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The case for movie-length, narrative video games
The case for movie-length, narrative video games Exclusive
July 9, 2012 | By Eric Caoili




There's a generation of gamers that many developers and publishers have forgotten -- those players who first picked up their controllers 20 to 30 years ago, who no longer have the time or patience for today's epic, protracted RPGs or even 10-hour blockbusters, but who would still be interested in interactive, story-driven experiences.

At least that's the case argued by Ovosonico founder Massimo Guarini, who believes an entire generation of gamers has gone underserved by an industry that's stuck "trying to appeal to a specific demographic, the immortal 15 to 20-years-old demographic."

"[The gamers who were playing] Mario 20 years ago or Donkey Kong 30 years ago, they don't have the same amount of time anymore," he tells Gamasutra. "They have kids. They have jobs. They come home in the evening, they're tired, and they have to manage their lives in a totally different way than a 15 to 20-year-old kid.

"When you are in that situation, and when you sit down on the couch after dinner with your family, if you're given the choice between a movie and you know that's going to be over in two hours and that's it, or a game and you never know when the game is going to be finished and how much effort is going to be required from you, it's obvious. We're basically lazy, right, so you're going to choose the movie."

Social and mobile game developers offer an alternative with games that can be played for just minutes at a time, but Guarini says there are few options for those who want something in between those disparate experiences, who want a satisfying story-driven game they can consume in an afternoon.

That's why, after leaving Grasshopper Manufacture where he directed cult shooter Shadows of the Damned, he wants to now create a movie-length game at his new studio in Milan. His hope is to make something for that forgotten generation, for players with little free time and a preference for games about more than "trivial subjects like space marines."

This void of short narrative-focused titles is one we've seen filled by more and more independent developers lately, like Thatgamecompany's powerful Journey and Plastic's psychedelic PSN experiment Datura, but are gamers really clamoring for these condensed releases?

Portion control with digestible games

Though more short-format titles have released recently, there's still a stigma among many consumers that games need to hit a quota of hours to earn their money. And when a release fails to reach that arbitrary length requirement for an RPG or a narrative-based game, it's not common to see consumers and even the enthusiast press bemoan that perceived weakness.

"It still amazes me that some gamers are happy to explicitly say they don't care about the quality of a game, it's only the dollar-per-hour cost that defines value for them," says Dan Pinchbeck, who was the creative director on Thechineseroom's critically acclaimed two-hour-long PC title Dear Esther.

"I find that completely extraordinary. It's like going for a meal and basing whether it's any good on how much food you get served rather than whether it tastes nice. I don't see shoveling crap into myself as good value on the basis that there's a lot of it."


Trailer for Dear Esther

Pinchbeck isn't alone in the quantity versus quality debate when it comes to game length -- Gary Whitta, movie screenwriter (The Book of Eli) and story consultant on Telltale's excellent episodic game The Walking Dead, complains that most of the content in mega-sized games is filler.

He also champions the idea of creating short "digestible" experiences that won't scare away gamers with limited leisure time. "If you put a kind of massive, massive man versus food plate in front of me, that to me like is Skyrim," says Whitta, continuing the food analogy. "I'm like, 'Oh my god. How am I going to get all the way through this?' What I'm looking for is just a nice plate of food. Just the right portion."

"That's a nice way to look at it, kind of portion control in gaming -- just finding that right amount of food on your plate where you feel like you've had just enough, where you feel full, you feel satisfied. You don't have that experience where you're like, 'Oh my god. Just because I needed to clear that plate, I ended up feeling kind of sick with how much I ate.'"

Changing expectations and price points

While it's unclear yet if a class of gamers waiting for short format titles actually exists, the growing popularity and acceptance by consumers of digital distribution across consoles, PCs, and smartphones could help developers overcome this stigma short games have suffered over the years.

Because downloadable titles tend to be smaller games -- due to tighter budgets, a platform's file size limitation for downloads versus discs, or various other factors -- many users have different expectations for those releases, and can be more receptive to compact experiences.


Ovosonico's Massimo Guarini
Guarini thinks the pricing for games on these download platforms is also going a long way in acclimating users to shorter but cheaper games. He comments, "You can actually lower the price since you don't have the cost of goods, which is basically what brings the price up when you go retail. If you sell a two-hour game for $60, it's not going to work obviously."

"You need to be competitive with similar forms of entertainment," the Ovosonico head adds. "Like movies on Blu-ray, it's like, what, $15, $20? So, that's about the price range that it's worth, I think, for a two-hour game format." (That's a bit more expensive than Dear Esther, which sells for $10, or the $5 episodes of Walking Dead, though it's in line with Journey's pricing.)

Asking consumers to pay that much for a short game, though, can put more pressure on developers to deliver a game that's engaging all the way through. "I think maybe for some people it feels like more of a risk to pay less for a shorter game," notes Pinchbeck. "If you pay $60 for a 40-hour game, it's likely that at least some of those 40 hours will be good. If you are paying $10 for three hours, all three hours have got to be brilliant."

At the same time, there's a danger in discounting games too much just because they're shorter, devaluing them to the point where consumers believe that their time in a game is only worth $1 an hour -- you might end up with games that only put in $1 per hour's worth of effort.

