Thursday, April 2, 2009

TLDF - Too Long, Didn’t Finish

In this article, game designer Reid Kimball gives reasons why the industry should consider making shorter narrative games.

Case for Short Two to Three Hour Games

Videogames can last anywhere from a few minutes to twenty - forty+ hour epics. Many of the big budget titles are between ten - twenty hours of playtime for the average player. My friends, colleagues and I frequently talk about how we do not finish our games. Every once in a while, statistics state that 50% of players for a given game never reach the end. If that is the case, doesn’t it make more sense if games are shorter? Say, two to three hours in length?

For the sake of this argument, the two to three hour games I am arguing for are narrative based, with a beginning, middle and end. Because so many people don’t finish games I believe there is high demand for shorter games, which will result in many benefits.

Impulsive Buys

To grow an industry, it must hope to attract a high number of impulse buys. Two to three hours is the length of a movie, it is an established commitment of time that many people are comfortable with. Beyond that, people must decide beforehand if their interest is high enough to justify the time sink. They will not impulsively decide to buy a game requiring a long-term commitment.

More Likely to Finish

People who start a game that is two to three hours in length are more likely to finish it I believe, because they can predict when the end will come. If a person invests one hour per evening, they can reasonably assume they will finish the game in two or three nights and plan their week around that.

For a much longer epic of a twenty-hour game, the future is much less predictable. They may have to stop playing after a week because real life gets in the way. Then upon returning to the game, all emotional investment must be rebuilt and they are lost, story and gameplay wise.

Story Flow Improved

In a longer game, story is often revealed as a reward after a player completes a segment of gameplay. If the player takes a long time to complete the segment of gameplay, the delivery of story is delayed, thus the pacing of the overall story is ruined.

With a shorter game, the story must be tight and better integrated into the gameplay. You won’t find thirty-minutes worth of cinematics in a two to three hour game. In a three hour game that accounts for 16% of the player experience! In a shorter game, story development will have to come from the gameplay. When story is tightly integrated into the gameplay, it will flow much more naturally from the player’s actions and not after the action.

Gameplay is Fresh, Less Repetitive

I’m seeing a trend develop in recent years within hardcore gaming communities complaining about repetitive gameplay in the biggest AAA titles, like Assassin’s Creed, Prince of Persia (2008), and the Gears of War series. I think those of us who have been gaming for 10+ years are developing a sort of “gameplay memory” and because of this, gameplay is quickly grokked and tends to feel stale or repetitive well before the end of the game.

In a shorter game, developers will need to cut out this repetitive gameplay “fat”. They will also have to fuse story and gameplay as one by being creative and taking risks. Instead of watching a cinematic of the protagonist embrace their lover for a kiss, it will be interactive. The player will control the kiss. If an advertising games studio can make a compelling game about feeding a potato chip to a girl, then surely someone can make a gameplay sequence about kissing, which has meaning for both gameplay and story.


The idea of a shorter game is not new, yet this industry is slow to change. One hurdle is to convince many that quantity of play experience does not always equal value for their money. Another hurdle will be how to price it just right, not so cheap that development costs cannot be recouped, nor too expensive to turn off customers. When the day comes a short game is released, I will be the first in line, knowing it will be a game that has better focus in its story and gameplay experience and one I am much more likely to finish.

Reid Bryant Kimball is a versatile level and game designer who has worked for Ritual Entertainment, LucasArts and now is currently with Buzz Monkey Software. He's also a game accessibility advocate and closed captioning for videogames expert, having designed the Doom3 closed captioning mod.


onepoker said...

2 to 3 hours is too short of a playtime for the purchase price of a typical game. And do you really want to put all the effort that is required into designing a game for a 10 dollar price tag. If you had a cookie cutter system where you could just cut and paste your story onto an existing game this would work but I don't believe killing innovation is a good way to keep the genre going.

I really think a super short game would be tough to sell. The player would need to be familiar with the mechanics and the characters. I don't even think I liked Mass Effect for the first three hours I played it.

When I buy a game I am looking forward to immersing myself in it for days if not weeks. I am willing to slog through the painful learning process of many different games because of the promise of something different.

I think the shorter game is perfect for DLC. If you told me for 5 bucks I could get a 3 hour mission for Call of Duty 4 I would be all over it. But If you told me you had a great 3 hour shooter similar to call of duty 4 I would be more skeptical. If you told me you had a 3 hour adventure similar to Oblivion I wouldn't even ask to see the video. How much can you grow a character in 3 hours? You would essentially limit your story to a fantasy shooter. If you are going to put the effort into the narrative and the game engine why not make something people can spend a little time with?

By the way I am with you a 100% on the more interactive cutscenes. Those would be great in a longer story also. They should become Mini Games with consequence. A fumbled Kiss may earn our hero a little human compassion from his target but if he flubs it to bad the girl may lose interest in him altogether.

Reid Kimball said...

