Size Matters: On Game Length, Price and Value
Back when we were putting together our staff picks for the year’s most ludicrously short games, there was a prevailing sentiment among the GameFront writers that length of game does not equate to value.
That’s an interesting, if intellectual, view of the argument. Game length does matter, at least to me, but there’s no easy way of formulating just how it matters, or how much. Trends in the game industry have been going both ways lately.
On the one hand, it seems a lot of games — those in the action and first-person shooter departments, chiefly — are getting shorter. Sub-10-hour campaigns are quickly becoming the norm, and while multiplayer modes are making their way into just about every title hitting shelves nowadays, they’re also becoming a go-to excuse to cut down single-player content.
We saw at least a few triple-A titles get dropped this year with what felt like shockingly small amounts of content. We’ve all heard about Kane & Lynch 2, a game a pair of competent players could best in about three or four hours. And there was Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II, which wasn’t quite as short as Kane & Lynch 2, but it was pretty close — and it managed to recycle the first half of the game to reuse as the second half.
Those are just two examples, but even just those two games point to a scary trend of developers thinking it’s okay to whip up games that are this tiny, then charge all us players full price.
Purchasing a game that’s over in the same afternoon you brought it home can’t be described as anything but a rip-off, and players routinely have that reaction. So it’s interesting that developers still try to sneak out these malnourished packages and pretend they’re going to fly with the target market.
On the flip side, however, there’s no shortage of artificial inflation going on in games. Tons of big titles are filled with stupid, time-consuming mechanics that exist for no reason except to pump up the amount of time a player needs to spend in the game. The examples of this are abundant: Red Dead Redemption loves to make you watch the same slow-moving animations whenever you get on or off a horse or skin a kill; Mass Effect 2 requires players to mindlessly scan planets for minerals; Disney Epic Mickey forces you to work through the same few boring side-scrolling stages every time you want to travel between towns.
There’s no added value to a game when you’re made to watch the same video over and over again, or repeat boring and mindless tasks. So the question becomes one of which is better: a game sliced to its essence and lasts only a few hours, or an adventure that pushes into the 30- or 40-hour mark, but with lots of filler in between?
It’s a decision we shouldn’t have to make, as players, and that’s the problem: both of these are examples of developers trying to pull a fast one on us. Whether it’s cranking out a super-small game at full price, or finding cheap and easy ways to boost the hour count, developers are still looking for ways to shortchange the people buying their products.
Of course, that’s not saying that short games can’t be great, or that long games are inherently worth more money. But you’re paying for an experience, just like when you pay to go to the movies or ride a rollercoaster or drive go-karts. You expect to get a satisfying experience worth what you paid for it, and if a game is three hours long, the cost-benefit ratio tips too far to the former.
So what do we do about it? How do we convince developers that gamers expect a certain level of quality, and quantity, from their products?
It’s simple, but it requires a change in mentality from the hardcore gaming population: vote with your wallet. Move away from the first-adopter, wait-in-line-on-release-day mentality. Do more renting. Read more reviews or get more word-of-mouth impressions. The only way to get developers to realize that they can’t trick us into buying game that are clearly not worth the asking price is to not fall into the trap — which means vetting games ahead of time by first-hand sampling and second-hand information.
Only by not letting low-value, super-short or falsely inflated games garner your gaming dollar will developers get the picture that we expect something more for full-priced games. A change in the market’s spending habits will cause a change in the way games are made and priced: meaning better prices for us and more sales on appropriately priced games for the industry. It’s win-win, but it’ll only happen if the public proves it’s paying attention, and that game length isn’t just a number to slap on the back of a box, but a standard of value gamers expect to receive for the money we spend.