"Games like Dear Esther require a heavy investment in assets to get the production quality up," says Pinchbeck. "If we were limited to an App Store price-point for the game, there's no way we'd have invested in next-gen visuals. It's the normal contract - we want you to invest in our innovation, and we have to supply an experience that supports that investment. If you only want to invest peanuts, you can't complain if developers design to that budget."

Big publishers lacking confidence

If there's a potential audience for short story-driven games, and if there's a system in place that makes it possible for those kind of titles to reach consumers, why aren't more major publishers trying out this format? Where are the movie-style game releases from companies like Electronic Arts and Activision that offer an interactive alternative to blockbuster summer films?

Guarini believes many game makers are just too scared to try anything new, to make games that are more condensed than the titles they typically create, and offer a cinematic experience with a narrative that's more than just shooting bad guys within that framework.

"We actually don't have much confidence in what we do," he says. "Especially publishers, they don't have much confidence in being able to come up with different subjects in video games. We're a relatively young industry at this point. We're nothing like movies at this point in terms of business and in terms of like, I would say, level of maturity in that sense.

"So, there's a sense of resignation that we're all constrained with [thinking] basically, 'Okay, that's what has worked up to this point. That's what we're going to do because that's what sells."

Pinchbeck points out that it's also expensive for bigger companies to develop new and unproven IPs, and there's the prohibitive cost of tools to consider, too. "If you are going to invest a lot in that, you need to justify that development with a price-point, and to achieve that, you need to increase the scale of the game to justify that price-point."

Short-format games are all about pacing

For those developers that decide to create story-driven, movie-length games, there are a number of changes with this different approach they must take into consideration, the obvious being that the production cycle and development time will be much shorter compared to working on traditional projects.

There's also a greater emphasis on pacing and density when designing these titles -- players must feel like every minute they spend with these games offers something fun or interesting or engaging for them to experience. Again, there's little room for filler when players are spending more per hour on a short-format game than they would on a $60 40-hour title.

Screenwriter Whitta says that the film industry learned a long time ago to not worry about length and just focus on the pacing of the experience. Though people seem to have opposite expectations with the two mediums, where they tend to be put off by three-hour films but look for games that can take them weeks to finish, pacing and density make all the difference when it comes to whether they enjoy movies regardless of their length.


Telltale's The Walking Dead

Game makers that manage to master pacing in a film-style title, keeping players absorbed all the way to the end, can also enjoy a reward most directors behind today's triple-A releases don't get: the satisfaction of knowing their audience is more likely to experience their entire production as it was intended (without interruptions) and appreciate what they tried to accomplish with their story.

Freedom to experiment

With their smaller budgets and shortened production cycles, narrative-focused, movie-length games can offer developers more opportunities to experiment with their titles. It's not only a chance to introduce an original IP, they can try new ways of telling interactive stories, and find excuses to produce content completely different from the usual stuff they've likely grown used to making for many, many years.

For Guarini, who's waiting until later this year to reveal what Ovosonico's first cinematic game will be, short-format games also allows his studio to try out an unconventional way of structuring his team -- along with making film-style games, he's trying out the movie studio approach of having a small creative team, and hiring around that group for specific projects instead of keeping a complete crew around permanently.

"I think the secret will be having this creative core that is basically the director, the producer, [etcetera] in-house," he explains. "That's particularly for these kind of short games that are a little bit more targeted to specific audiences. That means that you can be a little more personal in what you say in the game, a little more niche if you want of course."

Guarini says it's still too early to tell how this experiment will play out, but like story-driven, short-format games, it's a model he predicts we'll see a lot more of in the future from indie teams.


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Comments


Jordan Carr
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I loved the article, and I don't want to dispute the body of it, but I do take issue with the opening premise of the article, namely that adult gamers "don't have time" for long story based games.

I think sales of games like Skyrim make a plenty convincing argument that plenty of adult gamers are willing to dump 50+ hours into a game. Fallout, Elder Scrolls, Dragon Quest and many other long RPGs still sell quite well.

Lukas Arvidsson
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I think he is spot on. Of course there are many adult gamers willing to put 50h of gaming into skyrim. But there are probably 100 times as many adults who would never dream of doing so. If te industry would like to charm and expand to these people it would have to be on their terms. I think the presicataility is a big part of that. People are appearantly finding a need for knowing exactly to the minute of how long their movie are going to be. What is the gaming equivalent?

John Flush
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Or there are a lot of people like me that bought it thinking they could relive their childhood by buying these games. Instead we played for a few hours and put it down realizing we just can't find enough time to play an epic like these anymore. Yet we buy them again and again.

E Zachary Knight
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If I bought Skyrim and played it in what little gaming time I have right now, it would probably take me a year or more to complete. So no Skyrim for me.

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Sylvester O'Connor
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I actually have to be honest and say that I fall into that mold of being an adult gamer with a very small amount of time. I pretty much play on weekends only with the kids and then another side business that my wife has aside from my day job. But here is my dilemma though. I love large games as I also don't have the money to buy games when they first come out. By the time I actually finish some of these long games, Western RPG's in particular, other games are dramatically decreased in price. Matter of fact, I know how shameful it might sound but I just finished Arkham Asylum.

