Saturday, July 19, 2014

#73: THIS GAME IS TOO LONG!: The Myth that Length is Objectively Good

As an amateur, avid game critic, I follow gaming news and releases religiously. As I read press statements, game descriptions, and reports on games soon to be released, there is a sentiment that I repeatedly see among them: One that I cannot agree with. There is a notion from publishers, developers, and their fans that the length of a game should be a compelling selling point. A game that has “50 hours of content” should be more compelling than a similar game with “20 hours of content”. I see why this is an easy mistake to make. Nonetheless, this assumption is incorrect. Length in games cannot, and will not, ever be an indicator of a game's overall value. This week, I aim to explain exactly why that is.

The biggest reason for this is that the amount of content says nothing about the overall quality of that content. I have mentioned this point a few times in earlier pieces, particular a few pertaining to Assassin's Creed 3, but it is one that bears both repeating and elaborating on. A game can claim that it contains “40/50 hours of content”, as Watch_Dogs and Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag both famously did. However, that point does not say how good or how bad that content is. For example, Assassin's Creed 3 is now infamous for how bad it was, especially in comparison to earlier entries in the franchise. Yet it sold itself partially on the claim that it had many untold hours of gameplay.
Hindsight has revealed it to be a pox on the franchise. The tale of Connor Kenway had terrible writing with laughably camp antagonists. Missions were overly linear to the point where even the exact path players took to their assassination was determined by the game. Collectibles and side content did not serve any purpose nor provide an adequate enough challenge/reward to be gathered for their own sake. Lastly, the ending is a standout for bad endings in games, even when the game was released in the same year as Mass Effect 3. Though the game has many, many hours of content, a lot of it is not particularly good. The only real standouts are the parts with Connor's father, Haytham. Were all, or even most, of the game's offerings up to snuff, many hours of it could be a fantastic selling point. However, in the context of the game, all that content ends up being a negative. Other games like Watch_Dogs can be said to suffer the same fate in different ways.

That being said, there are other dangers to relying on the length of a game as a measure for value. When it is, the temptation arises for developers to artificially add more content into the game. As a direct result of these additions, the game's pacing can be negatively affected. I posit that happened in the creation of Dragon Age: Origins. I already laid out the premise of The Fade in last week's post and discussed how it hurt the overall game, along with The Deep Roads. While I cannot be sure of it, I am willing to claim that at least The Fade was added in after the fact in order to reach some artificial length for an average playthrough. It is the kind of section that has almost no bearing on anything else in the game, not even in the Circle of Magi module that it is a part of. Modders have proven this to be true thanks to “Skip the Fade”. There are other such examples of content that feels artificial even in other games, like the Navajo scene in Beyond: Two Souls or latex nuns in Hitman: Absolution. Most of them contribute adversely to the narrative pacing.

My final reason for why length of a game does not make for a good measure of quality is that using it in such a way could end up lowering the overall quality of a game's content. My logic for this is as follows: A developer who believes that quantity is important will attempt to provide as much content for their consumers as they possibly can. Creating all this content requires the developer to spread their resources thin so that more content can be created. When content is created with such limited resources, it will be lesser in terms of quality. Therefore, creating as much content as possible will result in at least some of that content being not as good as it otherwise could have been. While treating length as the end-all-be-all does not necessarily imply that a game will be poor, I would be willing to make the claim that, using this logic, it is safe to conclude that it raises the odds of a lesser quality.

As a final note to this piece, I want to say that I do not mean to say that length should not be a factor in purchasing decisions. What I actually mean is that it should not be treated as the most, or even one of the most, important considerations. When a developer says that there is game “has X hours of play”, you should sit down and think for a second. You should wonder if the game's design was affected just so that the publisher could use that length as a talking point when discussing the final product. Marketers do count on us being easy to manipulate. That is just the nature of their job. It is the responsibility of us, the audience and the consumers, to be aware and to think about why and how our games were designed the way they are.

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