Size Matters, But Not the Way You Think

This past weekend I played and finished Divinity II: Ego Dragonis, the first long-form fantasy RPG I’ve followed through to completion in years. It’s not exactly that Divinity II is the best RPG I’ve played in the past few years, though it was a fine example of the form and did a lot of things that I really liked. It was more that the stars aligned in just the right way to keep me interested and with enough time to follow the game down its long and winding road.

The truth is you would need all of your digits and maybe a friend’s as well to count the number of major RPG games I’ve dabbled in for a little while and then unceremoniously dumped like a jilted lover. Even Dragon Age 2, which I really did enjoy, is still waiting deep in the final act of the game to have its last half dozen or so hours played out to some kind of closure. There should be a support group for all the RPGs I’ve left without explanation, often when things seemed to be going so well and we were just really getting to know each other. Among its sad membership would be counted the likes of Dragon Age Origins, Planescape Torment, both Baldur’s Gates, a handful of Final Fantasies, both The Witchers and every Elder Scrolls game made.

Sorry, RPGs. It’s not you. It’s me.

It’s not even a phenomenon localized to role playing games, I’ve been every bit as neglectful to other genres and flavors of gaming. My Steam list of games is a hall of shame of unfinished games left out in the cold, a digital realization of the island of misfit toys. And in almost all cases the shared sin is the same. The games were just too damned long.

I received a question on Twitter the other day following a comment about Deus Ex. The person said after 20 hours of play they had gotten to place X (redacted for those of you who haven’t played Deus Ex -- just go play it damn it) and they had the sense that there was still a lot of game left. And, they were right. They were only about halfway through. When I confirmed the questionably bad news, the response was one of wavering resolve; a comment about being spoiled on the modern ten hour game. Well you and me both, pal.

I understand, I genuinely do, those who love to get 40, 50, 80, 100 hours of fun out of a $50 investment. I’m an old school gamer, the kind that dropped endless quarters into Time Pilot and Dig Dug in the arcade next to my local Winn Dixie supermarket as a boy before going home to get in some bonus time with Telengard on my Apple II, so I know the legacy of the medium because I have lived it. PC games of yore were just long as a rule, whether they were RPGs, adventure games or even shooters. That’s just sort of how we did it back in the old days. It wasn’t a PC game if it didn’t take you a work week to finish.

That was fine for me at the time, partly because I was creeping up on my tenth birthday and had some time to kill and partly because as a kid I could really only afford a game every few months or so. The economics of the situation are different when you are ten than when you are forty, and to pretend otherwise would be silly. That said, I sympathize with those who either through necessity or self-imposed rule, limit their game purchases to one every other month or so in this modern era of shorter games that are barely longer than a Robert Altman film, but I am not counted among your fraternity. No, now with all the trappings of adulthood, my currencies have flip-flopped. Where once I enjoyed a relative wealth of time but not of currency, now the opposite is sort of true.

But, it would be disingenuous to say that the reason I didn’t finish Dragon Age 2 is that I ran out of time. It’s not like there was some kind of timelock on the software that said if I don’t finish by some arbitrary date then the files will self destruct.That game is still sitting there on my machine ready to pick up right where we left off. A deficit of time shouldn’t mean I don’t finish my game, it should just mean it takes me more days to get to the end than it used to, but as we’ve already established that’s not true.

No, my real problem is that with only a few exceptions I don’t have the attention span or even the desire to remain focused on one game for too long. Sure, I’m a recovering World of Warcraft addict with *mumble mumble* hours spent in the wilds of Azeroth, so why not save *mumble mumble* dollars in subscription fees and polish off some of these classic RPGs instead? Well, because, WoW doesn’t require the same level of attention and dedication. WoW isn’t one long thread of story and development told over all those hours, it’s more like an ever changing game that is reinventing itself with each level and each zone. It doesn’t ask me to follow the thread of a bloated story that often seems to be going nowhere, it just says “hey, if you go kill a bunch of mutated wolves, I’ll give you this cool sword and then you can go about whatever other business you’ve got planned.”

To ask why if I can play that much WoW then why can’t I finish Planescape may seem like a legitimate question, but it is exactly as flawed as asking why someone who loved Planescape isn’t naturally addicted to WoW. They just aren’t the same.

