Are long games hurting the medium?
I’m not exactly sure where the mindset originated (though if I had to guess I’d say with young people without a large income), but for a large segment of the gaming community a game’s length is often viewed as one of the deciding factors in whether they decide to purchase/play it. It seems absurd to me, as after all nobody says they only read books that are over 1000 pages or albums with more than 20 tracks, but for whatever reason games are uniquely singled out as being required to provide dozens and dozens of hours of content, or else be written off as a poor value or even somehow degrading games as a whole with their meager offering. This isn’t going to be an article about why I greatly prefer shorter games over lengthy ones, though maybe that’ll come in the future. Rather, that maybe the communal requirement of games to be X amount of hours long are in fact hurting the games industry and offering less to players than games which take far less time to complete.
Though gamers will often declare that they wish every game was as outrageously large as say, Skyrim, the fact of the matter is that on the whole very few people ever actually see even a fraction of that content. It’s not too surprising really, as most people playing games have jobs, families, and other responsibilities, so many aren’t going to have the amount of free time required to see a game through to completion. And yet the narrative around games is always that games don’t have enough content. That even though people aren’t even seeing most of what a game has to offer, it still needs to be there to give them the perspective of value. Part of me wonders if people simply don’t like finishing games at all, that they’d rather leave everything half-finished, but that’s another article.
So why are long games hurting themselves if most people aren’t even going to get all the way through them? Because regardless of whether anyone plays a game, or only plays part of it, time and money was spent making that content. Content few people are seeing even if they say they want it to be there. It means resources were taken away from other areas of development, being used to create more “stuff” instead of polishing the early moments which are what will be most important to most players and all they’ll actually see of your games.
It also often means that a lot of games start on a high and then gradually decline in quality the further the go on, as it makes the most sense to spend the most time in the opening moments than the closing ones which only a very small percentage of players will actually reach. But then who is this extra content really helping? For the people who actually do stick around long enough to play through all of it, it seems more likely they’ll feel their time was wasted and come away with a more negative opinion than someone who quit earlier when the game was at its best.
Alien: Isolation was a perfect example of this last year, opening with an absolutely astonishing sequence, but growing more tedious and dull as it progressed. Had the game been cut short, I have little doubt my experience would have probably improved, and might also be why the general consensus has been so positive, because I have little doubt most people didn’t finish it.
Open world games in general also seem to suffer from an over abundance of stuff to do, which while one of the hallmarks of the sub-genre tends to feel more like busy work than anything anyone wants to spend time to do. This mission might be cool by itself, but how many people are going to do all three-dozen of them scattered around the map. Looking at maps flooded with icons more often becomes overwhelming than exciting, letting me know I have endless amounts of stuff to do but most of it is likely just a slightly tweaked replication of something I’ve already done.
In my eyes then, I have to wonder: why does this need to be in the game? If most players aren’t playing it because they don’t have time or it’s just not very good, why not spend that effort refining the moments that really matter and making the experience as a whole a tighter, more condensed one instead of drawn out for the sake of hitting an arbitrary playtime? I’m not saying long games shouldn’t exist, as there are instances where a game wouldn’t be the same if cut short or that makes good use of its time, but more often than not it seems developers are elongating their games because they feel they have, to instead of having any compelling use for that added time. Which to me is more than a little wasteful.