But my thing is that I don't like games that don't allow you to save anywhere. Arkham Asylum and Assassin's Creed 2 are perfect examples of this. This is why I like games like Oblivion and Fallout. WIth that save anytime feature, it allows me to play for 20 to 30 minutes during the week sometimes and stop as opposed to those games that claim that they save at certain points. There were times where I was actually afraid to stop playing AC2 because I was unsure if I had really passed a save point because it wasn't a major story arc.

But I do appreciate long games as I love being immersed in these worlds. And although not having enough time to play, games that don't have save anytime features really throw a monkey wrench in my game times. Bare in mind, I understand that not all games can include this feature, but it helps especially for people that have limited time in how much they can game.

Ole Berg Leren
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Where does Mount & Blade: Warband fit into all of this? I mean, there's no real storyline to follow, so there's no definite ending, so it follows that there's no set time-frame. You make your own story as you go along, training your troops, rooting out bandit-lairs, maybe try to overthrow the ruler of a kingdom and start conquering neighbouring nations. Sure, there are quests to be found in the major cities from guildmasters, but they're mostly just kill-quests and often extremely tedious (to me, at least).

My point is, if there's no "main story" to finish, like in Skyrim, a mature (or any) gamer wouldn't feel the same pressure to finish the game. There would only be the journey, and it is yours to continue or stop at any time.


I also loved the saving option in Warband. One was "realistic": only one save-file, which the auto-save overwrote, so you had no control over it and could not reload if something unforeseen happened. But it auto-saved very often, so there was no risk of losing much progress if your computer suddenly folded. You could also save the game at any time yourself.

The other one was a more standard approach, where you could create different saves and load them at your leisure (Afaik. Never did play the game with this one).

edit: typos

David Serrano
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@E Zachary Knight

That's looking at it from a completionist point of view lol. What I loved about Skyrim is the main story is only a small part of the game. So you can spend as much, or as little time as you'd like exploring the world (which is huge), crafting, dungeon crawling, leveling up character and gear, side quests, etc... and there are no time requirements or limits on doing so. All of these diversions were IMHO... more compelling than the main story.

J Spartan
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I was that gamer playing pong at a young age, donkey kong in the arcade, beachhead on the C64, Speedball II on the Amiga etc.

One reason i buy less games these days is precisely because the modern AAA title aims to hit about 10 hours in the sp game. There has been a shift to this over recent years in most genre's, not all obviously (skyrimm for example). Even generous expansion packs have now been relegated to less generous DLC.

So i agree with Jordan Carr, as the demographic the article is talking about, don't worry about making game length as short as a movie, just make the game a good one. That is all i want as a life long gamer. I can always save my game right? No need to finish it in one sitting on my lunch hour between a busy work schedule. You will give me the option to save my game right?

The sad thing is that when i read articles like this (and i have no issue with devs trying to reach different market segments, as indie games do, as facebook and casual games do etc), all i hear is the money talking.

In this case this arguement often sounds like, "Lets make smaller shorter games that will cost us less money, charge about the same, then we can make more of them over a year and make much larger profits, now how to convince gamers they want that?"

um no thanks, i did all that kind of gaming back on donkey kong at 20 cents a shot (for 5 mins a go):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donkey_Kong_%28video_game%29

Or during beach head (which i could never finish, it being hard like many 8bit games were designed to be):

http://www.mobygames.com/game/beach-head

I like to think games have evolved from those days, speaking as a gamer from that time frame.

What i like now is mature, deep, interesting games, because i've matured also. If you also give me lots of content and over 15 hours of sp gaming, modding ability too, then i'll be playing your game for a good while and giving it good word of mouth all around the place.

The more you 'nickle and dime' me, the less of your product i end up buying.

And seriously i can save my game. You don't need to limit my time, i can do that myself, i'm a grown adult. I can organise my life. I have more time and paitence now i'm not a child anymore, weird that.

Edit: one last thing. Games are not movies; discuss.

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Kelly Kleider
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Two words:

Super Nashwan

Ian Uniacke
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", as the demographic the article is talking about" No, you are NOT a demographic, you are a single person. A demographic is a number of people sharing a similar profile.

Joshua Sterns
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Com 64 was a hell of a mistress. Could count the number of completed games on one hand.

Personally never made it past the second stage of beachhead.

David Navarro
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I don't understand the premise behind the article at all: when I don't have much time to read, I read in shorter spells, I don't demand shorter books.

Andrew Dobbs
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It's hard to invest money in a 40-hour game if you know you only have a couple hours two or three times a week to play. Those breaks disrupt the experience in a narrative-driven game.

It's not as easy to just pick up and play most games after a week break as it is to pick up a book. All you need to do with a book is flip back a few pages.

Sean Kiley
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While I would like to see more short games, I think David has a great point. If you could break these longer games into 2-3 hour "chapters", I think it would allow gamers to manage their time.

And I'm not talking about "lets group three levels together and call it a chapter". You should have some sort of narrative that concludes or leads to a cliffhanger or something.

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Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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@Sean @Andrew

Like Alan Wake did?

The chapters were essentially TV episodes with every chapter starting with a recap of the last.

Adam Bishop
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And yet if you *did* want to read "shorter books" you could find a magazine or an essay or a short story or a journal article or a newspaper . . .

Sean Maples
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Yeah I agree with David. I can't understand this at all.

