Of my living years, 1994 is the first I remember as An Epic Year For Gaming. Up until this point I had dabbled in a handful of computer adventure games that my parents bought and the limited pile of NES games I had: Super Mario Bros., Jeopardy!, The Empire Strikes Back and Blades of Steel to name a few. My horizons were about to expand on Christmas of 1993: I received a Sega Genesis.
As a result of this almost every game that I experienced on Genesis was funneled into that year, whether it was released during or prior to 1994. That year lasted an eternity, and I thought it would never change.
It began, of course, with the “free” game that came bundled with the system, Sonic the Hedgehog 2. I actually didn’t much care for that one, but instead really got into playing my Genesis when its sequel came out a few months later; yes, predictably it was titled Sonic the Hedgehog 3. That was the game which legitimized my unplugging of the NES and less time spent computing with SimCity 2000.
What followed Sonic 3 was a ridiculous salvo of goodness that lead me on a gaming odyssey: Mortal Kombat I and II, NHL 94/95, Super Street Figter II Turbo, ToeJam & Earl, Earthworm Jim, Sonic & Knuckles, Jurassic Park and World of Illusion, to name some of many.
Looking back, no, none of those are particularly “barn burning,” but they served quite well a 10-year-old kid. Those games mentioned are just a small handful, yes, but they saw a lot of replay time from me and my friends. I never owned more than 8 Genesis games. None of them were particularly long either; at this point in time it was more commonplace in video games to tackle the short form of storytelling, if they had a story at all. There were of course exceptions: early computer role-playing and text-based adventure games were among the more likely genres of the long form. Sports games, fighting games, city-building strategy games, platforming action and adventure games: these were very popular genres when I was younger, and what they all had in common was utilizing several well put together mechanics, and re-using those over and over to create a full length game, whether it tried to attempt storytelling or not.
In 1994 the video gaming concept may have been around for decades, but in execution it had not been in very widespread consumption for long at that point. The 1970s introduced arcades to a lot of youngsters and the 1980s just cracked the tip of the iceberg by bringing gaming into homes with the popularity of the Famicom and Super Mario Bros., to put it succinctly. In 1994 that puts the average age of a gamer somewhere around 20 years old; I think that is a fair guess. There would certainly be many younger, like myself, and also some older, but for the sake of the point I am slowly driving towards, I say during this time that most were late teens or early twenty-somethings.
Now, late teens or twenty-somethings are typically in the midst of college/university, or starting out in a shitty job. Typically. What that lends to them is time. Most shit-paying jobs don’t come home with you, and post-secondary school, especially in those early years and first go-rounds, definitely doesn’t come home with you oftentimes, whether that’s for good or bad. Game developers surely knew this; they knew fairly well their target audiences. Gaming wasn’t the money-hungry vampire that it is today: developers strove to give you value for your money, earning them good reviews, and hopefully future work. What constituted value in 1994? Quantity. Now, please realize I am speaking generally here, and not prescribing one holistic view of the industry. But very often value was married with quantity. Repetitive quantity. Think of those sports and fighting and ring/coin- finding games. This is not a slight to developers of the time; it’s just my perceived reality, and I think for a time it worked.
Why did those games work in 1994, that Epic Year For Gaming? The average gamer had nothing else to do, except ignore their homework, remember to buy cola at the store and keep that [insert pizza delivery joint here] telephone number handy. Fast-forward to today, it’s 2010, we could now look back at the video game creator of 1994 and say “Oh sir, how far we have evolved from your kind; if only I could send a letter back with the DeLorean to warn you in advance of all our advances, we could save so much time, but I digress. I’ll see you when you get here.”
Except that, well… we really cannot say that at all. It would be disingenuous to do so. With history on our side it would be unfair to lie to the Creator in 1994. We could tell him that the Creator in 2010 is a different person. We could do this, but it would be untrue. It is untruth to say such because the Creator in 2010 is exactly the same person they were in 1994. Yes, his machines and tools are more capable now, his physique more mature, his hair cut a mite more respectable. But his mind? To be honest, it hasn’t developed a day past 1994. The Creator is making the same games that were being made in 1994, sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally.