So, for me, a seven or eight hour game is just about ideal. Time after time these kinds of games deliver a tight, focused and condensed story that I can follow from A to B without having my age-addled mind become distracted. I am, I admit, part of the problem. I want the sophistication and spectacle that comes with multi-million dollar budgets, and I want the brevity and density that comes with a well crafted 8 or 10 hour game. For a lot of my generation, this kind of deficit of attention is if not medical then criminal. It represents a reduction of the form and a loss of value. It is anathema.

I suppose we agree on at least the principle that size matters. We just don’t agree on whether big or small is better. As for me, I’m on Team Small.

Comments

I like my RPGs like I like my women.. needlessly convoluted with strong narrative choices.

But seriously, I'm on Team Good Story; if it's a long-form story that needs 200 hours to be told, great! If it's a shorter story that can be told in 10 hours, great! If you've got a shorter story that can be told in 10 hours and is padded to 50 with endless repetitive grinding, then I take issue.

I more or less agree. I think there's still a real shortage of good, lengthy play experiences, but that's at least as much because I think that a linear ten-hour experience is less interesting than a non-linear, dynamic five-minute experience.

I'd like to see a three-hour RPG that's dynamic and replayable, with enough simulation elements to keep me finding new things seventy hours later. Short but deep, instead of long and shallow.

It's not a length issue for me, and it's not a story issue. It's a world-building issue. If the world is interesting and layered I will play in it like I might take a long vacation, drink in hand wandering about and taking in the sights. I consider the guide books for Morrowind, Oblivion, and Fallout to be more like Foder's Guides than hint books.

I mean, there are games I like that I wouldn't play for even 5 hours, and there are games that can keep me engaged for tens of hours.

I also have less time than I do games. But I'm not a planner when it comes to these things. I don't think, "Well, I'm going to play Tactics Ogre for about 45 hours, which I could otherwise spend on 4-5 other games I'd like to play." I just pick up the game and let it take me where it will.

You're not alone, apparently

http://www.cnn.com/2011/TECH/gaming....

Tanglebones said my piece, better than I could have. There are games that 100 hours isn't enough, and others that half an hour is a gracious plenty.

Except I actually don't mind grinding so much. Grindy-spots are great for times I'm doing other stuff at the same time, and having a grind to do helps me keep going without having to fight for focus. It's one of the reasons I love Minecraft - some times I'm head-down and focused doing a fiddly bit of cantilever construction or trying to mine around a big lava-pool, but when I'm stuck in a bad phone meeting I can just dig to level a hill to make room to build out on my tower.

I think there are structural issues that make long narrative games more difficult to execute well. You have to keep the player interested and connected to a badly paced story (any story simple enough to deliver in a video game is usually badly paced at 40 hours long). This is why shorter narrative games seem to work better... better pacing.

Games like Madden or Counterstrike or WoW do not have this problem because they are built to execute relatively short-form experiences. Sure you can spend months or years playing WoW but you are not doing it to navigate a single narrative line from start to end. It's a lot of smaller episodes.

So to me there is no paradox in story games being hard to finish while it's perfectly possible to spend every waking hour playing WoW.

There are games that are too long, and games that are too short, but there is no perfect timespan that you can apply to everything.

What I do find weird is when you get games that are "all killer, no filler", and people want less of it, as though it's on a schedule or contracted the game will take no longer than X hours. If it's a long game you're going to take longer to get through it, and hopefully it's a game you like, so you get more out of it. It's as though people want to enjoy something less.

I also hope you were playing the Dragon Knight Saga release of Divinity2, it's meant to be a massive improvement on the initial release. That was a game I was rubbing my hands in eagerness when it introduced you to a new area with a mountain of stuff to do. More games should give you that feeling, and not be something to see the back of (although a satisfying conclusion is always nice).

While I, too, don't have nearly as much spare time for gaming as I did 10+ years ago, the issue for me is more about the price to size ratio rather than just size alone. I have no problem with developers making a 8-hour game, but when they charge full retail price for it ($50 or more), I wait for it to drop to half price before I buy it. If it's a console-only game, and I really want to play it, I sell it as soon as I'm done playing.

So yeah, I welcome short games, as long as the price is appropriate.