I don't sit down to watch Game of Thrones and think, "Well if I can't see all of Season 1 and Season 2 by Sunday, then it's a waste!" No I watch a couple episodes and come back to it later.

I've been replaying Mass Effect 3. When I stopped last night I wasn't upset because I didn't get to the new ending, I was grinning because I really enjoyed that 2 hours of it I played.

I don't need to finish a game in one sitting to enjoy it.

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Sean Maples
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@Dave Smith, What game do you see as being the perfect example of content quota driven length?

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Leonardo Ferreira
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@Sean The first Assassins Creed is an excellent example of this; good "main" missions with good dialogue and setipieces, and the rest was offensively repetitous filler

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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@Leonardo

And it got deservedly trashed for it on many review-sites.

Its one thing to argue for proper pacing and competent content-spacing and another to argue that Assassins Creed should have been shorter.

AC2 learned its lesson and delivered a tighter, focused and enjoyable experience and it wasn't any shorter than AC.

In essence the argument shouldn't be "we need games that are shorter" its "we need games without filler".

Sylvester O'Connor
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Love the discussions.

@Aleksander. I actually disagree with AC2. They reworked the filler content with looking for Codex pages. The first time that I played through the game, I stuck with the main missions and did nothing else. It wasn't until right before you head to Rome when they told me I needed to find Codex pages in which I was missing about 16 of them. And in doing main missions, you don't always have to use Viewpoints. I quit a couple of times until I read online that I pretty have to go through at least 45-50 of the 66 Viewpoints to find the Codex pages.

@Sean. I totally agree with you with your analogy of games to tv shows and full seasons.

I also wanted to say that I agree with Dan in the fact that if you don't like lengthy games, there are games that have short campaigns for you to swallow. That is what the Call of Duty and Singularity games are for. Short 5 to 6 hour stories for you to get through and get something else.

Before I go, one more thing. I also think that our consumption is overwhelming. I think that last year alone, there were some really good games coming out in a span of 2 to 3 weeks whether on disc or by download. With people having crazy schedules, and, with reading about all these great games that just keep getting pumped out, of course it would seem that too many games are long and that shorter experiences should be more commonplace. I don't mean to offend anyone either, but I have heard this argument before. Bottom line is that I am a fan of long games. I feel that if I am going to spend the money, I want to enjoy my experience with the game. Just like Sean said about shows, I can squeeze sometimes 2-3 episodes of Burn Notice into one night. It's the same for me with a great game and I have been in love with some really good RPG's lately. Again, finishing a game in 1 or 2 playthroughs doesn't justify a $60 purchase for me.

James Hofmann
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Destructured media has been the trend for a while, but I think narrative driven games tend to be ultra-structured, not destructured.

E McNeill
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I'm definitely interested in getting shorter games that I can finish in an evening. Journey and Dear Esther were perfect for me in this regard. Hell, I'd pay a premium to get a game that can be succinct like that. I've got an enormous queue of media that I'd like to experience some day, and I really don't like when one game demands more time than it's worth.

I equally appreciate games that are flexible. Skyrim was huge, but it was so nonlinear and so obviously sprawling that I never felt like it required me to finish everything in order to get the real Skyrim experience. I could go through the quest lines that intrigued me and set it down, satisfied that I had gotten my fill.

Megan Swaine
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One of my favourite games of all time is, and always will be, Full Throttle. It's very linear, and it's not extraordinarily long, but it's funny, dramatic and totally badass. I've played it as many times as I've seen some of my favourite films. It's a satisfying way to kill an afternoon. :)

Alex Nichiporchik
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The article is spot-on.

I'm playing Kingdom Rush because it's easy and fast. I know I'll spent about 20 minutes per session, it fires up quickly and it's easy on my day-job drained brain.

Recently tried getting back into Starcraft 2. Wow. First evening was spent on downloading/settingup/patching.

Second evening - redownloading and repatching, because I initially downloaded the US version which didn't work with my cd-key.

Third evening - I got to play. And I lost, multiple times. Because I can't focus anymore with stuff going on around me (family, you know).

Mind you, 5 years ago I played Warcraft 3 professionally and ranked top3 in the region.

Instead, I end up playing a flash or iPad tower defense game called Kingdom Rush. And spent in it more time this year than Skyrim.

The article is absolutely spot on. We have no time anymore to get in on these full hardcore experiences. We get bored, destracted, unfocused. We need to feel accomplished with our games, to relive the feeling of childhood -- but in a different, smaller, more casual way (yes, I said it - I like more casual games).

This is why games with very simple core mechanics and a deeper system under them perform very well. Simple to understand, hard to master.

Jacob Germany
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So your problem wasn't a lack of time? So, you really aren't agreeing with the article?

Because the article wasn't talking about, from what I could tell, short, simple gameplay sessions in a game you devote more time towards than Skyrim. So, aren't you making a different point?

Eric Geer
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I would LOVE shorter games. Lot's of times I find that there are so many 10-40 hour games coming out that there is no time to play 1 let alone all of them. If there were more 2-4 hour games I would find myself more compelled to play the games fully and completely.

Lately I've found myself playing games for up to 4 hours, and then get sidetracked by real life and then more than likely moving on.

I really like the episodic structure of the recent Walking Dead games. I think it provides a flexible business model for devs/publishers, while also providing a structured, popcorn style gaming experience for the customers.