I have a message for you, Creator: your mind must move on. I don’t dispute you; in fact I agree with you: 1994 was truly An Epic Year For Gaming, but even Epic Years come to an end. I am only one person, but I speak on the behalf of many others, even if they do not yet realize it. The Gamer of 2010 is not the Gamer of 1994. He graduated from college or learned a trade; he even recycled all those pizza boxes, cut his hair, moved out of his parents’ basement, bought a place of his own, met a girl (or guy), maybe even had a family and is trying to hold down a job. All the while he has continued to exchange money for the games you make. He makes numerous concessions in his day to day life to maintain a relationship with you.
Here is my question, Creator: what the hell have you done for him?!
An Offering of Advice
That was quite an introduction, and I really do apologize for that (sort of). It is of course time to explain myself. What I mean when I say that we’re seeing the same games in 2010 that we were seeing in 1994 is that there is no evolution of the core; of the brain of gaming. We’re basically seeing the same shit as we were then, and since we have ridiculous, always-improving high definition graphics which just drives our lust for more, why improve elsewhere, right? It’s as if since 1994 we have replaced our outdated armor many, many times; each iteration being slightly shinier, heftier, perhaps with an extra pocket here or there and a feather in the cap, but under this exterior the constitution, charisma, and intelligence remains unchanged. Underneath lies a weak and stupid being.
Most games aren’t much smarter to me now than they were before. Nor are they crafted with a large chunk of their growing audience in mind. If the average gamer 16 years ago was a late teen or early twenty-something then today they are in their mid-thirties. There is a lot of difference between the two. I’m barely halfway between those markers myself and can already attest to this. Gamers are growing up, this is constant; the games they have to play are so often not following them in this regard: they seem unable to accept their dawning adulthood. As an adult the one thing I increasingly have less and less of is time. Insomuch that my longest playing sessions these days is typically an hour, give or take. There comes the odd 2-4 hour weekend “marathon” that is allowed, but these are rare, and even when available not as desirable as they once were. I am not the exception, ask anyone and this seems the rule. When chatting with friends about playing games now that we are in our twenties and thirties, the conversation almost always seems to center around the premise of “making time for games in our lives.” I ask this: why don’t games adapt to “make time for us,” so to speak?
In my eyes the most recent Epic Year For Gaming was 2007. One very important contribution toward that was a game called Portal. Maybe you have heard of it? Portal was supposed to be somewhat of an afterthought, this of course because it was delivered via The Orange Box, a 5-for-1 package which also included the previously released Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode One, Half-Life 2: Episode Two, and the long-awaited Team Fortress 2. Four great games that could very well have overshadowed Portal, and were expected to…..but didn’t. It showed, once again, that Valve were brilliant, that games could have a sense of humour, that blah, blah, blah, blah…
To me, however, it showed that mainstream games could very well be successful and short at the same time. I mean very short. Took-me-4-hours-to-complete-it short. I was appreciative of this. In those 4 short, extremely enjoyable hours the developers got their point across to me, showed off all their tricks and their wit, pulled the rug out from under me for just a second, introduced an actual story into the game in the last act (to be fair it was there the whole time for those paying close attention), finally climaxing and going out in a blaze of hilarious glory. And then those immortal credits rolled. All within about 4 hours. Nothing about the game was repetitive: there was a steady yet well-paced learning curve; learn then apply, learn then apply, is how the game went. That’s how a game should present itself to the user. Continuously learning how to do new things, never having time to become bored.
I think that is the major flaw of most contemporary games: developers have somewhere between one and four great ideas. These ideas, with skilled hands, could be successfully presented to the gamer probably within a span of five hours, and that is even a forgiving estimate. I fear for Portal 2, I really do. Now that the bloodsuckers have sunk their jaws into it I fully expect that Valve feel they need to churn out a “full length game,” which is fucking ridiculous if you ask me. But please, prove me wrong, Valve. Portal is what I call a “full quality game.” You can keep your full length.
