Sorry for not updating recently; real-life has been a bit busier than usual and I’ve had little time to ruminate on game development of late. But then this was always going to be a sporadic endeavour rather than a regular column so have patience! I’ve plenty of posts drafted up, they just need editing and finishing off.
Until then, a note on the length of time required to enjoy or complete games today. Personally I love RPGs, and especially those permitting a large degree of freedom for exploration such as Oblivion or the Might and Magic series. Even with more linear games I tend to have a cautious play style, spending 30 minutes on Doom 2 levels that had a ‘par’ time of 2 minutes, spending 8 hours on Thief 2 levels that others finished in 1, and so on. Recently I clocked up my 200th hour on Oblivion, and although I am tiring of it somewhat, it still holds a lot of interest and novelty to me at this point. Strangely, the time I spend on these games far exceeds that which I spend on explicitly ‘replayable’ games, such as Sid Meier’s Civilization, TrackMania, or any number of RTS games.
Anecdotally it seems like many people, perhaps older gamers, seem to want shorter and more focused entertainment these days. Is this just because they have played so many games and have less tolerance for obvious filler content? I’ve watched young children play certain platformers where they’ll happily try the same jump 20 times before they get it right, while I would probably have lost patience before half that many attempts. Or is it simply because older gamers have more free time to spare and they would rather see more variety and experience more victories in that time than playing one very long game would allow? It certainly seems the case that the industry is providing us with such games – And even when playing time isn’t decreased, the play area has shrunk and traded wide expanses for fine detail – compare Oblivion’s world of 16 square miles to Daggerfall’s 62, or look at the tiny compartmentalised levels in Thief 3 when compared to the sprawling cityscapes in Thief 2 such as the ‘Life Of The Party’ mission (the size of which which even this speed-run manages to portray effectively).
How does this trend for shorter games compare to the hours sunk into MMOs like World of Warcraft? Those of us who grew up with MUDs will recognise that this phenomenon doesn’t necessarily come from the presentation values, which in MUDs were almost non-existent, or even from the quality of the game design, since most MUDs gave you the equivalent of a text adventure with the worst parser since 1982 and an unbalanced version of the Dungeons and Dragons combat rules. Was it almost entirely from the socialising and the exploration factor? Maybe the combination of the two? (Brian Green has some thoughts on the relevance of different player types in a post made a couple of years ago.)
As much as I love long games, I know I could enjoy so many more if they were quicker to complete. I currently have over 30 games installed and which I play to a lesser or greater degree, but the 2 I spend the most time on being Deus Ex and Oblivion. These preclude me from making much progress on some other games (Bard’s Tale 2, Fallout, and Football Manager 2005 to name three that I’ve put on the back-burner for now) since the longer narrative driven games require a certain degree of attention and continuity. It’s easy to forget where you stashed some equipment or which NPC you meant to talk to next if you only play the game once a month, for example. So I suppose that is the downside of the games that are more demanding of time. Modern games are getting better at maintaining this state in the game for you – both Oblivion’s and Deus Ex track your objectives for you, whereas I have reams of hand-drawn maps for the Bards Tale games – but there is only so much they can do without giving you an in-game notepad which you scrawl notes into when you save and quit for the night.
What’s your preference – short play times or longer? Do both essentially give you the same value for money, and the payoff for your hours invested? Do you feel cheated by a game that ended all too soon, or by apparent filler put in to space out the content?