J L
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As the target demographic, kids and all, I heartily approve of this! I've felt for a long time that short, high intensity games could find success with a certain segment of the gaming population, and not just moms and dads. As long as they are high quality, and fairly priced, why wouldn't games like this find an audience? Clearly many people favor quantity over quality, or perhaps demand quantity and quality, but certainly not everybody. It's difficult to find the time to finish a game under normal circumstances, particularly when I only have an hour or two of free time every few weeks. Sure I could save and come back to it, but the sense of urgency is gone. A high quality game I could complete in one sitting, straight through, sounds like heaven to this gamer! And imagine how nice developing a game like that could be?

Rafael Vazquez
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Here's hoping more developers take the plunge into movie-length experiences. I've got a huge stack of interesting and unfinished games that I simply can't find time to play. Between study and work and life, there's just no time to really get into 80 hour epic games. And I'm single! can't imagine how it will be even less time with a wife and kids.

There will always be a place for large epic games.....some stories merit it; and I'll be sure to do my best to play the most out of them. But I do get the feeling that as responsabilities grow and free time shrinks, I'll be less and less able to fully experience these games.

John Flush
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I really like the quick "weekend games" I play these days. Something that I can finish up in a couple of 2-3 hour sessions - and that is if I have a very light weekend of everything else I'm suppose to do. The concern I have with the article though is the thought that they need to be around the same price points because of the investment that needs to go into them. I just got done playing through Clear Vision on the iPad, again, and I can tell you that stick figures were good enough graphics for the material. On the opposite side I played Dear Esther and the graphics were horribly over done for the amount of content in it - I would have much rather had a "sprint" key than those fancy graphics when it came down to it.

I also think there is a way to mesh both together. I know most people think Metroid: Other M was a failure on all accounts, but after I played through it and beat it I actually had my wife watch the theater mode with me - my kids also love to relive the game in such a way. This mode could have been put together a bit better with less holes in the story, but it was a great way to make a game appeal to both groups of people.

Kenneth Blaney
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A resurgence of the idea of episodic games which died in every development studio except Tell Tale a few years back? I think the major problem that devs run into with episodic content is getting a sense of scale. Half Life 2 Episodes, for instance, still had a movie like narrative instead of a more serialized attitude more reminiscent of a TV show (which again Tell Tale hit on the head with Sam and Max).

However, a genre that is set up very well for episodic content is the MMO due to its subscription service. Although they do have periodic updates to content, the big complaint is that there is no way to go back and "rewatch" earlier episodes. Finding a solution to this, I think, isn't too hard. Depending on the nature of the fiction, create a narrative element that allows players to rewrite history and then give them a sort of max reward for that area. Consider a structure like this:

There are 5 "realms" in a game with a level cap of 50 each in groups of 10. That is, the first area caps at level 10, the second caps at 20 and so on. Each realm then has a set list of core quests upon finishing unlocks a travel mechanism to the next realm, but also a number of side quests. Then, you current level is the sum total of your XP in the current realm and all preceding realms. Each realm has a set amount of XP I can earn by beating all the quests. A possible situation is as such... I beat the 3rd realm at level 25. However, I can't just grind the last 5 levels out in the 3rd realm, because 3 of the levels I missed were in the 1st realm, so I have to go back there and go back to using my level 7 equipment where I can replay quests to get a better score, finish off side quests, help friends who just started the game, etc...

More episodes can be added and the level cap increased without unbalancing the game too much pretty easily in this system as well.

Luis Guimaraes
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Most single player games only hook me for about 3 hours. While multiplayer, survival and shorter games (Metal Slug) can be played in short 10 min. bursts anytime and repeated over and over because they're worth the time... Please bring that game already.

E Zachary Knight
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As part of the target demographic, I am happy to see more developers looking to fill my gaming needs. I have a stack of 20 or so 10-20+ hour games that I just can't seem to find the time to play anymore. However, I have bought and played through a number of the Humble Bundle games because they were short.

Just recently, I played and beat Bastion in a week in my normal gaming time. I was quite happy with the experience. I would love more games like that.

Price is another factor in my decisions too. I rarely if ever buy games at launch anymore. I tend to wait a year or more to get it because the games are far cheaper then. Give me a good $20 or below game that will give me 5 hours or so of quality game time and I am happy. If i can replay it and still enjoy it, then more power to you.

Eric Geer
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"I have a stack of 20 or so 10-20+ hour games that I just can't seem to find the time to play anymore. "

Reminded me of a quote or story about Warren Spector talking about how he plays LOTs of games, but only devoting around 2 hours per game, unless it is really special.

It kind of reminds me of myself.

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Eric Geer
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I think it's because the business model norm is to charge $60 for a game and they can't seem to step away from that. Rather than cutting the price and making the appropriate amount of content, they end up shoehorning more content into the games so that it will have X amount of playtime that will make the $60 price point valid.

Ian Uniacke
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Well it's not that simple. It's not like if it costs 20 million dollars to make 12 hours of content it costs 10 million dollars to make 6 hours of content. There are fixed costs (even if you're using middleware) and you need to find the sweet spot where the (sales x price) = (fixed cost + variable cost). Obviously over the years it has worked out to price equalling 60 dollars.

