Some of you may have read our recent interview with Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons' game director, Josef Fares. When we spoke last week, we chatted a little about consumer pre-occupation with the "length" of a game, that is to say, the time it takes to play the main part of it through from start to finish. Fares was unequivocal in his opinion on the matter: that this critical focus which attempts to determine "how long a game should be" needs to stop:
I think everyone agrees with me. It's just that someone said it, and no-one's stopped to question it. I think the press, the critics, even the community need to understand that it isn't important. Stop complaining about the length of time it takes to play a game. Why are we so focused on how long a game is? It's about the experience. You never question how long a movie is. It's a case of how good or bad it was, and that's it. The time it takes to play a game shouldn't matter in a review. Who's dictated how long or short a game should be? It's all about the experience.
It's a point I broadly agree with although, as Fares himself notes later on, that's not to say we shouldn't have large, expansive games, but rather that a game should only ever be as long as it really needs to be.
Of course, the words "budget" , "commercial appeal", and "long tail" always crop up at this juncture, and perhaps rightfully so. After all, this is an industry, one in which commerce and artistic creation must cohabit together. Retail games cost several times more than one's average cinema jaunt, and it's not unreasonable to expect some sort of longevity for one's money.
But there are obvious examples of games that have been perfectly paced in all shapes and sizes. Sleeping Dogs is one that I like to return to because it falls into a genre - open world action games - that has long been the domain of excess. The simple act of making the core gameplay elements feel essential and restricting the main storyline to 12-15 hours meant everything felt impactful and nothing outstayed its welcome. It is one of the few open world games I've really wanted to finish, rather than reaching a certain middle point and becoming overwhelmed by the expanse or underwhelmed at repetitive quests.
At the other end of the scale sit games like Journey, which offered a perfectly paced two-hour slice of emotive gaming wonderment, and Portal, which was expertly done. Though the latter came under fire for being too short, it's important to note that's not a stain on its quality. It was a complete surprise, bundled in with the Orange Box, and the only reason it got labelled as "too short" is because it was such a fantastic premise that we all wanted more.
Longevity can be measured in a number of ways. Whether it's a game that stays in the disc drive for months because of its replayability or multiplayer appeal, or a game that sticks in the mind because it was so utterly excellent. It's easy to criticise iterative franchises in many ways, but we praise comprehensive content packages here on Dealspwn, and rightfully so. For me, the Halo series has always been worthy of high praise for making every facet of its content seem essential. I've enjoyed every single campaign, both in single-player and co-op, and have been thoroughly addicted to the numerous iterations of its multiplayer components.
But whenever I think of "great games", I actually often skip over those enormous timesinks because they become default options, if you will. Games to fill in the gaps in between what I consider to be essential releases. It's odd to consider something like Call of Duty or Battlefield or FIFA or, indeed, the larger MMOs, or (in my default case) NBA 2K as underdogs. But that's because they're always there, ready to be played - a comfort blanket for when the release schedule has dried up.
It's important to remember that games in which you can invest large amounts of time are incredibly worthy, and setting up an iterative franchise can be a positive. You always know what you're going to get, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Familiarity can be a comfort, especially if you identify games as a key source of escapism. But as we continue to explore the nature of the medium in which we operate/develop/consume/publish/nest the notion of what games are becomes enormously multifaceted, fundamentally subjective, and absolutely changeable.
To understand that concept is to understand that variety is not just the spice of life, but of survival, and that longevity and value don't just come in one form. The rise of the digital marketplace and the advent of new routes to market have gone hand in hand with an indie boom that is becoming more and more fantastically innovative in places even as the other end of the spectrum appears to be growing more conservative and homogeneous.
The industry has been dominated for so long by a strict retail structure that has dictated a certain mindset when it comes to value and content and size. But we've seen so many challengers to that status quo (Steam, iOS, Android, XBLA, PSN) over the past few years that it's starting have little meaning, and that's rather the point. By themselves, discussions about game length are meaningless. If a game seems padded or truncated or rushed or bloated or interminably boring, then that's something completely different.
There's no such thing as "too long" or "too short", not really. Only games that are worth your time and money, and those that aren't.