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Spending time: An argument for “movie-length” games

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In the space of two hours, you could go with a friend to see the movie Cabin in the Woods, or you could play about halfway through the Xbox Live Arcade game, Limbo. Both are scary, innovative, artistic experiences. Both will run you around $15. Both the film and the game were critical successes, but one was criticized for being too short.

You can guess which one.

Massimo Guarini, the director of Suda 51 joint Shadows of the Damned, recently expressed the desire to move into creating a “movie-length” game with his new studio, Ovosonico. In a Joystiq interview, Guarini says his project would deal with unusual subjects and eschew more juvenile, “teenager-oriented” subjects common in gaming, and added that it would feature “crazy ideas, strong emotions, original settings, [and an] unconventional approach to gameplay and storytelling.” It’s a pretty vague and lofty ideal, especially considering Shadows of the Damned raised the comedic bar for boner jokes.

“The idea of merging the moviegoing experience with interactive entertainment is not something new; however, few have ever been successful with it.” Jesse Divnich, VP of Insights and Analysis with EEDAR, says.

Even though Ovosonico has yet to announce a price point for the game, there are questions about whether the gaming community will be receptive to a short but sweet gameplay experience. In the market where games tend to fall into the categories of $0.99 iPhone distractions or epic, sprawling $60 masterpieces, is the industry set up to cater to such an experience?

To clarify, when we talk about short games, we’re not talking about Flash diversions that exist to be replayed in 30-second bursts, or ones that thrive in their multiplayer component, such as Street Fighter or Call of Duty. We’re specifically referring to experiences that serve up the bulk of their gameplay experience between the title screen and credits. Guarini says that while they haven’t nailed down their price model for the game, they’re not going to rely on “ensnaring people with addictive tricks,” ala many iOS or Zynga titles. Ovosonico’s proposed game seems to be something else entirely from what we come to expect.

“I don't believe consumers are overtly negative to the idea; but the burden falls on the developer or publisher to ensure proper communication is achieved as not to give false expectations,” Divnich says.  “Consumers are only upset over short games when it is unexpected.”

Portal is probably the most prominent in the argument of striking a balance between fun and length. It introduced a revolutionary first-person puzzle mechanic with wide appeal, a charmingly dry sense of humor, and a genuinely surprising narrative. The game was universally lauded, scoring a 90 out of 100 on reviews-aggregate site Metacritic, and Orange Box that it was sold as a part of a package that was one of Metacritic’s top 12 highest reviewed games ever, but still there were complaints that it was possible to complete it in about four hours. As part of a three-game pack, some consumers felt like it wasn’t worthy of their time. Even as a standalone title at $20, GameSpy says that, “It's debatable whether Portal is a little too short, even with the epic finale.”

For another example, let’s return to Limbo. A critical darling, it also scored a 90 on Metacritic. Considering its art-heavy design background and download-only status, it smashed expectations, selling over 300,000 copies in its first month, and over a million in a year, saving developer Playdead from insolvency. The game was praised for its unique, dark fairytale art style and atmosphere and its minimalistic yet inventive puzzles. But it also fell prey to complaints that the entire game could be completed in a single sitting. IGN commented that, “The journey may be over too quickly, but you will be entertained every minute.”

Halo 3: ODST blew away its competitors the in September 2009, the month of its release, selling over 1.5 million copies, according to NPD sales figures, and scored an 83 on Metcritic. Even though it improved on its predecessor through its multiplayer mode, reviewers found much at fault with the shortened single-player mode. GamesRadar says in its review, “Due to a short campaign and overly familiar gameplay, however, it fails to escape the ‘expansion pack’ label.”

This shouldn’t suggest that there’s a direct correlation between game length and enjoyment, but it’s a good case of quality over quantity. There’s certainly no reason a long game can’t be great, and empirical evidence shows people are willing to buy a game even if it’s short. But there remains a persistent negative sentiment in the community toward short games. If a player gets as much enjoyment out of 80 hours of Skyrim as he or she does out of 8 hours of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, why should it matter how much of time it soaked up?

Divnich says that for developers, the risk versus reward of making a short title lies with how much a company like Ovosonico could charge for the experience.

“Obviously a one to two hour experience would be substantially cheaper than a $60 HD product,” Divnich says. “The problem is the cost of development.  Whether a one hour or 20 hour experience, the same amount of resources need to be implemented to create the physics and the core engine.”

Industry analyst for Wedbush Securities Michael Pachter says that another of Guarini’s concerns may be instead having a bite taken out of sales by rentals, should he pursue a retail platform.

“If he makes a 2 hour game and charges $10 for it, people will buy it, but he won't be able to command premium prices so long as there is a rental market,” Pachter says.

Hundred-hour, $60 titles like Skyrim and $0.99 timewasters on iPhone have both proven to be popular and profitable, movie-length games should also be able to find their niche, once gamers are willing to embrace it. It’s a matter of finding the right idea to make it work.

“Without seeing any concepts on paper, it really is difficult to weigh in on the subject,” Divnich says. “But I will say this, anything is possible in the video game market, and I always applaud developers when they attempt to create new and unique models and experiences for the consumer.”


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