Of course right now I can hear you asking, “What are you talking about ‘major flaw’? The gaming industry is thriving now more than ever. Games today are amazing. Your ideas are poorly thought out, good sir.” Though that is assuming you have the decency to refer to me as “good sir.” Ahem, anyhow, my response to your question follows thus. I know you don’t see it, maybe not right now; it can be hard to see when big players like IGN and Gamespot seem to never produce a score outside the 70-90% range. For the average casual or even semi-hardcore gaming crowd who flock to these power houses of internet gaming criticism they might think we were in some Golden Age of Gaming, when practically every third game is “a sprawling epic masterpiece.” Excuse me while I roll my eyes. My point being, many of the games that you are playing are just a few clever mechanics perpetuated ad nauseam.
Grand Theft Auto IV, for example: during the opening credits and first fifteen minutes of play I thought to myself this game might change my life. Two hours later I wanted to kill Niko Bellic and everyone who ever laid eyes upon his visage. I knew for certain the game would bring heaping doses of pain when I saw there was an achievement for beating the game in less than 30 hours. Christ, if beating the game in under 30 hours is a fucking achievement then shoot me now.
Another example is the much acclaimed Dead Space: this one is fresh in my mind, I just finished it. For the first time, yes. I started playing it on October 31, 2008. I completed it on July 5, 2010. Okay, I certainly wasn’t playing it that entire time; I stopped and resumed probably over the course of several weeks combined as it suited my current tastes and held– or failed to hold– my attention. But bloody hell. It fits into my prototypical example of a game that is just too goddamn long. I will sum up my feelings with a revisit of each chapter. [Spoilers abound] Introduction: “Sweet, another space ship that sacrifices hull integrity for a kick-ass aquarium-style front window. Bless you, science fiction!” Chapter 1: “I think I’m actually sweating on my controller, and this useless plasma cutter as my only weapon makes for a pretty intense scramble against these evolution-defying monstrosities.” Chapters 2-4: “My allies are paper thin, and there doesn’t seem to be much variety in the foes or bloodstains strewn casually about, but I’ll give it some time.” Chapter 5: “I really enjoy the zero-gravity moments, why are there so few of them? It’s like Prey, but not total shit.” Chapters 6-8: “This game is really boring, and it’s pretty obvious that Hammond is the bad guy.” Chapter 9: “Kill me, this game is so terrible. And Hammond died, I guess he wasn’t the bad guy. And why does my girlfriend keep appearing places all creepy like? Does she even like me? I’ll never know, Isaac Clarke is a mute.” Chapter 10: “This may be the first genuinely creepy chapter since the first…..no, I take that back, it’s quite repetitive.” Chapter 11: “OMFG, the end is within sight, and this chapter is more like a short bridge to the next, we’re finally getting somewhere.” Chapter 12: “This is pretty stupid, I’ve moved this marker thing into three rooms now and every time a bunch of stupid monsters just jump out of vents and pathetically attempt to impede my progress. My once-futile weapon is now a God Among Space Engineer Tools and it really shreds them to pieces with minimal effort; why do they try?” Endgame: “Wow, that was the easiest boss fight ever, and a sad attempt at epic. And that ‘twist’ ending stolen straight out of F.E.A.R. which was itself stolen from a million other things? Terrible. And Nicole was dead the whole time, as were the colonists? Were the monstrosities dead, too? Was I dead? Who cares. Well, I guess I’ll play Dead Space 2? I hope it’s called Dead Space 2: Get Deader.” [End of not-that-interesting-anyway spoilers]
I can make examples of a plethora of games in the same boat but I won’t beat an already very, very dead horse here.
