A Long Game is Not a Better Game

Since the dawn of time, gamers have found themselves waging wars of words and carrying on conflicts of colloquialisms over innumerable issues eternally bonded to the very source of their every pleasure, pain, love and hatred: video games. One such debate centers around game length, and how much time can be squeezed out of any given title. Some argue in favor of maximum duration, and some harp on dollar-per-hour comparisons, but in the end, isn’t it the quality of the content that matters most?

As games have evolved, one important focal point of developers has been to create more elaborate and enjoyable experiences for the gamer. Early on, this was easily achieved by increasing the size of the game. This description can be taken quite literally, as the earliest games took place entirely on one screen. Pong, Asteroids, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and others never left the confines of the field defined by the screen’s boundaries, but later games, such as Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, placed characters in a world that could extend far beyond the stimuli provided at any given instant. This sort of expansion provided a much more interesting space for gamers to explore, but also served to establish the concept of finite beginnings and endings in video games. There were now measurable lengths to games, and inevitably, each gamer would have a very real perception of a game’s conclusion, completion, or outright cessation — especially when the game managed to tell a story concluding with the words “THE END” displayed in big, blocky letters. “I beat the game” became a common phrase, meaning “I finished the story,” but implying “I needn’t play this one anymore.”

So games steadily increased in length, all the while offering more options and greater gameplay variety. Longer games were able to provide gamers with increased satisfaction, simply due to the fact that there was more available to enjoy. They weren’t yet extended for the sake of logging time, but grew to fit the content contained within, and were fraught with the solid gameplay mechanics that had made them enjoyable to begin with. At this point, the length of games began to represent one measure of their overall value, as gamers sought more extensive experiences to occupy their time.

Nowadays, however, games have become much more complex creations, and maintaining a consistent level of quality over the course of a lengthy one has become a greater challenge to developers. They now have to resort to alternative measures in order to satisfy a generation of consumers who have been trained to believe that a game’s quality is directly proportionate to it’s length. The collective critical voice only exacerbates the problem, as journalists regularly refer to duration as a determining factor in their appraisals of games, thus perpetuating the general expectation for longer ones. This “longer is better” standpoint unfortunately leads creative minds to tarnish their craft with inessential ‘fluff’ and ‘filler,’ as a sort of appeasement to the masses.

The problem with this practice is that this sort of augmentation, though it is meant to heighten regard for a title, usually only accomplishes a degradation of quality in the finished product. There is a reason that gamers consistently bash things like fetch-quests, escort missions, and other totally pace-breaking, game-lengthening play segments — it’s because they suck. When a gamer is forced to take part in a particular activity for an extended period of time, with no added rewards and no real sense of progression, their desire to continue dwindles quickly, and their opinions about the experience change for the worse. So games can suffer the wrath resulting from the addition of filler content, or stick to their best quality mechanics, but run the risk of being deemed “too short.” There is always a reason to complain.

Usually, the reasoning behind consumers seeking long games is financially rooted. With games costing 50, and now 60 dollars apiece, gamers want to squeeze the most out of their hard-earned dollars. Following this logic, a 50-hour game is better than a 10-hour game, because the gamer receives five times the merchandise for the same price. Essentially, the 50-hour game costs $1 per hour, while the 10-hour game costs $5 per hour. But again, we must consider the QUALITY of the time spent. If a game is a non-stop tour de force of great gameplay and captivating content, yet delivers a shorter total playtime than a fluff-laden snore-fest that stretches on and on, then it is CLEARLY a more valuable investment. I, for one, would much rather have 5 hours of “awesome” than 30 hours of “so-so.”

One genre that is notorious for very long total play times is the role-playing game, or RPG. Traditionally, these games attempt to tell epic tales of world-saving heroes and their companions. The story is obviously of prime importance here, as gameplay usually boils down to hours upon hours of mundane battles with the SAME cloned enemies, managed via lists of commands selected with a single button. The entire premise of character-building is based on time — the basic building block of their every skill and ability is called the “experience” point. A typical definition of the word experience is as follows: “The observing, encountering, or undergoing of things generally as they occur in the course of time.”

So gamers wade through endless random battles, leveling up their party, in order to reach a few key points in the story and prod the real substance of the game along. Remove the filler of random encounters, and a 40-hour game easily reduces to 15 hours. Now I enjoy a good RPG, but it’s not the “in-between stuff” that is important to me. I play these types of games for a fascinating plot, which is easily furnished in less than half the time normally required of me to experience it. An ideal RPG would minimize the monotony, and allow gamers to focus on the narrative, tightening the entire presentation.

Of course, there are many types of games for many types of gamers, but when a game of ANY genre is extended for the sole purpose of increasing play time, it’s bound to suffer in terms of quality. Very few people complain when a movie clocks in at 90 minutes instead of two hours, so why should anyone chastise an otherwise high-caliber game on the grounds that it’s “too short?” Plenty of outstanding titles have been exceptionally short-lived, while still providing first-class gaming experiences. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Shadow of the Colossus are just two examples of this type of finely-crafted production. Each of these stellar games has achieved a GameRankings composite score of greater than 91%, yet each requires only about six hours to complete. The reason games such as these were able to garner such acclaim is because in their relatively short spans they provided the best in gameplay with minimal unenjoyable crap thrown in, thereby keeping gamers interested and happy, always wanting to continue, and never feeling an interruption in their temporary virtual existence. This is the way it should be done, and when a game is over, it’s over.

To put it succinctly, games should provide entertainment and fun, not length.


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Author: Eddie Inzauto View all posts by
Eddie has been writing about games on the interwebz for over ten years. You can find him Editor-in-Chiefing around these parts, or talking nonsense on Twitter @eddieinzauto.

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