Man, you always manage to hit it right on the head and cause self reflection. I LOVE longform RPG's... But I very rarely finish them. I'm just too time poor and too ADD to give them hte attention they deserve, and when I DO have the time my brain probably isn't in hte right place so I end up firing up and old faithful like dwarf fortress or something mindless like the sims. Things are only going to get worse in the next six months, I'm closing in on the big 3-0 and have my firstborn on the way. Who knows, maybe I can learn to play around early morning feedings...

I find as I get older not only my time is in short supply, but the quality of my time decreases. By this I mean that, even when I do get a stretch of time to play an RPG, say a couple of hours after work when the kids are off doing something else, I'm so damn tired and/or distracted that I don't want to think about plot points and what-not, so I play some old stand-by, like TF2. Once this happens enough times, I forget where I am in a long-form RPG and it ends up permanently on the shelf. The Witcher 2 is the latest victim.

Even "short" games will become victims to this. Metro 2033, which is supposedly an 8-12 hour game, I got about 3 or 4 hours in, got distracted by life, and never went back. Which is too bad.

So, even with all that, I am still excited when I see a long-form RPG announced. I am looking forward to Skyrim; I have no idea if I will ever be able play it though.

Nightmare wrote:

The Witcher 2 is the latest victim.

I'm a little surprised by that, as TW2 (for all it's pros and cons) has one of the better quest logs in that the events that unfold in each quest are recorded as written by the bard Dandelion, so it's not just a tickbox beside an objective you've done, but a little short story to recap.

I loved Divinity II: Ego Dragonis!

I don't think we're growing tired of RPGs so much as the genre is changing so that it has more mass appeal and it's getting watered down from what we're accustomed to.

Are companies such as Bioware, after being bought-out... selling out on their own accord... or is a directive of the mountain of money that buys them?

Elysium, do you feel like your short attention span with games is a side-effect of having new games constantly being released? Is there so much that it's easy to almost always be distracted by something new and potentially awesome?

I'm with Nightmare here.

I find as I get older not only my time is in short supply, but the quality of my time decreases. By this I mean that, even when I do get a stretch of time to play an RPG, say a couple of hours after work when the kids are off doing something else, I'm so damn tired and/or distracted that I don't want to think about plot points and what-not, so I play some old stand-by, like TF2. Once this happens enough times, I forget where I am in a long-form RPG and it ends up permanently on the shelf. The Witcher 2 is the latest victim.

This happens to me too. I absolutely love a good story, and The Witcher 2 certainly has one. The quality of the quest log is irrelevant, though - it's not that I forget what I need to do, but rather I, hmmm, fall out of the required headspace? Not sure really how to express it, but once I've gotten distracted from an RPG, I need to start from the beginning again with a new character. No UI/game design choices can fix that, it's just how my teeny little RPG loving mind works. Well, to be fair, poor game design can make it worse - for example, I very nearly didn't finish Dragon Age 2 because, despite loving the story, I found the repetitive environments extremely taxing come the third act. I'm honestly surprised I toughed it out and finished it.

This, for example, is what I've got such odd experiences with both Morrowind and Oblivion. In both cases, I've logged over 300 hours of gameplay. I've never finished either game. I leave the plot to go off doing my own thing, have lots of fun, then get distracted by real life and can't get back into that particular game. After a couple runs, I get so annoyed with the beginning of the "Main Plot" that I don't even start it anymore. Nevertheless, they're both high in my list of all time favorite games - I kind of think I'd like them less if I'd finished them early on. Less reason to keep going back and playing.

So, for me, I like huge, epic sandbox games where I can just do my own thing, as much or as little as I want with the main plot being largely irrelevant, or shorted more linear story driven games so I can actually finish them before real life distracts me.

Raelic wrote:

Are companies such as Bioware, after being bought-out... selling out on their own accord... or is a directive of the mountain of money that buys them?

Only they know for sure, but money always talks.

The other thing to remember is the realities of making games, it only becomes more expensive to make the same amount of content at a higher detail level. Plus commercial pressures, in any business it's kind of nice to turn a profit than a loss, so if they can get a good amount of people to buy something shorter than longer, why not make the shorter thing.

I'm pretty solidly a gameplay-type of gamer, contrasted against many of the good folks here on GWJ, and apparently quite against the norm, if Tanglebones is any indication. I like a good yarn in my game, but if the gameplay isn't up to snuff, I won't even buy it. Interesting narrative tricks like Bastion's narration is good for novelty, but that's it for me - it's just a novelty, a gimmick and nothing more.

