There's an eternally raging debate over the length of games. What's right? What's too long? What's too short? How much will a gamer actually play through before they lose interest and move on?
Sean Murray of Joe Danger dev Hello Games has recently revealed that less than 10% of players actually finished his game despite an average play time of over 20 hours, and that most games journos only got around 50% of the way through. So is that a strong case for games being too long? Is it Sean's fault? Is it the gamer's fault?
There's a growing movement these days for shorter games. It's one I don't agree with, but it's one that I understand. The argument generally comes from the older gamer, the one who's settled down and had kids, and now has big time constraints on his gaming. And as more gamers are in these situations, we're starting to hear it more often.
The idea is that less time for gaming means less time for finishing games and thus, less different games can be played if they're all 20 hours long. Fair enough, but does that mean that a 20 hour game is too long? No it doesn't. It just means that a certain social grouping finds that length logistically inconvenient. That's not the same as "too long". Not at all.
As far as I'm concerned, "too long" only happens when the length is detrimental to the quality of the game as an overall work. And that comes down to the pacing of a game, not simply its running time. We see worked examples of this all the time in films. It takes carefully timed character revelations, plot developments and treatment of the overall story arc to keep any movie engaging throughout its whole duration, and if any of the above is done wrong then the whole thing falls apart. With dodgy pacing, even the shortest film can drag. But if done right, even a four hour epic can fly by. See the Lord of the Rings trilogy for evidence of the latter.
In games it's even more complicated. As well as story pacing, a game needs to get difficulty, complexity, and the introduction and exploration of new gameplay elements right as well. There's more to juggle, but the positive and negative effects are the same. Games like Portal and Limbo get it right. Despite their relatively short lengths, they never feel short, because their respective pacings make them totally satisfying, complete experiences. Conversely, Resident Evil 4 is a meaty chunk of game, but its immaculate pacing keeps you hooked and stimulated from start to finish.
On the other end of the scale, I place games like Red Dead Redemption. Now Red Dead is a brilliant, brilliant game, and one which I love. Its narrative ambition and grand achievement in world creation make it almost peerless in modern gaming. But if you listen to our TalkRadar UK podcast (which you should, it's brilliant, after all) you'll know that both myself and Matt are beginning to find that it's starting to drag as a result of overly repeated objectives and a little too much teasing of important narrative revelations.
I'm at the end of Mexico right now, and for a while I've been finding the game a little limp and one-note. And that's because of nothing more than the pacing. The length doesn;t come into it. Final Fantasies VI and VII are a longer games than Red Dead, but I could happily play through them in their entireties (and still can) because their stories, worlds, character arcs and gameplay development are so detailed, multi-layered and carefully revealed.
As mentioned at the top of this article though, a player's staying power will also depend on the individual player. Aside from time constraints elsewhere in life, the level of challenge, gameplay depth, and the general sorty of experience a person is up for will play a major role. Joe Danger builds upon its ideas and difficulty right through to the end, but certain players just aren't interested in investing time in developing the levels of hardcore precision is later demands. Similarly, many Grand Theft Auto players sadly just aren't interested in Rockstar's epic cinematic sagas, and simply buy the games to dick around with.
So are developers making a mistake by making long, demanding games? No. No they're not at all. But they need to construct them very carefully, and they need to accept that, especially in today's climate of more casual and older players, not everyone is going to appreciate them, however well made they are. Those who do however, will absolutely bloody love them.
Where do you stand?