Why Short Games End Up Longer and Longer Games Are Too Short


(This is another edition of /RANT, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)

It’s amazing what you can get used to when you’ve experienced it enough times. Like first-person-shooter single-player campaigns. This generation has gotten me so used to solo experiences lasting maybe six hours on a good day that, nine hours into a replay of DOOM 3 for a review of the BFG edition, I was hit with a sudden rush of memory, a shocked nostalgia for the way things used to be. A solo FPS campaign — for a game with multiplayer, no less — that can last beyond nine hours. Who would have thought? It certainly made me remember the “good old days,” like some aging bigot who hates everything new.

Game length is among the most pressing issues for vocal electronic entertainment consumers these days. Games cost $60 in most circumstances, and for that money, the hardcore consumer demands an experience worth his or her time. Recent releases like Dishonored have come under fire for a narrative campaign that lasts six hours, with no multiplayer mode tacked on. To some, it doesn’t matter that the game can — and arguably should — be played through multiple times in order to experience all the gameplay on offer. At its base line, gamers see a six-hour solo mode with no “replay value” and tell it to take a walk. Meanwhile. we commiserate on the good old days of gaming, when titles last long enough to justify the asking price.

Interestingly enough though, it was brought to my attention that, content-wise, perhaps we weren’t getting the great deal we thought we were getting back in those golden years. For instance, I was informed that the current speed run time for Doom 3 was 1hr 9min, while the speed run time for Call of Duty: Black Ops¬†was 2hr 54min. Now, that says nothing about either game’s quality, but it does say something interesting about the amount of content on offer. Despite Call of Duty being famous for leading the vanguard of short solo campaigns, you can actually beat a “longer” game from the good old days in a third of the time it takes to beat Black Ops — at least when you strip away everything and focus solely on the base amount of interactive content. Even weirder is the fact that, to the average consumer, Doom 3 is still the longer game. I beat Black Ops’s campaign in about four or five hours when I reviewed it. As I’ve already said, I’m over nine hours into Doom 3 on my latest playthrough.

Now, Chris Schilling ably pointed out that a lot of Doom 3 is spent running backwards as you fire at oppressive enemies, while Black Ops II encourages you to push forward at all times. As the speedruns demonstrate, pushing forward in Doom 3 is going to net you results that demonstrate less core gameplay than Black Ops. However, not many gamers will push forward. Doom 3, for all its criticisms, can be a pretty scary game at times, fostering as it does a constant sense of paranoia as enemies jump out from literally anywhere, and often take quite a beating before going down. Not to mention the various secret passages and hidden crevices, usually littered with crucial ammo or armor. Although Doom 3, at the bare-bones level, is a shorter game than Black Ops, it still takes longer to beat due to encouraging players to take their time, explore, and pay attention to little details. Ultimately, it’s all about the pacing, and if the last generation of games demonstrated anything, it’s that what we want isn’t necessarily bigger, lengthier games. We want games that pace themselves, and encourage us to take our time.

Metal Gear Solid is a prime example of what I’m talking about. Now that’s a short game. A damn short game. According to the Speed Run Wiki, the current record for Metal Gear Solid on Extreme difficulty is 1hr 54mins. Less than two hours, for a game people happily paid full price for back in the day. Now that’s really not a lot of gameplay, but Metal Gear Solid is so intensely focused on story, that people still get their money’s worth from the complete experience. Yes, I fully grant that the running time is boosted almost entirely by cutscenes, but it’s never mattered to fans. They’re there for the story, the characters, and the weirdness. There is plenty of that to go around, and despite the game being shorter than most solo campaigns these days, it still feels lengthier, and inherently worth the cash.

The further back we go, the shorter games actually were, but the longer they lasted. I was a Genesis kid growing up (or rather, SEGA Megadrive kid, since I grew up in England), and I wasted days playing the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog, Streets of Rage, and Golden Axe. Nowadays, I can get maybe an hour out of each of them. Back then, however, I’d play them for days and days. Some of them I just replayed a lot, others used difficulty without saves as a way to pad out the gameplay. It didn’t matter how it was done, though. Thanks to the way it made you replay or pace yourself, the running length was tremendous compared to something like a Call of Duty solo campaign.

So, what does this say about modern games? It seems to suggest that games aren’t shorter these days, at least in terms of actual content. To put it more elegantly, current-generation games actually offer bigger worlds, lengthier stories, and campaigns that take you longer to beat if you try and rush through them. However, where they fail is their lack of encouragement for players to take their time. They no longer have the art of pacing nailed down, be it through oppressive foes that send you running back through bloodstained hallways, or stories that make people want to sit down and pay attention. At least for the big, AAA, run n’ gun shooters, the constant compulsion to drive players forward and get the campaign over and done with leaves the player feeling a little short-changed.

This is not to say every game suffers from this. BioShock was a terrifically intimidating experience when it first launched in 2007. It encouraged the player to prepare before heading into battle, scoping out the environment, picking fights wisely, and rigging everything in one’s favor before the trigger was pulled. It offered a huge amount of flexibility and experimentation, and so it could take the average player a lot longer to complete. A huge emphasis was placed on the elimination of the hulking Big Daddies and acquisition of their Little Sister companions, and since each one of those struggles was an exhausting fight of wills, it made you want to take your time and pace yourself. In essence, BioShock didn’t offer a huge and sprawling world, and it didn’t really offer much more content than many other solo campaigns. It was all in the delivery, the presentation, and the pacing.

This is why “short” games end up longer, while “long” games end up feeling too short. It’s not that there’s less content — it’s just not presented that way. Whether that encourages you to give modern games more slack or harsher criticism is up to you … but I thought it was interesting, nonetheless.

