Can you put a price on happiness, on fun, on experiential immersion? That's what games do , to a certain extent. How much is a good game worth to you? What do you expect for your £30-50?
Last year I wrote a lengthy piece ranting about this industry's preoccupation with game duration -- that is to say, the "length" of a video game. This is a relatively arbitrary concept, of course, given that people go through games at varying velocities, some with the skill and drive to strive for speed from the outset, some preferring a more languid approach.But it's a key consideration for consumers in particular, that much is understandable. Games are expensive, especially these titles for new platforms, and getting value for money is a key consideration.
This is part of the reason Call of Duty is so damn popular: it's a comprehensive content package.
But the reason I bring this up is because I've just finished Killzone: Shadow Fall -- a game let down by hideous pacing and far too much wave-based padding. A game that squanders the promise of its opening levels with the repetition of bumping off streams of gormless AI mannequins over and over again in its second half. Here's what I said in my review:
The first couple of hours of Killzone: Shadow Fall hint towards a game that might just play as well as it looks. And it looks phenomenal. But sadly, the game falters and falls rather quickly, crushed under the weight of its own ambitions, and it retreats to the safe banality of staid FPS conventions for a second half that's all filler, no killer. It's a great game to show off the power of the PS4, a magnificent spectacle, and its Custom Warzones hint towards the possibility of a bright future; but it's just not that fun to actually play.
Now the reason I bring up game length rather than talking about the lack of ideas is because of a quote from Killzone: Shadow Fall's Lead Designer, Eric Boljes, made post-launch. In an interview with AusGamers, Boljes acknowledged the mixed reviews that the game has received, but stated that he felt this is the best Killzone game Guerilla have ever made:
"Well to be honest, when the reviews first came in, we were a little bit disappointed, because I personally feel that this is the best Killzone we’ve ever made; I honestly feel that. [...] We’re a launch title, and it’s the first time ever that Guerilla has done that. It’s a new direction, new core features; we’ve got a 12 hour campaign, we’ve got a fully-loaded multiplayer experience, all on day one on the new platform. I think overall we’re really happy with that we’ve done, and I hope that people [who] play the game see that and can enjoy the experience that we created."
It's that "12 hour campaign" bit that strikes me, and therein lies the rub. Padding has become more important than pacing, and we only have ourselves to blame.
By we I mean you and I. I mean publishers and suits behind desks at the top of companies who want hard statistics rather than qualitative speculation. We have become obsessed with the quantifiable to the detriment of creativity. I'll say it again: a game's length is irrelevant on its own. What does "a 12 hour campaign" mean? Does it take replayability into account? Does it take difficulty levels and player skill into account? What about collectibles and curios? But most of all, nothing in that short little phrase indicates anything regarding how good the game might be. Yet we put an enormous amount of stock in that. It's ridiculous, and it's got to stop.
I don't mean that we shouldn't care about a content offering, or that value is unimportant. But when it looks like developers are stretching themselves to hit a benchmark in terms of average duration, that's a problem. Padding a game out to make it longer, to be able to try and convey this warped notion of value that we're all clinging to so desperately, is not conducive to quality because you're focused on something other than the story you want to tell and the game you want to make.
And we're all to blame. It's the question that gets asked by consumers and press alike: how long is it? But there's no meaning in that question without having played the game. Imagine if you'd written off Journey or Limbo or Braid or Vanquish on the basis of their short lengths. What about arcade brawlers like Final Fight or Double Dragon or River City Ransom? Are you really telling me that Portal and its longer-but-still-fairly-comparatively-short sequel would have been better for being a couple of hours longer? We all want more of a good thing, that's understandable, but give me a gloriously-crafted short-but-sweet experience over a bloated, nondescript, content-stuffer any day of the week.
Of course, the two things aren't mutually exclusive. There are lots of great games out there that manage to offer up longevity and quality, even when it comes to singleplayer FPS experiences, and you don't have to provide an open-world environment in which to do that. Games can't all be Far Cry 3, after all. If a game's pacing is well-constructed, the level design and the enemy AI are well-worked, if there are challenges and unlockables that shake things up and dare the player to replay the game from different perspectives and under left-field conditions, if the world-building is strong and there are narrative reasons to spend time soaking up more context (hello Bioshock), we'll come back to those experiences time and time again.
There are ways to promote replayability, and it's never been easier than it is today thanks to social features and a usually-connected gaming society. I look back at GoldenEye and I sigh, remembering how that game rewarded you for playing levels through in different fashions, and recalling how much time I spent trying to get that damn golden PP7. There was a game that used every bit of itself to help facilitate longevity. Ok, it would say. So you've completed the game on Agent. But look at these fun, awesome rewards you can get if you push yourself up a difficulty bracket. So we did.
But we have to be better, because frankly it's down to us. We journalists and critics have to stop asking about game length because it's absolutely pointless until we can actually find out for ourselves when we play the damn game. That question is useless without context, and we have given birth to a culture of all filler, no killer because of it. Part of it is due to consumer impatience, thanks to this culture of previews and pre-orders and season passes and other pre-emptive absurdity. How Long? is one of the few questions that will yield semi-concrete answers in advance of a game's release. But it doesn't mean anything without knowing if a game is good or not.
So, to everyone in the industry -- developers, publishers, press, and consumers alike -- let's get our priorities straight. Value is important, no-one is saying that it isn't. But can we please ask if a game is any good before we ask how long it is, because they're both important, but they're not one and the same.