Over the last three years, let’s say, I would cite these 5 (mainstream) games as my favourites to be released during that time: Portal, Team Fortress 2, Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Call of Duty 4 and Braid. Those games share something in common. With the exception of TF2, which can’t accurately be quantified, they are all short and sweet. Subscribers to the “less is more” philosophy. Portal and Braid both clocking in their extremely satisfying adventures around 4 hours, and HL2: E2 and CoD4 around the 5-6 mark, they get the job done. Satisfying gameplay, respectable stories, and engaging action there is not much more to ask of these vignettes, if I can call them so (comparatively to the norm). Sadly, none of them were praised for this reason. Portal was praised for its humorous antagonist, Braid for its beautiful artwork, Call of Duty 4 for its multi-player component, and Episode Two… well, actually that wasn’t really praised so much. I think people complained that it was too short. My aim isn’t to take credit from those other praised aspects, which receive it deservedly so. I only wish to have a less-is-more approach considered a worthy entrant to the “things to praise in games” club.
I know I’m dreaming here. The reality is that publishers are out to make money. And how do they make money? By selling $60 games. Sure, the odd independent developers who put out stuff like Braid and World of Goo can make a profit by charging just $12 or $20 a pop, respectfully, but that would be one hell of a turn for the mainstream publishing industry to accept: to just arise one day and experience a Scrooge-like awakening. But can I not dream? It is possible, just faraway and difficult. And I’m by no means saying that the long form of gaming is dead or should cease to be. I would never postulate such a thing. The world needs its Fallout 3s and Dragon Age: Origins; I simply argue that there should be a place for the developer to bring to life his or her one brilliant idea, execute it in an hour of gameplay, and still receive mainstream and critical press for it.
Obviously this concept is already alive in the hearts and minds of independent developers: we see brilliant stuff like Every Day the Same Dream, thoughtful art games like Today I Die, or short satire like Starfeld and Life is Hard. The difference is that these games are not widely accepted as games. Even the more quantitative independent games sometimes suffer from this plight, and so people see fit to pay nothing for them too. This is evidenced by how many people stole the Humble Indie Bundle via Bit-torrent. They couldn’t even be bothered to pay $0.01 for it. That’s how apparently worthless it is to them. Yet I’m sure many of the same were some of the millions who flocked to spend $15 on three new Modern Warfare 2 maps, which in my opinion is the equivalent of a shit stain compared to all the above mentioned independently created games.
If someone asked me, “Would you rather pay $10 to experience Every Day the Same Dream or have every game currently on shelves at your local BestBuy for free?” it would be a simple choice to take the former. That’s how desperate I am for any semblance of thought-provocation or introspection that a game can offer me, all neatly wrapped up in a lunch break. I would rather have that tiny gem than all the bloated mediocrity being fed to us.
In summation: gaming industry, please be more accepting of short games. Perhaps you could charge $20-30 for them? I bet you would even make a profit. If I’m wrong I’ll take you out for dinner, your choice of eatery.
In case you’re wondering, yes, I do realize the irony of writing a hideously long and in places unkempt article in argument for “short and sweet” games. There was no other way.
Certainly I know I am not alone in this line of thought. With days only getting shorter I don’t even want to imagine how little time I will have to balance all the 20-60 hour click- and tap-a-thons as my duties in this thing called “real life” continue to expand in the future. I’d be truly appreciative if every now and then someone came along and gave me a tasty three hour sandwich of gaming goodness. Is it a deal?
What are your thoughts, if you have any left after reading this torrential spilling of the brain and opening of the mouth?
Email the author of this post at email@example.com.
Great article, xtal, and welcome aboard!
It’s funny, much of what you say here mirrors stuff I wrote about in my upcoming column for the IGDA – about quality, and enjoyment, and Portal. Pretty much everything I say is about Portal, in some way or another. Like you I’d much rather pay full price and get full value for a 2 hour game than pay full price for a 50-hour game I don’t enjoy. After all, I’d probably wind up drifting away long before I finished anyhow, so is it better that I paid $50 for 48 hours of bad gameplay I didn’t experience?
…and what a first entry xtal. You and I both, and it’s one of the main reasons I’ve warmed so much to independent gaming because it’s simply more economical both in a monetary and timely sense. If I play an indie game to completion and it’s shit, I’ve probably wasted what? A few hours and perhaps £10 tops, probably nothing. If I play a full fat game to completion and it’s shit I’ve probably wasted substantially more, I’m looking at you GTA IV. Not to mention, even a shit indie game is usually more interesting!