ME2's interesting mix of FPS and magic - that's interesting. It's interesting enough for me to have finished the game not once, but six times; and I fire it up even now and again on savepoints corresponding to the most interesting combat pieces, per my judgment. The story? Eh. I skip all dialogue and cut-scenes past the second playthrough.

inFamous and inFamous 2? Same thing. To me, inFamous is not an open world game with an interesting superhero story. No. To me, it's playing as Elecman in a 3D Megaman-like game with a bunch of levels. It could have as much story as a Mario game and I wouldn't mind one bit.

Likewise, I can finish JRPGs - even the long ones, and the convoluted ones, requiring hundreds of hours of "grinding," but the gameplay's gotta be good. If the gameplay's not interesting, no amount of story will keep me playing it.

I'm happy that games like Modern Warfare and such with their ultra-short missions can be made for the gamers that like them, but I'm equally glad that furious and gameplay focused games like Muramasa, Demon's Souls, and Super Meat Boy continue to be offered for those of us who are frequently lambasted as masochists and grinders.

I'm on Team Gameplay.

I agree with LarryC: I don't generally play games for their stories. In fact, I'll often play and love games with crappy stories (Metroid: Other M is first to mind) if their gameplay mechanics are good. A good story in a game is a plus, but it's not really a selling point for me if the gameplay itself doesn't carry the weight of the experience.

That said, I tend to agree with Elysium that eight or ten hours is a good length for a game, not because that's a good length for a story but often because that's about when designers start running out of interesting gameplay. By the eight hour mark in most games, you'll have seen most every mechanic (weapon, enemy, power, solution, etc.) that the game has to offer plus a bit of variation. That's about when I tend to want games to get on with it and wrap it up unless the mechanics really captivate me.

That's funny you mention that because we had a similar discussion in the EA vs STEAM thread regarding the length of games now vs. the length of games back then. The short story is, First Person Shooters have always been in the 8-12 hours range for as long as I can remember and that's fine by me but more and more people find that it's not enough and also demand an infinitely replayable multiplayer experience along with that.

In a world where no more than 1 in 10 FPS or less draws enough people to have a sustainable multiplayer content, it`s not really fair to see titles such as Singularity or Bulletstorm fail on the sole basis that they're ''short'' and lack a decent multiplayer mode.

Anyways, I'm on Team Small too and always have been. Yet, I still buy the long winded RPGs you mentionned thinking I'd get around to finishing them. then I get a new PC and lose my saves and never actually finish them. Oh well

$60/10 hours is $6/hour, less than a first-run movie ticket,
but here's the thing, I go to Cinemark (go see Bridesmaids, btw).

I think this is why I am able to put up with JRPG's and Rogue-likes and Etrian Odyssey.
Yes, depending on the situation and game, even hardcore dungeon crawlers are at times, repetitive and boring.

I admit that I never finished Legends of Dragoon, but seriously, just read the Grand List of Console RPG cliches. You can come up with the whole list just by playing that game. (I also have the strategy guide and read the ending.)

This is why my action games are of the Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Castlevania, Demon's Souls, Muramasa, Odin Sphere kind,

or a shmup or Mario or hopefully Vanquish, something with replay value,
or a multiplayer game like TF2 or Section 8: Prejudice.

Also, is it just me or do FPS's suffer from being too short while non-FPS games are usually longer? I just remember that it seems most of the time being too short is a complaint levied against an FPS.

OT: While Firefox did crash while writing this but when restored, it had saved my incomplete post, hurray!

interstate78 wrote:

Anyways, I'm on Team Small too and always have been. Yet, I still buy the long winded RPGs you mentionned thinking I'd get around to finishing them. then I get a new PC and lose my saves and never actually finish them. Oh well

Another proud member of Team Small that still buys the other side's games. I love RPGs and I love playing new RPGs. I finish a vanishingly small percentage of them, however. Games the length of CoD4: MW are about perfect, and I will finish them more than once. The exception to this rule have been the Mass Effect games, both of which I've finished multiple times.

Re-linking tanstaafl's link for the excellent timing.

tanstaafl wrote:

You're not alone, apparently

http://www.cnn.com/2011/TECH/gaming....

And after both this excellent front page article and the CNN article, I am still obliged to say: Cool it, guys. Developers are listening and producers are eager to hear that you want less content for the same damn price.