Nick Harris
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Spiral is £9.99 for the whole of Series 1 on the iTunes Store, that's 8 gripping episodes of the French police drama, but each is invidually downloadable for a mere £1.89 so you can try out the opening episode if you have doubts about reading subtitles. So, why aren't more games sold episodically? Mirror's Edge is already split into 9 chapters, so EA could charge £3.00 per chapter on the Xbox LIVE Marketplace and still make more than it is currently being sold for on Amazon. Too low? Well, is there any reason not to Rent episodes in the same way that Sky Box Office does Movies. Here you pay roughly £4 to acquire a Movie, which you can then start watching as many times as you like for a 24-hour period within a space of a week of getting it. This is made to be convenient. You shouldn't feel overly cautious about renting a Movie because there is a possibility you may be invited out to a party that evening, no money will be lost on some time-limited rental you weren't around to watch - you have a whole week to find another occasion to see it and don't have to complete it in one sitting even then as you can watch the remainder the next day. If your narrative game lacks Multiplayer what does it matter if you only get one successful playthrough over the course of an evening (24-hour limit), or over the course of a long weekend (72-hour limit). Obviously, at this point you should get a "Continue?" notice if you haven't already finished with the ability to extend the period with an extra payment for another 24-hours. You should also always own your save file even when renting the game, so that you can pay to pick up from where you left off by renting the last episode you played again even on another person's machine:

http://support.xbox.com/en-GB/xbox-live/game-saves-in-the-cloud/c
loud-save-games

However, it is rather irritating that we can pause a Movie / TV Show / Song to switch to another activity, or simply to turn our consoles off, but we have to reach specific in-game checkpoints / complete objectives / defeat bosses in order to gain permission to leave. As an entertainment medium this sucks. Those games that allow us to save anywhere don't get it right either as this action both breaks the pace and can be abused in order for our avatar to never have to face the interesting consequences of their failures, every game becomes a role-play where we are not so much taking the role of Jason Bourne, but Matt Damon (and his stuntmen). If Doom can only be completed with the aid of Quicksave then that must surely be a sign that it is too flipping hard. What is needed is for all of your media to operate consistently, your next console needs to become a "Multimedia Jukebox". Why is it that Apple's iOS is apparently alone in allowing this?

Another thing that would help (and is often seen in TV episodes), is a "recap on resumption": in effect a Game could be paused, a previously paused Movie resumed and completed, the console switched off, then back on the next day and the previously paused Game selected (if still within its Rental window), from a list of recent items and on resumption you would get a cut-scene assembled together from your previous actions rendered using the game engine from data captured on your last playthrough (in the manner of the Halo 3 Theatre), to help jog your memory as to the main dramatis personae, salient plot points and completed objectives leading up to a sequence of continuous action, your action, which you took control over after a countdown had elapsed (in the manner of a "rolling start" in some racing games). Maybe you would be able to control where you were looking whilst your movement remained "on rails" in order to aid your "situational awareness", the whole idea would be to avoid "throwing you in at the deep end" with no notion of what you had to do (you'd forgotten), what characters were friendlies (NPCs aren't often that memorable, unfortunately), the location of resources, topography and health of your avatar (on which basis you could determine how much you were prepared to risk for any percieved reward). Also, Nintendo's idea of having the game take over the controls to circumvent a difficult boss, baffling puzzle, etc. has to be considered for time-limited rentals. All those people who liked Metal Gear Solid 4's lengthy cut-scenes (apparently one is over 90 minutes!), may want to eat their TV dinner whilst the game needs playing, so why not provide a feature that allows the drama to unfold "on automatic" until they are ready to pick things up. Again, convenience is the key here.

However, narratives need not end. Once you have an engine why not continuously add episodes with groups of characters getting mini-narratives that are offset so that they all peak at different times. If you don't have to stay as the same character for your entire game experience (as has been tried successfully in Call of Duty 4), then your empathy and curiosity can be continually stimulated so that you are manipulated into always having to know what happens next. This technique is commonly used in Soap Opera. In the United Kingdom a great many people are "addicted" to a Soap Opera set in a square in a fictional borough of London. This half-hour TV show called "EastEnders" is on three times a week. Just think how little you would need to charge per rental episode of an equivalently structured game to cover the costs of production. Initially, you would need to make the set for "Albert Square" including interiors, props, model the large cast of actors and come up with a theme tune. Subsequently, all your running costs come down to employing only those voice actors in each episode with synchronous motion capture and the people writing their dialogue. Note that my point here is not to say that it would be a good idea to make an interactive "EastEnders" (it wouldn't, mainly because player freedom would be highly restricted in the manner of, say: "Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Conspiracy" video game where you effectively take Matt Damon's role, although the avatar doesn't look like him and endeavour to conform to a script of an interactive movie you haven't been allowed to read in advance through a painful process of trial and error), only to suggest that cultivating an audience that will rent inexpensive episodes of a multi-stranded multi-character never-ending narrative on at least a fortnightly basis (certainly not the interval with episodes in Valve's Half Life series).