Some of the best games I’ve played over the last two or three years have been short and sweet experiences. I’m so glad you mentioned Portal and Braid too because they’re both sat cosily next to World of Goo.
That is pretty much the idea I used to sell Solium Infernum to Lewis. He was grumbling about the turn based aspect and I told him that it’s a game that doesn’t expect you to work your life around it, on the contrary, in a multiplayer game you can take a turn in less than a couple of minutes and be done with it for the day. The same goes for Frozen Synapse, another turn based game. They don’t require you dedicate whole evenings to get anywhere but they still allow you to glean a surprising level of satisfaction from the experience.
I admire the fact that you value quality over quantity as well because critics/consumers complaining about a quality game being too short is really fucking irritating.
In fact xtal, if I didn’t know any better I’d swear you’ve been perusing through my Google Documents account and found my article on time being a harsh mistress! 😉 Thanks for this, it’s good to hear somebody share the same sentiments and if you come across any other quality bite-sized diversions be sure to let us know!
Great article xtal!
I have mixed feelings about this. Perhaps I’ve been dictated to by games companies for so long I feel powerless (what I believe they call ‘learned helplessness’ in psychological circles). I merely try to pick games I think I’ll like from what’s available (and wihtin budget).
I would certainly feel that I’ve been ripped off if I paid full price for a ‘short’ game, though, regardless of the quality.
If there were an answer to this dilema, then I think it would need to be in the form of a game that was both rewarding in both short term and long term intervals. I love epic RPGs, but if I know I won’t have a minimum of 45 minutes to play, then I won’t even bother loading Fallout 3.
Transformers: War for Cybertron (which I am surprised that no-one seems to have opinions on here on Tap, one way or the other) has a relatively short story mode, and you can complete checkpoints every 10 minutes or so, and chapters in about 45 minutes to an hour, is a shorter game that has good pacing (I think about 10 – 12 hours for campaign mode). Sure, it’s boss fights are pretty brutal, but its immediacy is refreshing, and I find that if I’m not going to have a decent bash at FO3 then TF will satisfy when I’m time starved. TF also has its multiplayer, which increases its longevity to basically whenever you want.
Perhaps another answer is a system including player-defined goals that need to be met. So you can only play for 30 minutes? You choose what you can do in that time, and the goals you need to achieve. This really would give power to the players.
One of the iPhone games I keep coming back to is geoDefence (a tower game). I have the free version, but I keep playing the same levels, over and over. I set my own limitations as to what towers I will try and complete levels with, making it more and more difficult as I restrict my choices. If only the game rewarded me to meeting my user-defined challenges!
I don’t know – what else can games do to satisfy both immediate and long-term gratification?
If xtal hadn’t written this almost simultaneously with my writing of next month’s IGDA column, I might think he’s somehow inside my brain. I tend to lean toward his view on this subject.
I can understand your argument, Jarrod… games costing $60 here and $100 where you are, you want to get some real weight for your investment. For most people that kind of money isn’t going to put them out on the streets if they waste it on a bad game, but no one likes to toss away their hard earned cash.
But in my view, value isn’t a constant. Knowing what I know now, I’d happily pat $50 (or more) for Portal, and have no regrets about, the $50 I spent on, say, Max Payne, or Sands of Time, or Heavy Rain – all games weigh in at less than ten hours, and in one case, less than two.
Meanwhile, I also paid $50-$60 for Far Cry 2, Spore, Hellgate London, GTA IV, UFO Afterlight – all very, very VERY long games, and I consider myself ripped off.
I used to see game value (partially) in terms of time. I used to knock them in reviews for being too short. But something has changed in my view, I don’t know what. I bought Metro 2033 months ago, played for an hour, got distracted by other shiny stuff, and only today went back to it. At only two hours in I’m already beginning to feel my return on investment, just because of some of the game’s incredible moments and settings.
Liberty to approach short or long goals based on your available time is a pretty clever idea. Everyone who grew up playing games has the same complaint: not enough time to play any more. A few games that are more forthcoming about the kind of time investment you’re looking at for different tasks might help ameliorate that. Plus I kind of like the “meta” attitude of it.
