Like the editors of Cosmopolitan, we in the games industry have a rather unhealthy obsession with size. We like numbers, and we always have, going back to the days of cart sizes and 32 bits versus 64, right up to today’s RAM and Blu-ray storage figures. The larger the numbers are, the better. For some perverse reason this logic carries into the gameplay, where far too often the mantra is “bigger is better” – regardless of quality.
I read with great interest John Funk’s column – and the ensuing comments – on his reluctance to play Mass Effect 2 because of its length. So many people were not only unable to empathize with his position, but were outright hostile towards it – suggesting that being intimidated by a game’s size is some kind of basic deficiency on his part.
Well I, at least, can empathize. I am very curious to see what ME2 is like as a game – 96 averages on Metacritic will do that to a person – but I am reluctant to start it. The reason is not just because I have yet to finish Dragon Age: Origins (my interest evaporated overnight at around the 18 hour mark), but because I barely got six hours into the first Mass Effect.
Now, I did not think Mass Effect was a bad game – far from it, the production values were off the scale, and I welcome any attempt to bring storytelling to the videogaming masses. As a project, I stand behind its virtues 100 percent. But at the risk of sounding like the kind of ADD-riddled moron gamer I should hate, for me the 8-hour campaign of a game like Modern Warfare, paced to perfection with barely a dull 30 seconds in between, has become a far more desirable experience.
Coming from someone who listed Shenmue in their best games of the last decade this may come off as slightly hypocritical, but times have changed, and I have changed with them. Faced with a combination of age, experience and, most importantly, ennui from seeing the same basic mechanics over and over again, a very real psychological barrier exists to getting involved in something that is going to take 30 hours of my life.
This seems counter-intuitive, as your patience threshold should increase with age, but I’m going to chalk this one up to the greater freedom that a steady income brings. In other words, why pretend to be sexing up hot alien women when I could hit the town and try it on real ones? There are also the staid responsibilities that also come with getting older, quite often the result of the aforementioned encounters. (Wouldn’t it be quite interesting to see gaming’s most realistic Lothario, Shepherd himself, deal with an unexpected pregnancy?)
But more to the point, exactly why is 30 or 40 hours considered to be necessary to involve someone in an RPG? A lot of people who commented on Funk’s column spoke about immersion, as if a long period of time was somehow a prerequisite for involvement. The need for a long experience is something we only see in gaming.
After 3 hours of Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, did you feel sufficiently involved in the Fellowship’s journey? Would it have been more emotionally affecting if Gandalf had grinded around Moria for ten hours before the Balrog dragged him down into the abyss? Did you need to see Boromir have long, pointless conversations on various topics with all the other Fellowship party members to fully understand his betrayal and subsequent redemption?
The extended versions of the Lord of the Rings movies are all messes of varying degrees – the fact that filmed footage was removed for the real version shows that that directors and movie moguls seem to realize that more is not necessarily better. The games industry is very slow to accept this. We want that bullet point, the one that says “100 hours of gameplay.” We gamers still haven’t accepted the fact that 10 hours of awesome is much better than 5 hours of awesome, spliced with 20 hours of crap. In today’s 140-character-limit world, I would have thought that we would better understand that brevity is the soul of wit.
What makes games different, then? Are we just accustomed to having an RPG be at least a 30-hour experience because that’s how it always has been? Or do we demand more from games just because of their cost?
I understand that we want value for money from our games. I do. Especially since gaming’s most vocal audience, teenagers, have little in the way of disposable income. When I was a teenager, a new copy of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter cost $79.99, and what it lacked in replayability, it only made up for in fog. So believe me, I get it. I sincerely believe that developers have a duty to provide replayability in games if we’re going to be charging as much for them as we do, even though I am the type of gamer who finishes barely half the titles he starts, never mind playing the same ones twice once the credits have rolled.
Value for money is hugely important. But value does not equal length.
We humans are a simple bunch. We seem to think that more is unequivocally better. Why get the regular size meal when you can supersize it? But when playing Shadow of the Colossus, was anyone disappointed by its lack of collectibles, alternate endings and grinding? Shadow of the Colossus does have replayability, in the way that a great movie like The Big Lebowski does. It’s not that there is a range of extra features to find the second time around – in fact, to the best of my knowledge, there’s almost nothing of significance you won’t have been guaranteed to come across on your first playthrough. What makes it replayable is the fact that it’s a brilliant, thrilling experience, and that experience is not greatly diminished by prior knowledge of it. This is replayability, folks, not pointless hidden flags and dead birds strewn around levels for you to pick up.
Although the argument that games are getting shorter still comes up every so often, I have discovered, through the joy of downloadable games on the Virtual Console, that this argument carries no weight whatsoever. Nowadays I breeze games in an evening that I remember spending weeks on. Shouldn’t I be getting older and feebler by now?
Games, I’m starting to think, seem short now only because the genres have not greatly changed and mechanics have become more similar. We already know everything we have to do when we start – we no longer mess around aimlessly in the game world for hours trying to figure out how to play. Even though you’ve only played 2 hours of Generic Shooter 15, it feels like an eternity because you played the same basic game last week.
Gamers should do more to encourage publishers to ditch the bullet point feature of “dozen of hours of gameplay” and instead concentrate on core mechanics that are a joy to replay – Left 4 Dead springs to mind. These types of games are not just accessible in a way that something like Mass Effect 2 is not; ultimately we end up playing them more.
Christian Ward works for a major publisher, and enjoyed 30 minutes with the Heavy Rain demo far more than many multi-hour experiences he’s paid $60 for over the past year.