I have to say I'm ambivalent about the subscription model. Many may play World of Warcraft and EVE Online, but they seem to be a costly, exclusive, anti-social commitment. Yes, there is a social aspect inside the game worlds, but having to justify their continuous expense whether you play them or not tends to encourage their communities to spend unhealthy amounts of time "indoors". Perhaps, I'm being unfair here... parroting some biased stereotype without the benefit of direct personal experience. However, I have wondered if the next-gen consoles could support MMOs. Whether the Xbox 1080 (or "Infinity", or whatever else Microsoft decide to call it), supported a really quite expensive Xbox LIVE Platinum account that would allow you to play any MMOs you had downloaded and then divide up the income (minus the cost of a monthly Gold membership), between only those MMOs you had spent significant time in (say, over an hour in any given month), proportionately - according to how much they had "managed to hold your attention" time-wise. Of course, with this there would be no rebates if you went on a long holiday and weren't around to take advantage of your "implicit multi-subscription".

Full-price games will have to react to this threat by offering better value. Campaigns shouldn't really end. You should be able to be Jason Bourne and not Matt Damon, travelling the world on complex adventures based on generative narratives and emergent gameplay that depends upon procedurally-generated content. The script, such that it exists at all, should be broken into a myriad of often redundant fragments that are triggered by context and circumstance. The machinations of many "off-stage" AI driven NPCs may only be felt through the actions of their unreliable, self-serving, henchmen. A web of trust can be subverted by infiltrators, intelligence can be erroneous, strategies "thought up" by these main characters become a source of friction to the plans of their rivals and an eventual seed for dramatic conflicts. Much of the "art" of the game comes from crafting the experience so that these elements remain in balance (you desire the appearance of "life", but want the player to become the protagonist not a bystander to apocalyptic events that they had no hand in starting). It may be possible, in the future, to have a game system regularly reassert the underlying theme by "shaping events": the game would select a pattern of AI tweaks (i.e. stimulants / inhibitors), that would lead from the recognised current state of affairs to the whatever state of affairs was desired for thematic coherence. The actual "story" would be the coincidental product of resolving a great many unknown variables, the player's actions being one of them. Of course, none of this could work if the player wasn't incentivised by a meta-game in which they were rewarded with "Kudos" for how well their performance conformed to the character they were role-playing. One particular theme may require a character's heroic sacrifice (a sequence that depends on the player's actions being "funnelled" into ever more in-game responsibilities and trust, usually by cultivating empathy with a positive NPC, so it becomes desirable for them to take greater and greater risks on "someone else's" behalf). These Kudos points may be needed to unlock other characters for subsequent replays, or continuations, such as the doomed villian whose character arc represents a "Faustian bargain". £40+ really will need justification if the game lacks a popular multiplayer mode - and the problem there is that the market of consumers is only finite, so each new game hoping to sell itself on the basis of a multiplayer mode (and not be traded-in back at the store it was bought after its short campaign was thrashed in a weekend), subdivides the "pie" until there simply aren't enough players to populate a match and the runners-up get branded "ghost towns".

Travis Flynn
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The problem I have with these articles is I don't think there's very much support for the argument that shorter games would increase their value to a specific demographic.

This seems like an absurdity, because we don't talk about it with movies, or books. No one ever says "Now that I'm an adult I don't have time to read all those long books like I used to when I was younger, I prefer to read magazine articles primarily." In fact there's almost something farcical about someone who would say they don't have time for longer books as they get older. Why should it be any different with games?

The problems games face is that the length is typically dragged out with filler content, rather than compelling gameplay. And that is something no-one should have the "time" to waste playing through.

Games, like books, lend them selves to bite-sized play. There's nothing saying you have to sit down and play for 5-10 hours straight. Just like there's no rule that one must read 100 pages per sitting. Developers should be mindful of time constraints, and ensure that 30 minute to 1 hour chunks of gameplay always feel rewarding and compelling, which is something they aren't always doing. Sitting down in Fallout 3 for 30 minutes, walking from one town to another and shooting a few guys on the way isn't exactly a compelling way to spend 30 minutes. That's what needs to be fixed first, rather than just trying to shrink games.

Aside from all of that, while costs are discussed it seems the overlooked part is how much length of the game contributes to cost of development. If lowering the pricepoint is a serious issue, the development cost of lengthening the game should be taken into account.

Adam Bishop
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'No one ever says "Now that I'm an adult I don't have time to read all those long books like I used to when I was younger, I prefer to read magazine articles primarily." '

You know very different people than me then, because I know plenty of people who say that kind of thing (including myself).

Ara Shirinian
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Adam, maybe you can explain your position then, considering there are plenty of games and books of arbitrary length that can be left off after a short session and picked back up anytime later?

Adam Bishop
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Sure, I could literally read a book in half hour increments for as long as it takes me to finish it. How long would it take to read War and Peace if you approached it that way? Or The Brothers Karamazov? Or Guns, Germs, and Steel? When I was a university student I could read those kinds of books because I could read them for hours a day, and even at that pace those books took me a month to read. If you don't have hours a day to read a book (or if literally have the time, but have other interests/hobbies) then the idea of trying to read something like The Republic is more or less out of the question because I'm not interested in only reading one thing for 4 months. Yes, I literally *could* read that way, but I find it extremely unappealing because I want to experience more than just two or three books a year.

