Thursday, August 19, 2010
Thursday Thoughts - Game Length
Wednesday I had the pleasure of reading through opinions from indie developers about why how long a game is really shouldn't matter when making a decision on whether or not you should purchase a game. Today I tell you that the reviewers and customers not only have a point but also should be listened to.
First off, any of you who know me know that I don't buy many AAA retail titles or, heck, many titles on a disc at all. I had a GameFly subscription for the few disc games I'd play (now cancelled), pick up a game on the cheap here and there if I can find it, and still most of my gaming comes from the digital distribution of XBox Live, WiiWare, and various PC means. A lot of this has to do with how attached I get to the fun, easy, pick-up-and-play arcade feeling that many downloadable games have. And then some of it has to do with the fact that I don't have a crudload of money to throw at what I play. Heck, my gaming budget for the month usually doesn't exceed 40 bucks, and that's on a good month. So finding amazing games for ten bucks or five bucks or even less is something I enjoy doing both as a reviewer and as a gamer with very little disposable income.
Now that I have that out of the way, let's get to the point: game length matters, but not in how "long" a playthrough of a game is. Let me clarify with one easy example: Super Mario Brothers. The world record for that game stands at five minutes flat (last I checked, anyway). I can get there in eight minutes, but let's just clock the average run using warps at ten minutes. Ten minutes for an entire game? Surely that's got to be the worst game of all time! Except for the fact that most people that do such a thing have invested hours upon hours of time into the age old classic and still can't help but enjoy each time they see that first Goomba on 1-1 or snag the extra life before the first chasm. Another such example is Portal, though this one is a bit more arguable than others. Many people say that Portal was "too short", yet the amount of time my girlfriend has put into multiple playthroughs of the game takes that theory and throws it out the window. It's a classic example of how a "short" game can still be a game people play over and over, and even though it's not my cup of tea it's probably the best example of such a game since Super Mario 1.
There are a ton of examples of this on the XBLIG Marketplace. Soulcaster, one of my favorite games on the 360, clocks in at roughly 90 minutes for its three dollar asking price. That is, if you only play it once. Which you won't. What about radiangames' JoyJoy or Crossfire? Both games are over long before an hour is up and yet I hold it's impossible for someone to only "complete" those games once. Even parody RPG Breath of Death VII, my favorite RPG out of ANY on the 360, has multiple modes that remain fun after the game is over. The point is that these games have replay value that goes above and beyond simply playing through a game once.
Which brings me to the problem with the length of many indie games: most are designed to be played through precisely once. Coming from a long history of putting a quarter up to signify that I "got next", it pains me a bit to play games that have little to no replay value and/or multiplayer. Now, I have no problem with paying five bucks for every two to three hours of gameplay. It's not something I normally do; if you look at my shelf you'll see roughly a dozen 360 games and each of them are designed for either multiple journeys (Dragon Age) or have a lot of multiplayer/online capability (Soul Calibur IV, Blur). Others end up being fun enough that I WANT to go through more than once (Bayonetta). But when the once-through experience is worth it I will bite, such as with the Professor Layton games or with Braid (we'll get back to that one). Trouble is, some just get ridiculous. VVVVVV wants fifteen bucks for roughly two hours of gameplay, Machinarium wants 20 for a little more than that (well, before that amnesty sale thing), and though the former has a little bit of replay value that little bit gets taken away by slippery keyboard controls.
One can argue that a few other high profile indie games have this problem. Braid and Limbo, among others, do have a narrative and lose some charm after the initial quest. So if you're out to one-and-done these games, then you might walk away slightly disappointed. On the other hand, when I play these games I can't help but want to play them again. Braid in particular saw at least three complete runs from me, each one feeling just as fun as the last even without the awesome kick-you-in-the-stomach surprise of an ending. And I think that's why I don't feel like there's justification in the negative remarks about Braid's pricing: the game invites you to come back, something that the 20 dollar RPGs (using RPG Maker, no less) and adventure games simply don't do and don't even try to do.
I'm not here to tell indie developers how to price their games. The phenomenal artwork in Machinarium and the absolutely SICK soundtrack in VVVVVV probably involved some time, effort, and, because of that, money. I'm also not here to tell them to stop making RPGs and adventure games, considering I LIKE those games. I'm not even here to tell them that I'm right, as I'm sure many will disagree with me. But I am here to tell them that there's a reason people wince at paying 20 bucks for a two hour distraction when gamers like myself have bought brand new games for 30 (Street Fighter III: Third Strike), 15 (Castle Crashers), or even 10 dollars (N+) and have put hundreds of fun-filled hours into them. In the case of Third Strike, I'm pretty sure I'm poking around two thousand hours over the last six years. When you make your games, you may not be competing directly with every AAA title out there. But when someone's got to make a choice on what they buy with a finite income, you may as well be.
So please take that into consideration before you tell reviewers and gamers that we're whiny and then complain when those same people don't buy your game.