prolong play indefinitely for players of all skill ranges.

A sense of value for money will always be an important criteria for customer satisfaction in any market, but when it comes to the pleasure delivered by video games, there can be no substitute for a game which stays true to its content. There is always a place for epic-length games, but it is to be hoped that players begin to see the value of such products in their own terms, rather than in terms of length alone. Developers must instigate this change of mindset, by allowing their games enough space to deliver their content in a manner that doesn't waste player time or project budget. As the casual games market grows, it seems likely that well-made games that are rich in content will prevail financially over products which attempt to obey arbitrary laws of 'value for money' in length, without focusing sufficiently upon core gameplay - the real draw of any video game.

Richard Boon
Head of Script Services
International Hobo Ltd


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