Say you’re in a game and have a list of missions. Except this game estimates about how long it thinks it’ll take to finish each mission. Even though it’s a little immersion breaking, it’s sort of a wink-and-nod from the developers recognizing that we want to play their game, but being able to do it in terms of our own schedule would be really helpful.
Warren Spector once remarked that he’d lost interest in making 100-hour games because so few players get to that 100-hour point. “We want you to see those last levels!” is what he said. Perhaps what Jarrod suggests is a bit of a compromise, to satisfy all parties.
I’ve gotta say as long and tedious as this was to read, it was a pretty good read. Also, knowing you personally gives me the advantage of having a better insight of your meaning, and feelings towards this subject matter. Although I feel compelled to say I do not know if I whole heartedly agree with you. Shocked, I know you are.
Games are as we know are a form of escape-ism, and for that I love them. I’ve played them since I can remember. Hell, I still own my 1st Nintendo and games…I digress. A short game is like a light beer, great taste but less filling. I for one hate light beer, thus I really hate a short game. I appreciate them on occasion but all-in-all I dislike them.
While I can see the appeal for a short game especially when it comes to people with a short time to play. For me, this isn’t gaming. This is just giving you the satisfaction of the feeling that you can still play a game even though you’re busy. For me gaming is a hobby, a way of life. It is who I am and it has defined who I am, it taught me how to read in the late 80s and through the 90s before voice acting became prominent. Games should instill thought, a sense of accomplishment all at the expense of being fun. If you get that from a short game, great. I tend to get it from a more lengthy game because for me the developer has more time to shed light on a subject.
For example. Final Fantasy 7 as a 6 hour game would be a god awful mess. What makes FF7 so popular? The game play? No. The story? Yes. “But why? it’s so generic, evil dudes wanna kill the world and the good guys prevail?.”Well ya, this story has been told a bazillion times but its due to Square expertly crafting wonderful thoughtful characters that bring the story to life, that help you latch on to it and enjoy the 40+ hour experience.
I am really getting random, especially for my first post but I love reading people’s opinions about games, and what games should be. Not that I think anyone is wrong, everyone is entitled to their own opinion but I will happily take my 40+ hour game over a 6 hour game any day.
Thanks for showing me this site. Think I found a new home.
My problem Neku is the risk involved in investing so much time and money into one single game which could very well be a disappointment. The biggest game I played last was GTA IV and that really put the whole argument in perspective to me, especially off the back of Portal, Braid and World of Goo. I’m not disputing the quality of every long haul game out there of course, but it’s just that unless it’s a dead cert that I’m going to have a riot for the entire duration of the game then I can’t commit to putting the time down. It’s not economical for me. Having said this I’m currently eying up the Big World mod for the Baldur’s Gate games which puts both titles and their expansions into one giant experience so there are certainly exceptions to the rule. 😉
Welcome to Tap by the way!
Excellent piece, Max.
I particularly liked the bit about the pricing of games. The uniformity of video game prices are a huge annoyance of mine. £40/$60 is – give or take a couple of pounds/bucks – seemingly the industry standard for videogame pricing. That’s regardless of length or quality. If I was to walk into my local game store now, a brand new copy of Naughty Bear would be the same price as a brand new copy of Red Dead Redemption. 2 recently released titles which I personally think differ almost entirely in terms of quality, length and overall value of the experience.
There’s just no flexibility. That said, even if there was, one mans decision to charge £25 for a new release would be another’s decision to charge £55, and I can guarantee the latter man would be Activision. Perhaps a “standard” pricing model can protect us from the likes of Kotick as much as it can form a blockade to other, cheaper titles.
I also agree with you largely about the length of games. 5 years ago, sinking 100+ hours into something like Final Fantasy X was the norm for me. Nowadays unless a single player, story driven game is of particular brilliance, I start to become itchy to move on at around the 12-15 hour mark. Anything longer than that and I’ll be dubious about even playing the game, although I do make exceptions for more open world games where there are options to deviate from the main story path or take things at your own leisure.