Hey Onepoker,

My thinking on the price is different from yours. I agree that people will not want to pay $60 for a 2-3 hr game. Nor do I think developers/publishers will accept $10 is enough to recoup costs. Pricing for a standard DVD is about $15 to $25. That's a decent starting price, but I think games could have an even higher price, around $30 - $40, maybe $35 is a sweet spot. I think the markup is appropriate because the game is interactive. That adds tremendous value to the item people are buying.

Middleware and established engine technologies that are flexible can keep development costs down by minimizing new tech developments, which cost a fortune.

Regarding character progression, true most games do spend a long time on char progression in abilities, powers or weapons. I just think it would be faster in a shorter game.

Thanks for the comments.

onepoker said...

Reid thanks for the response,

If I was to try and market a short story game I would want to bundle it like a collection of short stories.

If I was Take Two interactive I might take The bioware guys who did Bio shock, the Hauser brothers from GTA, and Sid Meier of Civilization fame, Have them each write a three hour story and work with one development team with an existing engine that works for all three stories.

They would obviously be more constrained than usual but it would be interesting to see how the games played out designed by three brilliant teams with completely different approaches to gameplay and story telling.

I can see this approach being tried with targeted genres. Like a sword and sorcery collection or a sci-fi bundle.

A more expensive but very safisfying experience for me personally would be where each author was allowed to make their own style of game around one central story. So The bioware version would be an on the rails shooter, The Hauser version would be a sandbox and the sid Meier version would be a strategic resource managing affair. The stories could be loosely connected involving the same hero or situation. For example Lets say our story revolves around a moonbase under attack by those pesky aliens. It is easy to see biowares version of DOOM, Hausers version of grand theft Moonbuggy, and Sid Meiers version of Alpha Centuri.

You could use the same characters and voice actors in all three games. It would still be very expensive to design three seperate games but you could probably charge the full 60 bucks and people wouldnt bat an eye. (you might need to throw in a couple filler games by Joe the not so famous game designer so you could put 15-20 hours of gameplay on the box.)

Sorry I rambled on so long its just an interesting topic for me.

Sande said...


would you like to write a blog post in response to this one?

onepoker said...


Pardon my noobishness on blog stuff but is there a big difference between just having a discussion in comments and a blog? I was just batting ideas back and forth with Mr. Kimball.

Sande said...

If you have a longer response, then a blog post is preferable because that way, it will reach more people.

Also, it's part of the blog's function to have responses that are presented in a more formal manner than just comments.

Reid Kimball said...


You do seem to have a different take on the issue than I do. I thought your ideas were interesting, though difficult to pull off because it would require multiple developers agreeing to working on the same IP and the same development schedule.

It also seemed like you were trying to re-package the concept to have more value, such as packaging multiple 2-3 hr games in one box and selling at a higher price. I wouldn't go that route because I think it's important to offer quality games at lower prices and to lower the commitment of time required from someone to play through the experience.

onepoker said...

I just can't see the following as a blog as much as I value my own opinion :). I dont want to put Sande through all the trouble.

Reid- I agree that the more people involved in a project the more difficult it will be to keep it on track. The shorter game time should make it less difficult to meet a realistic deadline. I also believe we have reached the point in the development cycle where game companies can be expected to produce at a higher rate. There was a big lag as they fought their way through learning PS3 and Xbox360. (for you PC only types im sorry but consoles are important)

I just don't think you could get 35 dollars for a 2-3 hour game. One of the biggest problems with Blue Ray is the 25 dollar price point has priced the movies out of the budgets of a large segment of people. Jim Keyes the CEO of Blockbuster has been crusading against the industry to bring down the prices but has yet to make headway.

Perhaps a stand alone 2-3 hour game would have great life as a rental.

Just because the games are bundled doesn't mean you would have to play all of them at once.

It seems to me like your conceptualizing this as a way to limit your own game time by putting in a hard break. I have had the same yearning for a game to end so I could resume my life.

You are absolutely correct about me believing you need to add value to this concept. I think 15-20 dollars is the cap for what people would pay for a couple of hours of entertainment. Especially in this economic environment. By bundling several together you share development costs and sacrifice some independence. You only need one of the stories to peek the interest of the buyer in order to make the sale. This could also serve as a cross genre introduction. A die hard Civilization fan may never have tried a grand theft auto game but if he sees Sid meier is involved in a project he may pick it up figuring he knows he will like atleast one game and is kind of curious what all the fuss is about over the other guy on the box.

To me the most important thing in a game is profitability only because I want to keep the developers working. Long term profitability is the result of excellent work.

Reid Kimball said...


"It seems to me like your conceptualizing this as a way to limit your own game time by putting in a hard break. I have had the same yearning for a game to end so I could resume my life."

You nailed me. I think the only thing we disagree with is the packaging of it and how much it should cost.

Though, I haven't done any number crunching on how much it would take to develop a AAA production quality game, for example like Mass Effect, that lasted 2 - 3 hrs. Maybe the price point could be much lower. My reason for choosing the higher price point was that people already pay 15 - 20 bucks for a DVD movie. Well, the interactivity of a game has value right? I arbitrarily slapped 10 extra bucks onto it.

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