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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Less is More


I want less game for my money. That’s right, less. I suppose I don’t actually mean less game, I mean less filler. I’ve noticed over the past few years that in most of the games that I play I tire of them about 2-5 hours before the end. It’s a sad moment in a game players life when you think to yourself “am I there yet?”

Now I don’t mean all games of course, and I don’t mean games shouldn’t be long. A game should be as long as it needs to be. I’m just saying many are longer than they need to be.

In screenwriting you learn that brevity is the soul of wit. Unnecessary scenes that are not imperative to moving the story along need to be cut. Yet in games it seems that the opposite tact is often taken. There are many levels which simply seem like filler. I remember roaming through Rapture, going on a fetch quest for 7 units distilled water, 7 units of Chlorophyll solution, and 7 units of enzyme samples, to save some trees. When my wife asked me what I was doing, I told her I had no idea. I only knew that I needed 7 of a bunch of stuff to do something that some lady wanted me to do, and that somehow related to Andrew Ryan…? Basically I didn’t know because I didn’t care. Those trees, and the chemicals needed to save them, weren’t an important part of the story.

All of that padding made it so that by the time I got to the scenes that should’ve mattered to me (finding the little sisters rooms, battling Fontaine) I was fatigued. If those scenes had come when I needed them, I would’ve left the game satisfied and wanting more. As it was, I was just playing for a sense of completion, and that devalued all that was to come. Now I’m picking on Bioshock here, but this is the case for most of the games I’ve played recently.

The blame game

So why is it that there’s so much padding in games? Let’s start with the developer. After all, they put it in there right? Understandably when developing a game, a certain economy of scale comes into play. A lot of time and expense are incurred creating and refining game mechanics, establishing a look, getting a pipeline working, etc. By the time you have all of this down, adding additional levels to extend gameplay can be relatively cheap. It’s a big temptation to use these to add to the duration of a game.

But this doesn’t seem to make sense. Why would a developer want to add to the duration of their game? Especially if that dilutes the experience?

The answer of course is the reviews. One of the main gripes I read again and again out of reviewers is that a game is too short. And this isn’t a casual mention, it’s honestly looked at quite scornfully. I don’t understand why. Though I thought I did.

It made sense to me that if a game was shorter, than I was getting less entertainment for my money. And to an extent this might be true when taken to an extreme. A game which includes a multilayer mode that I’ll play with my friends is a much better value because I can spend hundreds of hours playing. But if some of the padding and fetch quests were taken out of game, we’re talking about a few hours of gameplay. A few hours that will ultimately make for a better experience. You don’t hear a movie-goer say “Toy Story was great, but it was only 80 minutes, don’t bother seeing it. Check out Pearl Harbor: it’s not as good, but at least you get to watch it for over 3 hours.

When a game is reviewed as being “too short” is credit ever given for a lack of padding? Is it ever praised for resisting the urge to throw in fetch quests and dilute the experience? Rarely.

But we can’t just cast stones at reviewers. We have to put a fair amount of blames on ourselves, the players. We’re the ones reading these articles, and we’re the ones judging the games. While we can’t control what reviewers write, we can let them know how we feel. We live in an age where it’s incredibly easy to voice your opinion. If you comment, they will listen. Most reviewers are eager to read comments. Let them know if you feel that a game didn’t deserve the “too short” scorn.

My hat’s off to everyone who participated in the “size doesn’t matter” day. It’s exciting to see the community organized like that. Everyone doesn’t have to agree, but let’s start some debates!

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