Yesterday was 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. First Alex wrote his thoughts, now Anthony Flack now has his say. We’ve included links to more blogs at the end of this post.
So, it’s “Size Doesn’t Matter Day” today? A worthy topic of discussion for a game designer, if ever there was one. I don’t think I would ever say that it doesn’t matter – I’ve probably spent more time over the last ten years pondering issues of game size and game scope than any other design element – but if there is one message that I would like people to take from this discussion, it’s simply that BIGGER ISN’T NECESSARILY BETTER. A game’s size should be appropriate to the game’s form, and what constitutes an “appropriate” size may often be smaller than you think.
One of my favourite games of all time, and a game that has influenced me a lot in terms of its design, is the original Sega Rally, the first major game by the brilliant designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi (Space Channel 5, Rez, Lumines). This is a game that I have sunk dozens of hours into over the years, trying to find ways to shave another half-second off my time in order to finish each race, then to finish the game in first place, and finally to gain enough extra time to finish the bonus Lakeside course and unlock the elusive Stratos. At various times over the last 15 years I have found myself hooked on the arcade game, the PC port, the Sega Saturn port, and finally the PS2 re-release. Sega Rally is like digital crack to me.
It is a game that manages to be exciting and rewarding to novice and expert players alike, without ever needing to resort to crude measures like difficulty settings, or (god forbid) rubber-banding AI. And yet, from start to finish, Sega Rally is a game that takes about five minutes to play through. The genius of it is that it makes you want to play over that five minutes again and again, obsessively, until you are intimiately familiar with every nuance of every moment of that five minute experience.
Another game I got hooked on a while back was a little indie game called Tower Of Heaven (http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/544332). This game only takes about 10-15 minutes to complete the first time around, but after you have got to the end, the game then challenges you to go through again and try to set a faster time. When it was released there was a little speedrun competition held on the TIGsource forums and I spent an entire day playing it over and over, looking for ways to get to the end just a little bit faster. It was seriously intense! In the end, the winning time was, I think, 2:18 to complete the entire game – my best time was a few seconds longer than that. I definitely didn’t expect such an intense experience to come out of playing such a small, simple game.
Now, the point I’m trying to make isn’t just that big things can sometimes come in small packages. The point is, neither of these games would have engendered this kind of obsessive replaying if they were significantly longer games. I would never have speedrun Tower of Heaven over and over for an entire day if it was going to take an hour to get to the end each time. No way. And I would never have gained the mastery necessary to really appreciate Sega Rally’s perfectly-tuned gameplay if I had to memorise thirty different tracks (a point that seemed to be entirely lost on the makers of the bloated and clunky Sega Rally 2008). The games’ small size made the challenge manageable; made it appealing and enticing rather than overwhelming and exhausting.
And now, I find myself thinking about size again, as I am in the process of designing my own “micro-game”, Cletus Clay Cow Patrol for the iPhone/iPad. The entire game, from start to finish, clocks in at around 16 minutes, and you don’t even have to play through from the start each time. Alex and I are currently in discussion as to whether that’s long enough, or whether we need to extend it and put another few levels in. People love to accuse games of being too short after all – they seldom complain about games being too long, even though they quite frequently are. But this is a game that has been designed with competitive high-scoring in mind. I want people to play it over and over, to find ways to squeeze those extra points out and beat their friends’ scores. If I can achieve that, then it might not matter so much if the game is short.
More than that, if high-scoring is the aim it might actually be BETTER to keep it short.