Sticking With It: Why It's Getting Harder to Complete Games

I came across an interesting NeoGaf thread the other day about game length. Well, to be accurate it was a quote from a developer about gamers not finishing some lengthy story-based games and then a prediction that maybe gamers don’t have the patience for long games. I both agree and disagree!

The Mature Gamer

As I get older and my time gets sucked away by new things (owning a home, having a baby, trying to sell my book), I find myself losing patience with games quicker. I’m more than willing to see a game through to completion, in fact it’s kind of a pet peeve of mine to start a game and not finish it, but I’m finding it harder to do that. I don’t have time to sit around and grind a character for hours like I did when I was kid. Most gaming sessions for me last an hour, maybe two at the most. If I don’t feel like I can make some significant progress in that amount of time, I start to rethink my choice in game.

When I was in college I would scroll to the end of reviews to find out how long games were—the longer the better. Now it’s the opposite. If I scroll down and find out a game takes 20, 30 or 40 hours to beat, I start thinking about playing something else. Beating Dragon Age: Origins, a 50 hour game, earlier this summer was incredibly hard for me. You could spend 30 minutes just navigating inventory screens—that’s half my play time! I eventually switched the difficulty to easy and stopped looting all but the biggest bad guys.

But does “mature” gamer just refer to older people with busier lives? Last week on the Giant Bomb podcast someone wrote in and told them that they noticed a boy playing an arcade game at California Extreme with one hand while playing an iPhone game with another. The new generation of gamer was born into a world with iPhones, Facebook, text messaging and YouTube, where you can literally have 15 seconds of fame. My 10-year-old niece got bored the second that stupid fairy cat thing opened its mouth in Kinectimals. They’re used to more stimulation and more variety.

As easy as it is blame the old fogey gamer with more bills than time, they aren’t the only ones ditching games before the end credits roll. So perhaps it’s a cultural thing. The modern gamer just doesn’t have the attention span for lengthy games. Of course, it could be a problem with game design too.

Gaming Growing Pains

The game industry is still young when compared to other entertainment industries, and some parts of it are maturing faster than others. Visuals are nearing photo realism (see Battlefield 3) and developers are constantly pushing the boundaries of interactivity (motion based stuff, augmented reality). So why did I almost give up on Crysis 2, a competent and visually stunning first person shooter? Why was I shocked when I looked at my game completion time and saw that it only took me seven hours? Why did it feel more like 14? To me, that’s a design issue.

The first half of Cysis 2 is full of new suit abilities, sneaking around private military goons and watching New York crumble under an alien invasion. The second half of the game is about those things too, but it also contains some of the most grating audio I’ve ever heard. It’s hours of military dudes shouting military things.

“Get down!”
“This is Bravo Actual, we are taking fire!”
“Go! Go! Go!”

Is there some kind of stock audio library for this stuff? (Generic_Military_Yelling.wav!)When the game started it felt like a sci-fi action game with a touch of mystery. But a few hours in it starts to feel like a loud World War 2 game set in New York. You can’t even see the guys that are shouting—for some reason your mute protagonist needs an audio link to a far-off battle that he cannot respond to. I guess it’s supposed to immerse you in the chaos of a city under siege? The annoying audio combined with several “oh wait, we’re not done yet, one more mission please” plot developments made the game feel like it would never end.

On the other side of the story spectrum you have Uncharted 2, which is easily twice the length of Crysis 2, and yet it felt like I beat it in half the time. The narrative structure, characters and pacing held my attention and made me want to play more.

This is where the gameplay argument comes in. People will say that if a game plays well the story doesn’t really matter. That’s true of some games, especially puzzle or high-score focused games, but not in your big budget triple A titles like Crysis 2. Why? Because they try to rope you with a story, they made an effort and not succeeding in that effort is worse than if they didn’t try at all. It would be different if they said “here are some cool abilities, and here are some scenarios to use them in” and the game just warped you from level to level and let you play with the toys. For example, the Mario Galaxy games have stories, but the developers seem to know they don’t really matter. They don’t try to hook you with the story, but with the gameplay, and it’s obvious the game is structured around that strategy.

Mechanically you can see everything the gameplay has to offer in Crysis 2 within the first couple of hours. The same can be said of Uncharted 2. What keeps you going in most games is the way that “first two-hours” of gameplay fits in to the narrative. Is there a good reason for you to continue to do what you’ve already done in the first two hours? Not if the only thing I have to look forward to is more military dudes screaming random acronyms in my ear. Uncharted, Bioshock, Assassin’s Creed 2, they’re all lengthy games, but the stories and characters keep you going long after you’ve seen what the gameplay has to offer.

I didn’t link to the NeoGaf thread that inspired this post because it’s full of people complaining about how short games are and how unfair it is that they have the choice to spend their money on them. Most of the people there are missing the point. They’re still measuring the value of a game by the number of hours it takes to complete. I would have enjoyed Crysis 2 more if it was five hours instead of seven. Those extra couple of combat scenarios tacked on at the end didn’t add much value to me, in fact they made me want to quit playing. So I don’t think the answer is shorter games. I can squeeze more time out of my schedule and a youngster can put down his iPhone for the right game. But it’s not really fair to put all of the burden on the developers. So what is the answer? How do you keep a gamer on the couch?

I think the answer might involve progress. Next week, I’ll look at how measuring and communicating progress effectively can make even the lengthiest game feel like a quick, and often thrilling experience.