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.
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.