Everything about our internet habits today says we crave immediate gratification, the kind we’re likely to find in a five-to-10 minute mobile game like Angry Birds. As technology improves, we’re constantly inching closer to becoming “shallow consumers of information,” unable to “think deeply.” Our patience wanes with mere seconds of slow load times, just as routinely checking social media networks like Facebook and Twitter – websites designed for short, easily consumed doses of information – can impair our ability to concentrate. Nowadays, we like what’s quick and simple.
The advent of social, mobile, and even downloadable games are providing us experiences that we can enjoy in the time it takes us to tweet or update our Facebook status
Yet some of us can’t wait to get home and slay dragons in Skyrim – a massive game that can occupy hundreds of hours. With a vast world of media only a click or download away, why do we still opt for games that require a major commitment when evidence suggests we prefer more bite-sized adventures?
The advent of social, mobile, and even downloadable games are providing us experiences that we can enjoy in the time it takes us to tweet or update our Facebook status, but many of us still cave to bigger releases – perhaps because they’re more fulfilling.
“The appeal of a larger game is multi-faceted,” says Trent Oster, the director of business development at Beamdog, which is distributing an updated version of the classic roleplaying game Baldur’s Gate to PCs and mobile platforms this September. “The main facet for me is the depth. With Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition … you can play through with a good party or an evil party, mostly mages, all fighters, or a balanced missile weapon/melee party. You can perform every good quest or be a jerk and go only for personal gain. These are choices and depth smaller games just cannot offer.”
But even longer games take a few shortcuts, whittling down the time it takes for players to complete an objective or travel from point A to point B. Regardless of genre, we expect developers to offer immersive tutorials instead of written ones, skippable cut-scenes, fast travel systems, and for the love of god, faster scrolling text! And it’s easy to forget that a lot of the time, RPGs are basically a ton of manageable side quests strung together.
Despite either appeal, people might default to longer or shorter games because of their lifestyle. Teenagers often rely on allowances and summer jobs for money, so they might choose one or two games that can keep them busy for several months. Adults earn more income, but getting older also means taking on more responsibilities.
“I think adults just simply don’t have that much time,” says Jenova Chen, creative director of Thatgamecompany. “If you want to entertain them, then you better entertain them within a short amount of time. Everybody’s time is valuable once you start working and running a family. But kids and teenagers don’t have those responsibilities. They have all this time that they need to kill.”
Both Chen and Oster agree that it’s not always length that matters, but the kind of experience you’re seeking. Longer games are typically designed to immerse the player in a carefully crafted story and world, offering an escape, while shorter games aim for intensity.
Chen says their recent hit game, Journey, which takes about two hours to play, “used to last a lot longer.
“And we could have made the game longer,” he says, “but then all the feeling we built up would slowly dissipate.”
But games are still a business, and many companies see a money-making logic to producing longer games. For gamers, if the number of hours promised on the box exceeds the cost of the game itself, then it’s easy to view it as a better investment. So if a game is 80 hours long and costs only $10, the return on entertainment is hypothetically greater.
Because of this mindset, Chen says developers “assume a longer time is a better score and a better opportunity to get sold. But are these hundreds of hours of content really good? Nobody knows.”
As Chen explains it, “People would rather get back into the game world and do something … People don’t like boring things.”
A study conducted last year by Raptr, a popular social networking site for gamers that boasts about 15 million members, showed that only 10 percent of users were finishing games. The average age of gamers, the growth of online multiplayer, and the overabundance of games – even greater now thanks to digital platforms and opportunities like Kickstarter, which can be a perfect launch point for independent developers – are all contributing factors. There’s a lot to choose from, and too little time for most people to play it all. Not to mention, it can be costly.
Of course, it’s hard to say whether we’ll forgo console generations for the fresh face of mobile and social games, which often cost much less or operate entirely on the increasingly popular free-to-play model. Even now, technology is changing the way we play, with a whole selection of tablets and smartphones offering a wide range of quality games for way under the price of a normal retail game.
“I think all of these things will go away in 10 years,” says Chen. “It’s just the residuals – the kids who played these games growing up are still expecting these games to be a certain duration. And if they know a game is shorter than that, they’re like, ‘Oh, bullshit. This game is shorter than all the games I bought, and it’s the same price.’ It’s just what they are not accustomed to. But if you play an iPhone game, which is one buck, and that doesn’t last more than three hours, you’ll complain. It’s just what people are used to, and eventually … people will just get used to the fact that games can be a different duration in the future, rather than laying on to one criteria for what a game is.”
Perhaps what games need is more attention to modern innovations – the kind that use convenience and speed to improve gameplay, regardless of a game’s duration or platform.
“I think people have a bit of ‘nostalgia goggles’ for old games,” says Oster. “You remember the great and forget a lot of the bad … Our goal with Overhaul Games is to keep the game and remove the horrible stuff. We err on the side of keeping the game experience intact.”
Some of the changes that have “smartened-up” Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition include a more detailed character screen, which gives players a better read-out of actions and effects during battle; a tutorial on the main screen that familiarizes them to the interface and 2nd Edition D&D rules; and, of course, skippable cut-scenes. Oster says players can bypass all in-game events but those essential to the story, a minor annoyance that will be “compensated by the quality of the rest of the experience.”
And the experience, not length, should be the main priority for any game. It’s “high-quality, well-executed content” that matters, according to Oster. As Chen explains it, “People would rather get back into the game world and do something. The loading bar is the most boring thing ever in this world. People don’t like boring things in general. And that’s a great sign of why we have to make sure our game is always entertaining by avoiding repetitive play, grinding the player, and making them bored.”
Games can deliver entirely different experiences, and as the industry enters a new era and younger generations pick up controllers or tablets for the first time, we’re learning more about how valuable (and flawed) both short and long games can be. It’s hard to say whether the future is headed toward one or the other, but the mere possibility is enough to remind us of their worth.
One thing is clear. Despite the rise of mobile and social gaming, developers aren’t afraid to give people more content – whether it’s in the form of downloadable content or 80-hour RPGs on platforms ordinarily reserved for shorter games – even if they never finish.
“I think the appeal of a massive interactive world is timeless,” says Oster. “The mechanism for delivery has changed, but the concept has not.”
Stephanie Carmichael (@wita ) is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture. She loves Batman, coffee, and cats.