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Dear triple-A game developers: Enough is enough

This post has been edited by the GamesBeat staff. Opinions by GamesBeat community writers do not necessarily reflect those of the staff.
Editor's Note from Stephanie Carmichael:
Charles raises great points about how the future of the industry could dramatically change expectations of game length and why that could force big-budget publishers and developers to alter their design strategies.

Last week, Japanese developer Hideki Kamiya sparked some controversy when he tweeted about the length of his upcoming Wii U game, The Wonderful 101.

Unsurprisingly, many took this to mean it will be short. However, his colleague, Atsushi Inaba, has since added some clarification, stating that Kamiya was actually commenting on the lack of padding in the game and how the development team will not attempt to artificially increase its length.

Regardless of how long or short The Wonderful 101 is at release, the response made me consider how it’s often worse when games are too long than when they’re too short. The feeling that a game ended too quickly surely indicates that it’s good, right? In comparison, a game that drags on can sour an enjoyable experience, especially if the player loses interest before the end.

With the increase of downloadable games and small-scale titles that don’t sacrifice quality, I believe the argument that game length will become incredibly important in the next generation.

How long is too long?

Calling a game “too long” is obviously a subjective statement. I’ve heard people say six hours of gameplay is perfect while others have scoffed at anything below 20. Still, it’s fair to say that any game that requires substantial investment before being fun is, in some way, too long. Personally, I don’t decide how long I want a game to be until I’m actively playing it. However, as an aging gamer who works full time, I must admit that even in good games, I regularly hit points where I’m bored and race to the end.

Still, I’m in the minority. While I push myself to finish a game because I want to see the conclusion, most people quit when they stop enjoying themselves.

The average gamer is now 30-years-old. They likely have familial, social, or professional responsibilities and some form of disposable income. When they sit down to play, they want immediate enjoyment, but they often don’t have the time to pour hours into a game that isn’t instantly gratifying.

If the average gamer isn’t having fun, they will stop playing and seek another, shorter experience. Full-priced titles that feature obtuse late-game sections or shoehorned-in multiplayer don’t meet that need.

The development perspective

If we consider this issue from a development standpoint, the length of a game is a balancing act of funds and design.

wonderful-101-1

Given infinite time and resources, I doubt developers would stop before they were happy with what they had created. However, we don’t live in such a reality, and developers must regularly weigh how much they have remaining and how best to use it. They still want to give players an experience worth their money — the expanding mobile market with cheap, fun games is proof of this — but if they don’t have the time to produce brand new content, they may consider other ways to increase its value.

Sadly, this can lead to the infamous padding that Kamiya wants to avoid in The Wonderful 101.

It’s a wise concern as consumers are beginning to ask themselves if they want the same old 20-hour experience with a few good parts or a fun and unique three-hour downloadable experience. Considering the price of downloadable titles versus their boxed counterparts, it’s becoming an easy decision.

This divide is made more significant as fans notice the varying quality of video games bought in stores. The average film lasts one to two hours and costs around $8 a ticket, so assuming this is the standard cost to entertainment ratio, the average $60 game should last roughly 11 hours (not far off from most recent triple-A titles). But many games provide much more enjoyment without sacrificing quality. Great multiplayer-focused titles, such as Call of Duty, can also provide almost infinite entertainment.

This uneven value means consumers are looking at the $60 game with much more scrutiny. Incredible free-to-play games, such as League of Legends, are not making this any easier for the big boys.

Is there a problem?

So as gamers, do we have a problem? The answer is yes — and no.

When triple-A games stretch themselves out through extended tutorials or pointless backtracking, then yes, we have a problem. At the same time, as the number of games at our fingertips increases, we can easily find something that suits our tastes. As such, the real problem lies with big studios that produce anything other than perfectly balanced $60 experiences.

As the market for games grows, high-budget games must focus on matching length with quality to remain relevant and enjoyable. Otherwise, they risk losing customers who may decide a $1 app with simple but addictive gameplay is a better value than a humungous $60 experience that demands considerable investment before any payout of pleasure.

A new generation

The allure of the $60 price tag is no longer something I understand. If developers have a great concept but the final product is smaller than they expected, they should market and price it appropriately. Most gamers recognize that a game doesn’t have to be long to be good, and some of the greatest games of this generation have shown this, like Portal and Journey.

ridiculous-fishing

So what is the solution to bloated games? I believe indie and mobile developers have already found it — selling games at reduced prices that reflect the entertainment value of the product. I’m using “entertainment value” as a catch-all term that encompasses single-player length, game quality, and replayability (including multiplayer), but developers and publishers should analyze each of these areas to understand how worthwhile their game experience is and determine a reasonable price.

Enough is enough. If you realize your game is done but don’t think it’s long enough, consider bowing out of the $60 price bracket before cramming it full of content that might ruin it. Or just aim for lower prices and develop your game accordingly. Crazy, I know.

Please don’t misunderstand. I believe there is space in the industry for the $60 triple-A title, and I don’t think those games should automatically be shorter. But that price shouldn’t be the goal for every game destined to be on store shelves.

The games industry is underdoing an important transition, and big budget studios must make the move before they become obsolete. It’s surprising when a game like Ridiculous Fishing can achieve higher review scores than Tomb Raider, but I believe this is a sign that the $60 dream can finally fade away — and with it, games that are too long for their own good.

Thanks for reading. For this and other rambles, please check out my blog or follow me on Twitter.


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