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10 Comments on Why Short Games End Up Longer and Longer Games Are Too Short

Kyle

On October 19, 2012 at 8:50 am

You’ve played Black Ops 2 already?

Sol

On October 19, 2012 at 8:56 am

I distinctly remember trying to do a speed-run of Bioshock soon after playing through the story. I knew from experience that it was much shorter than gameplay implied, with all of the puzzles and pathways figured out from playing. However, I got distracted halfway through because I found something I had missed from playing through the first time. Even when I was TRYING to see how “long” the game was, it sucked me back in quicker than you can say “objectivism”. It’s some thing that it and its successor (which I’m fond of, having played it first) do very well. As Jim mentioned, Call of Duty is very charge-forward, gung-ho, guns-blazing-and-hurling-grenades gameplay, which is all well and good, but there’s little to make it feel LONG. Even the checkpoints that load right in front of the Russian Bullet Festival that caused at least thirty deaths didn’t feel long, regardless of how much time was actually spent on them. I’ve never actually played DOOM 3, but this article makes me want to buy the BFG edition once I can afford to.

MOBO

On October 19, 2012 at 9:13 am

I’ve always said it but pacing is one of the most difficult but vital things to nail down perfectly in a videogame. Along with the obvious need for good gameplay mechanics which is essential and to a lesser extent a good narrative to drive the care for the issue at hand in the plot. Even more so than narrative, well paced gameplay from sections A to B need to be taken seriously.

Build up tension, relieve players from the more stressful sections, then go all out and make a section difficult, than make it more frenetic and than let them breath. After that you start again, slowly building up to the dramatic conclusion when players are on the edge of their seat, then give them false relief, then smack them in the face with something incredible.

You can have a good story but if your fundamental gameplay is broken than it is a worthless game. If your gameplay works but it doesn’t pace itself, being at 12 or 1 all the way through than is it equally worthless too.

Robert Hunter

On October 19, 2012 at 9:24 am

Great article, Jim. Pacing is much more important than length. It can make a long game feel like a slog or feel like it took no time at all.

I think you mean Chris Schilling for that quote rather than Curt Schilling.

Laszlo

On October 19, 2012 at 9:40 am

I think the longer speedrun time of Call of Duty comes from that it’s a “cinematic experience”, there’s one way to do it, no shortcuts, and also lots of that time probably comes from unskippable scripted events. In Doom, most of the time comes from having to navigate those mazes and finding the keycards, if you learned them, you know the best way to go, it becomes a lot shorter. Basically, for one the time comes from the game showing you stuff, in the other it comes from you learning it, the latter you can cut short in later playthroughs. It’s not a difference between content, but between how much of it is mandatory.
Also, you accidentally wrote Curt Schilling, when the guy was called Chris Schilling.

RIk

On October 19, 2012 at 10:40 am

I think people rushing through games is more a cultural and competitive phenomenon than an artefact of gaming in and of itself. People are generally more impatient these days, it seems, and let’s be honest, game devs cater to that by having a critical path as a primary route with a bunch of extras and side missions for those who would rather take their time.

UNHchabo

On October 19, 2012 at 11:46 am

This is a major problem I had with Dear Esther. Regardless of any complaints I had about interactivity, a big issue was that the movement speed was just far too low for the amount of content that’s there. Combined with the needless dead-ends, it’s an eighty-minute game that should have been half that.

Dear Esther is like being stuck going to a small art gallery for four hours with a friend who wants to spend 15 minutes studying each painting before moving on to the next. Sure, the art may look good, but your experience overall will be very boring. Other games are like the Louvre; you might be able to sprint through in under 4 hours, but you’d be skimming over everything worth taking a minute or two to take in.

Tomer Feiner

On October 19, 2012 at 1:29 pm

He’s making several mistakes and missing out some details – I know that main reason that Doom 3′s shorter to complete than CoD: Black Ops – D3 has much more techniques for speedrunning – Rocket jumping, bunny-hopping, strafejumping, etc. Not to mention that you can actually skip cutscenes.

R.J.

On October 19, 2012 at 3:45 pm

I’m glad you mentioned Metal Gear in this article. This is one series where the number one complaint lobbed at it is that it’s more of a movie than a game. As I’ve replayed those games over and over again, I’ve come to realize just how short they would be if I skipped cutscenes, but as was correctly pointed out, those cutscenes are why I keep coming back. A story I’m passionate about just happens to be told through games, and if I was only concerned with whipping through the games as fast as I could, there wouldn’t be much point. When I got the platinum trophy for MGS2 I skipped cutscenes because it required numerous playthroughs on various difficulties, and it definitely showed how short the game was, but at the same time, it felt wrong.

I get that speed runs can be a fun way for one to test their skills, but it also makes me question the use of time as a measuring stick for a game’s quality. Lots of games are pretty short if you plow forward constantly, but I just can’t see the appeal in rushing through just to finish something. It feels like a disservice to just rush through when somebody puts effort into a story or great looking locales, etc. That is really where complaints about CoD’s story mode comes from. A speedrun might be longer than some older titles, but it also doesn’t encourage much beyond the bare bones experience since the real meat for that series is the MP.

JediMB

On October 21, 2012 at 2:15 am

While it is true that pacing is a very important thing, which reminds me of how MMORPGs are usually seen as a race to the finish with max-level gear grinding as the true content, it’s important to consider that the shortest path through a game isn’t always representative of the amount of of available, or even essential, content.

There may be artificial boundaries forcing the player to progress at a certain pace, or a limit to the player character’s effective movement speed. Some games are simply so strictly scripted and designed that the player just doesn’t have the freedom to progress significantly faster on the second or third playthrough than s-/he did the first time around.

So then which game has the stricter pacing?