Can we all at least append a "for less money" to our guilty admissions that we want shorter games? But not one that's likely to ever pan out if it's true that the average gamer is continually getting older, busier, yet wealthier. Ah well.

I couldn't agree more that as my crusty-old-man-gamer status continues to solidify, I find I have less and less attention for really long RPGs, even though I love that kind of depth. I finished Baldur's Gate, but the even longer BGII is unfinished, let alone its expansion. For me, it is quantity and quality of time. I almost never have 3 hours to really immerse myself in a fictional universe, even though that's exactly what I want out of an RPG. I have to be ready to be pulled out by kids, spouse, work, etc.

So I guess I fall squarely into Team Short, even though I wish I didn't.

The other factor in this, however, is the GWJ community. That's right, I blame you folks.

Well, GWJ and the rate at which new games are made. If there was only one quality game made every 2-3 years, I'd finish 'em. But because there are so many, and you people keep talking them up so much, I feel like I'm continually missing out on something. So I do a lot of sampling, and then before you know it, the game timer goes off, and I've got to get back to it. Its the tapas style of gaming I guess: you get to sample some GREAT stuff, but you didn't get full on it.

Jakobedlam wrote:

The other factor in this, however, is the GWJ community. That's right, I blame you folks.

I notice the same thing, that listening to podcasts and following a gaming community site has led me to purchase a lot more games. The compulsion to keep up with "The Conversation" dissuades me from spending more time with long form games.

Somehow, World of Warcraft has managed to remain current for years. Maybe it's that it embeds its community in the game.

RoutineMachine wrote:
Jakobedlam wrote:

The other factor in this, however, is the GWJ community. That's right, I blame you folks.

I notice the same thing, that listening to podcasts and following a gaming community site has led me to purchase a lot more games. The compulsion to keep up with "The Conversation" dissuades me from spending more time with long form games.

Somehow, World of Warcraft has managed to remain current for years. Maybe it's that it embeds its community in the game.

Pro tip: If you're worried about keeping up with the conversation, don't delude yourself into thinking that you will play all the games. Read the spoilers, watch the YouTube walkthroughs, and converse away.

wordsmythe wrote:

Pro tip: If you're worried about keeping up with the conversation, don't delude yourself into thinking that you will play all the games. Read the spoilers, watch the YouTube walkthroughs, and converse away.

Isn't that a bit like showing up to book club only having read the Cliff's Notes?

RoutineMachine wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

Pro tip: If you're worried about keeping up with the conversation, don't delude yourself into thinking that you will play all the games. Read the spoilers, watch the YouTube walkthroughs, and converse away.

Isn't that a bit like showing up to book club only having read the Cliff's Notes? :-)

So... the major theme of this thread is... (flipping pages)... ... Man's... inhumanity to man?

misplacedbravado wrote:
RoutineMachine wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

Pro tip: If you're worried about keeping up with the conversation, don't delude yourself into thinking that you will play all the games. Read the spoilers, watch the YouTube walkthroughs, and converse away.

Isn't that a bit like showing up to book club only having read the Cliff's Notes? :-)

So... the major theme of this thread is... (flipping pages)... ... Man's... inhumanity to man?

It's better than throwing money away adding another game to the pile.

For me the best video-gaming experiences are characterized by flow. And as time - specifically quality, uninterrupted time - has become more scarce, I am less able to achieve a state of gaming flow, particularly for an experience that is requires sustained effort over a long period of time.

All of which is to say that I'm generally on Team Small too.

Montalban wrote:

Re-linking tanstaafl's link for the excellent timing.

tanstaafl wrote:

You're not alone, apparently

http://www.cnn.com/2011/TECH/gaming....

And after both this excellent front page article and the CNN article, I am still obliged to say: Cool it, guys. Developers are listening and producers are eager to hear that you want less content for the same damn price.

Can we all at least append a "for less money" to our guilty admissions that we want shorter games? But not one that's likely to ever pan out if it's true that the average gamer is continually getting older, busier, yet wealthier. Ah well.

Not less content but less filler. Does a game really need to be 40 hours of epic storytelling if 25 hours of it are filler? If a game can legitimately cram 40 hours of good story in without any filler and actually be well written I will stick with it to the end, not because I feel the need to justify the expenditure of either my money or the writers efforts but because I want to see how it works out.