Today is Size Doesn’t Matter Day, organized by Jamie Cheng from Klei, when game developers talk about how the length of a game is or isn’t important relative to its other merits. I’ve included links to several other blogs at the end of this post. Anthony Flack has also posted his thoughts.
We’re all talking about game length, something uppermost in my mind as we plan how long to make Cow Patrol on iPhone/iPad. I say how long, perhaps I really mean how deep – how much replay value we plan to have.
One of the most comment complaints from game journalists is that games are too short. As has become obvious within the many reviews of indie hit Limbo, a high quality game will still be pulled up and criticised over game length.
One of the most common questions publishers ask when pitched a game is, “how long is it?” On the assumption that they aren’t just being over-friendly, what they really want to know is how long it will take to play through the game; they want to know how much bang they get for their buck.
But how long is a game and how long should it be?
Let’s take an indie title like Castle Crashers. It took me an evening to play the game from start to finish. Although I loved it, I’ve not played it much since. Many others have been playing it through repeatedly, however, in order to unlock all the items and ramp up their characters. The game was much shorter for me than many other players.
How about Portal? At its heart, this is a simple puzzle game which took perhaps an afternoon to complete. However, I enjoyed playing Portal much more than many other games, even games which I may have played for much longer. I played World of Warcraft for far more hours than I care to remember but it’s not a better game than Portal because of its seemingly never-ending play-time. It’s a completely different game and needs to be judged accordingly. As a matter of fact, I played Portal through twice, the second time with my dad trying to solve the puzzles (there is no way he could handle FPS controls but he enjoyed the game otherwise). That said, Portal doesn’t have the replay value of Castle Crashers.
Castle Crashers, Portal and World of Warcraft – three games of different genres with wildly different playing times. More than that, they are going to be played in different ways by different gamers, with no one way being the right way. I’d put Limbo firmly in the Portal category by the way – most players will only ever play it once, and not even all the way through if they get stuck.
So, we don’t even have a simple way to measure the longevity of a game because it’s not easily defined. Not a good start!
How long should a game be? It seems to me that it depends who you ask.
Journalists seem to want their games long. Perhaps this is because they’ve been spoiled by those big AAA games of the past. Times have changed and I think journalists need to move with them.
Teenagers and students, who seem to comprise the vocal minority on gaming forums, gripe about game length – more so with full price titles than indie games. Perhaps this is because they don’t have the constraints on their time that take hold as the years go by – family and work for example. I certainly don’t have time for most games any more. Smaller games fit better in my life these days.
Publishers want long games with substantial content. I think this is because they are afraid of criticism from journalists and the vocal minority. It’s a terrible flaw within the industry that game length is prioritised over quality but that really does seem to be the general way of things.
Game developers want shorter games, generally speaking. This is because making bigger games costs money. Making games is a phenomenally risky business to be in, so making a game containing days of content for players to trawl through is simply not sensible. However, a trend within iPhone, iPad and Social Network games seems to be to launch small and then build the game up if people take to it. I’m a big fan of this approach but it’s rather scary and, to be truthful, it’s proving tough to get my head around.
And the majority of players? I think they just want a great game. Sure, game length will come into it, but if the gaming itself is of very high quality then I don’t think the game needs to last 10 hours for the average player. Portal and Limbo can be completed within 2-3 hours for a cost of perhaps £5-10. It costs £30 upwards to watch a football match (often poor quality as they can’t be ‘pre-reviewed’ unlike games) and £7 for a cinema ticket to see a 90 minute film (plus the excessively priced snacks of course).
I could write much more on the comparative costs of other entertainment but this is covered in some of the other blogs below and far more eloquently than I could put it.
So does size matter?
Yes I think it does, but it’s also just one of many factors that go into the melting pot that is a game. I must admit that I would like to see journalists not be critical of shorter games when they are at a lower price point, particularly when they are from independent developers. I think the typical indie game audience is perfectly happy with a short but polished experience, and perhaps this is more true of the wider audience then we all realise. Let’s not allow the vocal minority to speak for the majority.
To sign off, I shall just point you to a game of perfect length right here, and please read some of the other thoughtful posts on the subject below: