Fake Longevity in Games: Are you really getting your money’s worth?

tfol 2013-01-27 17-32-16-40

Thirty Flights of Loving packs quite the punch in only 15 minutes

Everyone wants to feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. Especially now that game prices are rising and most of us have to be more selective with what we choose to buy. It’s all about getting a satisfying amount of content, so you don’t feel ripped off. I love long games and having tons of content as much as the next person. What I don’t like is padding that’s as boring as it is unnecessary and games that are made artificially longer without actually adding anything significant or particularly fun. There seems to be an expectation now that games be a certain length, depending on the genre and regardless of the ideal length for telling that particular narrative or to make the desired impact. RPGs in particular, get a lot of flak from their fans if they’re perceived as too short and the number of hours required to be seems to be rising. It seems that on average a good RPG should last at least 20 hours, which is much longer than many games of old and that number will probably keep rising. I think this call for longer games is a hindrance to games developers and ultimately results in a lot of games that would have been pretty solid, if it weren’t for the fact that it was watered down so that it would last for another few hours. Personally, I would much rather have a game that packs quality content into a few hours, rather than a longer protracted one that’s frankly weaker for its length. My point is that what I think really matters is the content and what you get out of it. I’ve seen games with just as much content as games twice as long and more disappointingly, I’ve seen the opposite as well, long games with only a few hours real content on them with a lot of padding. Of course if a narrative-heavy RPG ends in a few hours that might throw up a flag that there’s not enough there for them to sufficiently tell that story, but not necessarily. Many people finished Dishonored in 8 hours and to me that game is packed to the brim with things to do and see. That’s why I think length should just be a guideline and not a limiting factor in the development of a game.  In the rest of this post, I”ll be looking at some of the methods that developers use to pad our games and consider why these techniques might detract from our gaming experience as well as hinder studios from creating the best games they can.

Many studios add repetitive features that add apparent length to games without actually adding any fun, which to me, is the whole point of playing a game in the first place. An example of this is the ‘Twenty Bear Assesquest that requires you to kill hundreds of bears that for some reason, don’t all drop the asses required. This type of quest is common to MMORPGS, although not exclusively. Personally, I don’t like these types of quests (although if it’s a few here and there it’s not too bad), but it’s when games that aren’t open-ended use it to bump up gameplay time that it really annoys me. Although Borderlands 2 was excellent overall, I did feel that the overuse of these types of quests was one of its major flaws. In a similar vein, another equally frustrating feature that’s common in a lot of games is an overabundance of irrelevant and repetitive sidequests that don’t necessarily require you to fetch anything, but do ask you to go to location A to kill X number of bad guys and then go to location B to kill Y number of bad guys and so on and so forth, ad infinitum until your head explodes. These types of quests might be fun at first, but quickly lose their appeal and often end up detracting from the main mission (I’m looking at you, Mass Effect 1). Unless you’re a robot, generally doing the same thing over and over again can get a bit tedious after a while. Also,  I’m sure most of you who play games regularly have probably come across the boss that isn’t difficult to beat (just repeat the formulaic moves until they’re dead), but will take forever to beat because of they have a ridiculous amount of HP that regenerates or because it requires an element of luck or something similarly irritating. Personally, I’d much rather have a technically difficult boss fight than one that’s drawn on and on, but that you know you’ll eventually beat if you stick with it long enough, wouldn’t you? For more examples, check out this handy list. To me, if it’s not fun, then it shouldn’t be there. Obviously, I’m not expecting every second of every moment of a game to be fun, but when there are tons of repetitive features in a game, I see that as a fun sinkhole that simply shouldn’t be there and they often don’t seem to have any relevance to the game beyond making it longer. I’m much more likely to lose interest in a game that is repetitive and long, than a game that’s of the same length or longer, but is packed with actual fun content.

Another consequence of this focus on making games of a certain length is that many studios will fill up the required time with the illusion of content, such as using the same locations or level designs over and over again with minor changes here and there, like making the floor blue instead of red (again, Mass Effect 1 is a perfect example). Also, there’s the old backtracking tactic where, to advance in the game you constantly have to go over old ground (literally) and fight enemies you’ve fought before. This is even worse than the previous tactic in my opinion, because it literally doesn’t add anything original. It just seems like a lazy way of extending the time you’re in-game, without adding any real content. Deliberately long uninteresting winding corridors that get you from Point A to Point B that would probably take you about two minutes to get to if you were walking in a straight line also bother me for similar reasons. Obviously all games do this to an extent, but some games, like Borderlands 2 take this to the extreme and seem to have deliberately confusing pathways or long open spaces that you have to traverse every time you want to complete even the smallest, most insignificant sidequest. Other features, such as long unskippable cutscenes that count as part of the overall length and a lack of checkpoints that usually result in you having to redo whole chunks of levels all add to the amount of time you spend in a game, but don’t really add anything original or useful to the game. It’s games with these kinds of elements that could most likely be condensed into few hours without really losing anything. Developers have to balance finance and quality and because there is this common expectation on both sides that a game has to be a certain number of hours long, they often resort to cheaper methods of bumping up playtime rather than spending all that money on developing original content for every minute of the game. Personally, I’d much rather my favourite developers spend the time and money on developing a game where all of its component parts are solid, as opposed to sitting around trying to come up with ways to make the experience last as long as they can. 

By forcing a game to be longer than it might otherwise have been, there’s also the problem of pacing and immersion. To me, the question of length should be about how long it takes for the game to make its point or to tell its narrative or unravel its mysteries. Once it’s done all of those things the game should end. As I mentioned before, I felt that BioShock Infinite lagged in the middle in terms of pacing and it’s a fairly common complaint of an otherwise excellent game. It seems that I’m not the only one who would have enjoyed a little less lingering in the narrative and in slightly less drawn-out levels in places, in other words, if it had just got on with it at times. How many games have you played where the main character & co. rather unrealistically dither about for ages, before actually getting on with the oh-so-important quest that they’re supposed to be on? Trying to extend the game beyond its natural timespan is just asking for problems in my opinion.

This leads onto the wider point that if studios feel they have to pad their games that creates an artificial restriction on creativity. This issue of length is not something other artistic mediums have to deal with, at least not to this extent. Imagine if every painting had to be the size of a two-story high mural or if every book had to be 300 pages long. Sure, there are standards in every creative industry, but those are guidelines and people don’t follow them if that would damage their work. There are short movies and short stories and poems that are pages and pages long. Similarly, some games are best short and sweet, while others are epic in scope from conception. Developers shouldn’t be limited by the industry standard or simply because some people complain about it. They should be able to make games however long they feel it should be. 

Most importantly, focusing on the length of a game also ignores the fact that there’s value to a video game beyond the number of hours you’ve logged or even how much content there is. There’s also how much enjoyment you get out of a game and that’s not as easily measurable. By attempting to ‘get your money’s worth’ in terms of hours spent on a game it devalues our actual gaming experience and reduces it to numerical quantification, which goes against the point of this type of entertainment. It’s about enjoyment. Of course, it’s natural to want to get a proper amount of content for what you paid, but as long as it’s not ridiculously sub-par and you really enjoyed yourself while you were playing it, what does it matter how long the game was? Thirty Flights of Loving was exceptionally short and wasn’t exactly jam-packed with content (there’s only so much you could jam into 15 minutes anyway), but the experience was meaningful and entertaining enough that I felt it was worth the $5 I spent on it.

I think games should be judged on their merit and if it’s a good game, it’s a good game, regardless of its length. Of course for the price that games are now, you want the content that you paid for, but often, the value of a game goes far beyond what can be expressed in numbers or code. Games are an experience and you pay to gain some enjoyment out of that experience. Length might be indicative of a sufficiently strong experience, but it’s only one factor (and possibly an irrelevant one) as to whether the game is actually good and whether you feel you got your money’s worth of enjoyment. I feel that to fixate on it or to complain about it solely on the basis of a games being short does injustice to the game and forces developers to put out sub-par games that simply tick the boxes. After all, it’s not like we’re really getting our money’s worth with a lot of the games that are being pumped out right now anyway that promise MORE GUNS and MORE QUESTS and MORE LOOT. Sure, they might be longer, but does it really mean that they’re better?

That’s just some of my thoughts on the subject. What do you guys think? Is the length of a game important to you?

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16 responses to “Fake Longevity in Games: Are you really getting your money’s worth?

  1. Have you played God of war ?

    It’s one of my most favorite ever. I play it on Hard Mode because I want the game to last longer.

    And I really suggest you play Persona 3 FES, if you haven’t yet. It’s 2007’s game of the year.

    • I’ve only played God of War: Chains of Olympus, which was pretty good. I’d definitely like to check out the other games in that series, as I’ve heard good things about it.
      I’d definitely like to check out Persona 3 FES sometime. It’s on my list! Unsurprisingly I’ve got a bit of a backlog to work through, especially with all these excellent games people keep suggesting (which is a good thing of course), but I’ll get there!

  2. I agree with you ma’am, kind of, I think. I used to fundamentally believe that one of the primary sources of entertainment in a video game was the overall length and I became disappointed back in the early 00s where games the likes of RTCW and Doom3 failed to last the expected period of time I had initially imagined. Today however, it would seem that over the past couple of years I have had a change of heart. With regards to Crysis 2, which I felt was a genuinely entertaining experience, I felt that when the game began to make its way closer towards the inevitable conclusion, that it kept going long after an ending could have been promulgated. Even more recently, although I was disappointed that Halo 4 only lasted 8 hours for me on my first play through, I felt the entire experience was unfathomably amazing, regardless of the length.
    On another note, with regards to the game Rage, I was actually disappointed that the game lasted approximately twenty hours and was expecting more longevity, with other RPG oriented games often, for me at least, lasting longer, Mass Effect 3 for instance lasting nearly 36 hours. However, moving back to your original comments, in games where the storyline was dragged out, this did prove to be a tad bit of a hindrance. I agree with you about the original Mass Effect, with all of the side quest facilities often being reminiscent of previous bases in one way or another (exception, Falling Sky DLC) and in addition to this, Far Cry 2 represented this same trait. Every time the player was forced to retrace their footsteps, the enemies they had dispatched last had all recovered and were running about the open field once more and although the general AI of the enemy made them moderately entertaining to wage war with, killing the same dudes timelessly again and again was not very rewarding.
    Very interesting discussion CheeeseToastie. 😀

    • Hmm, I think the assumption that an RPG or RPG-oriented game should generally be fairly long is a perfectly natural and definitely one that I would agree with. Most video game narratives take some hours to develop and then tie up all the loose ends. I guess my view is just that games should be allowed to take however long it takes to properly tell the story or to make the impact its trying to make. Dragging it out hardly ever benefits the game and as you said, often leads to a less rewarding experience. There are certainly games out there that should have been longer, but I feel each game should be judged on its merit rather than on its length. If a game can continue to provide interesting unique content that will keep me interested for 100 hours, I’d say go for it! I haven’t played Rage, but if I did I might share your opinion that it should been longer, although it might not be on the basis of it being an RPG/RPG-oriented game, so yes, we agree to an extent I think! 🙂

  3. As someone who has found the last three triple-A titles to lag in the third act, I completely agree with you. Somewhere over the years, many people began to equate the length of a game with the quality of the product. Anytime I beat a game and talk about it at work, it is so strange that the first question tends to be, “How long did it take you?” versus “Did you enjoy it?” These days, I would prefer a game that can impress me in a compact amount of time versus a game that tries to bang my head against all of their “awesome new features” over and over again.

    • Exactly! I’ve had the same feeling about a lot of recent triple-A titles and often what started off as a genuinely fun experience has ended up feeling more like a chore in some places, especially in the latter part of the game. I’d definitely prefer a more compact game that does what it does well as opposed to a game full of those awesome new features you were talking about, but drags it out until I’ve done everything there is to do at least 50 times! As you said, it’s a strange concept to me that the length of a game would be the first thing on some people’s mind instead of whether they enjoyed it. Most of us presumably play games to have fun after all!

  4. Excellent post! On the creative side, padding and repetitive elements are bad. On the consumer side, $60 for a 12 hour experience, no matter how enjoyable it is, is bad. And there’s a flaw there in the core business model that doesn’t allow much room for shorter, tighter, and cheaper games, instead of a more one-size-fits-all price point where the shorter game is going to be punished for being the same price as the longer, more epic one.

    Although I guess you can make the arguement that when you go to the movie theatre, the pricing is standard, whether it’s a low budget indie film or the new blockbuster, you’re still paying the same standard admission . . . but that admission isn’t $60, either.

    I have to admit that nowadays, I don’t buy games on day one. The only exception to this rule in the near future is going to be GTA V, because I’ll play the hell out of that and get every penny’s worth. I’ll generally wait until I can nab something for $20, which doesn’t seem to take nearly as long as it once did, and I’m fine with a shorter experience IF I didn’t pay $60 for it. I generally won’t replay games (unless its co-op and it’s fun, see Left 4 Dead) so that’s not a draw for me.

    The game that always struck me as a brilliant workaround for backtracking and yet not being boring was the original Silent Hill. Add some fog, eerie textures and sound effects and it didn’t matter that it was the same places. I think with the right motivation — which is primarily story-based — it downplays traversing the same environments back and forth, giving the player a good reason to be confined to certain areas: Metal Gear Solid was a good example of that type of design, where the entire story was set around infiltrating a single, if not expansive, location.

    With RPGs I think there are certain design challenges there in that players approach them differently — some are very methodical and will spend a lot of time exploring every nook and cranny and will therefore level themselves up through random encounters, and others will take more direct routes and then find themselves overwhelmed by enemies beyond their capabilities because the designers didn’t force them to spend enough time grinding, so fetch quests end up being ‘regulated grinding’ so players have an actual objective and get a specific reward for their time beyond just a more powerful character.

    • Thanks very much! I’m glad you enjoyed it!
      I completely agree with you that there’s an inherent problem with pricing and the core business model that currently exists that ends up punishing shorter games. As you said, it’s difficult for shorter and cheaper games to be made and of course, there does come a point where the price tag on a game does become excessive no matter how amazing it was, because you’re simply not getting what you paid for. Hopefully that’s something that does change, because I think it would be a shame those shorter game experiences to die out or for developers to feel that they have to make a game longer than it naturally would be so that customers don’t feel ripped off.
      There are certainly games that make backtracking feel completely natural and can keep you entertained. I feel as long as it’s done well and as you said, for a reason, it definitely can work. It’s the same with fetch quests. They annoy me if they’re excessive and there for no other reason than to give you more things to do, but if they’re integrated thoughtfully into the story and there are genuine game or story-related reasons for them being there I have absolutely no problem with them!

  5. I completely agree with you. While I’m all for getting my money’s worth and I enjoy games where I can go back and replay it again to get a different experience from the first time I played them and beat them, I really wouldn’t want developers to extend the length of a game for the sake of giving us more content. You described it quite perfectly, “padding” a game is useless if it doesn’t add to the story or experience in some way. I rather have a short game if it means developers spend more time on their characters, story, and gameplay. It’s all about quality over quantity in this case.

    • Exactly! I’d much rather have quality content than a game with tons of boring or repetitive features and pointless padding, no matter how long it is! In fact, the longer a game like that it is, the less I really want to play it. Like you I’d prefer developers spending more time on story, characters and gameplay and the things that attract me to the game in the first place, rather than having them spending that time trying to extend the experience.

  6. I so agree. Of course, I would prefer a longer game with awesome content over a shorter game with awesome content. But, if I had to choose between 10 hours of incredibly awesome and mind-blowing gameplay+story or 100+ hours of good or even very good but not so awesome and mind-blowing gameplay+story, I definitely would choose the short one.

    However, I find it a little bit shocking that a lot of people don’t seem to have problems with these kinds of dragging.

    These days I had a discussion over the streetpass function of the 3DS and its inclusion in games. Some people couldn’t even grasp that I disliked the concept of having to do stuff beyond the game in order to get content within the game as well as that I consider this kind of dragging fake longevity. I mean, seriously, in order to get content you just have to wait and do nothing, but no, I could not convince them that this takes some extra time. I was even called petty-minded for demanding that multiplayer functions such as streetpass should only affect multiplayer aspects of a game and not aspects which are solely singleplayer aspects.

    And do you know Dragon Quest 9? This game basically is the epitome of dragging out everything.

    • Yeah, a longer game with incredible content would definitely be ideal, but considering the various limits on game devs and the fact that it often doesn’t play out like that, I’d definitely choose the shorter game packed full of incredible content any day! When the story is dragged out or the gameplay starts getting overly repetitive it just isn’t as fun and doesn’t do the game justice. Even if overall the game was good, it’s hard to get past the fact that you just spent several hours of it being bored.
      I can see what you mean about the streetpass function of the 3DS. I haven’t used it myself, having only recently bought myself a 3DS (finally), but yeah that seems like a fair complaint. A very strange attitude (at least to me) seems to have developed among many gamers that longer=better, when I think that’s absolutely not the case and in fact dragging out the experience can really dilute it.
      I haven’t played Dragon Quest 9, but thanks to your tip I’ll make sure to avoid it! Merry Christmas! 🙂

      • Yeah, Merry Christmas!

        I have also observed exactly this longer=better attitude. (In the aforementioned discussion I could at least convince one person to rethink this opinion and have a look at what is Fake Difficulty and Fake Longevity. ^^)

        Somehow a lot of people seem to lack the ability to critically enough reflect about what they actually played there. For example, the majority of Dragon Quest 9 consists of mindless grinding and boring and repetitive quests (just as you described), yet the game mostly get positive reviews – even going as far as saying stuff like it being the best game for the DS. It even got a perfect score in the Famitsu review which I just find horrendous.

        Aside from these MMORPG-like sidequests, it also puts grinding to a new degree of ridiculousness. Not only are you supposed to grind to level 99, you are also supposed to do this several times (you can downgrade from level 99 to 1) and you are also supposed in order to fight the optional superbosses at their strongest form to grind THEM to level 99 as well.

        And despite having dozens of different superbosses, the battles lack uniqueness and creativity. For example, there’s a move which nullifys all status buffs. As far as I know every one of these bosses use it and it’s basically a main gimmick for all of these fights.

        I just wished the devs would put more emphasis on REAL longevity instead…

  7. And another thing I observed is that quite some people seem to think that if some content is optional, it doesn’t affect the overall experience negatively because if you don’t like it, you just can skip it – no matter how bad the content (or the method to unlock it) actually is.

    They argue that a game that they would consider flawless before will still be flawless if you add content – no matter how terrible the content or the way to unlock it is.

    I just don’t get it. I mean, only because something is optional and skippable, it does nevertheless not excuse bad game design in any way.

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