That doesn't mean that I can't read shorter books like High Fidelity or Moneyball, and I do read those kinds of books still, but they're not the same thing as War and Peace. And even though I can read those kinds of books, I read a lot less of them than I did when I was younger. When I was 20 I found those kinds of books to be short - now I appreciate their brevity because they allow me to fit a broader array of experiences into my life.

The same is true with games. I didn't mind putting 80 hours into Final Fantasy X, unlocking super weapons and hidden bosses and so forth when I could spend my whole Christmas vacation playing a game. But I don't have time for that any more unless I only want to play 2-3 games a year. So again, yes, I literally *could* play those games, but the amount of real world time it would take to get through them makes the idea considerably less appealing than it used to be. If I could play Skyrim and nothing but Skyrim for several months or I could play 10-15 five hour games, generally speaking I'd rather play 10-15 five hour games because I'm getting a much broader set of experiences.

Sylvester O'Connor
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Okay. That is the major argument right there. It is about preference. Let's not get sidetracked by numbers and demographics. The beauty about games/books/movies/etc. is that there is something for everyone.

Neither of you are incorrect. I don't know anyone that has this kind of argument. The people that I do know are genre specific. I know a guy that loves shooters and has trouble playing anything else. But he can't play 3rd person shooters. He's never played Dead Space, SC Conviction, or Uncharted because he doesn't like the fact that you see those characters shoot. He likes 1st person shooters because he feels like he can be more immersed. That also defines his view of what a shooter should be which opens up this debate to many other things.

My thing is if you are taken by the media machine and the impulse that you have to play multiple games a year, then fine. Buy games with shorter times and enjoy. I actually stand on the opposite end and can play one game until it is done. I loved Oblivion and to this very day, although I have beaten the main quest, and played through Knights of the Nine, I have yet to tackle the Shivering Isles. I have also been playing with the same character that I originally played as. For me it is like a character in a book and I get to tell their story. Now I am not saying that makes me better or anything so I hope that is not how it sounds. But it is to say that there is something for everyone. I don't knock COD games because I know I can finish it in a weekend and move on. Then I jump to my RPG's and take my time and absorb them. I will admit that I played Oblivion for like half a year. But I enjoyed every minute of it like it was a tv Season. I have since taken a break to play other things but I will go back and finish. Just had to mention it there because these kinds of arguments will always be split. It is about preference. And yes some prefer shorter experiences that hit that mark with narrative and control. Others like sandbox worlds to get lost in and rediscover it every time they play with something that was hidden before. We are all gamers after all. Enjoy what you like!

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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""When you are in that situation, and when you sit down on the couch after dinner with your family, if you're given the choice between a movie and you know that's going to be over in two hours and that's it, or a game and you never know when the game is going to be finished and how much effort is going to be required from you, it's obvious. We're basically lazy, right, so you're going to choose the movie.""

If this philosophy is true for most adults, (which i believe its not) there is nothing we can do for you.
If you are lazy, you will always choose the movie, because a movie/tv series is a passive affair that requires little to no input.

Games rely on gameplay (doing things), its inherently going to clash with your laziness.

People tried episodic gaming before.
Its true.
Half Life 2 episodes for example were ~4 hours in length (~ Lord of The Rings Two Towers Extended Cut)
We didn't see people suddenly jumping on this like it was the second coming, and the games weren't bad at all.

Adventure games particularly have been doing this for ages.
A relatively experienced adventure player can finish games like The Blackwell Legacy in under two hours(double that for players without an adventure-game background).

I think Mr. Guarini overestimates the need for his "revolutionary" concept.

Core players will still want to have fully fledged games with depth, in both narrative and gameplay, while your "adults" will play angry birds and farmville if they can't muster the time for Skyrim.

I would even wager to suggest, the demographic of tired, lazy adults are completely not interested in your concept.
They will watch a movie instead.

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Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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@Dave

Why do you feel the need to finish a game in a weekend?

Most games nowadays are designed to please the 1-2 hour gamer-session.
Examples:
Mass Effect missions take around half an hour to an hour of game-time.
CoD "levels" are around 30 mins
Hell, even MMOs actually figured this out.
Star Trek Online calls its missions "episodes" and mission-stacks "seasons" like on TV. An episode takes around 30 minutes - 1 hour to complete.

I'm content to play a "serious game" on the weekend (Assassins Creed for example) and then pick it up next weekend again if i didn't finish it.
I don't need to complete a game in a weekend, there is no time-pressure applied for me.

During the week in the evenings I play bite-sized multiplayer matches in League of Legends or Blacklight Retribution (etc. pp.)

If I can wait for an episode of Game of Thrones for a week and not forget what the previous episode was about I can put down a game for a week and come back to it.

The only reason I can possibly imagine why you would need to finish a game in a weekend is if you rented it.

But thats not an argument why you should be advocating "rental game"-design.

Raymond Grier
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"It's like going for a meal and basing whether it's any good on how much food you get served rather than whether it tastes nice. I don't see shoveling crap into myself as good value on the basis that there's a lot of it."

Most people can't afford $500 lettuce with over-priced salad dressing. And will gladly pay the more affordable $20 for a super-size Big Mac meal. The truth is that most people do attach some amount of value to the quantity of what they get, which isn't always good but isn't always bad. It's easy to design games that can be completed more quickly but the quality of those games is a separate issue... an expensive plate of lettuce isn't very interesting.

I have an interest in designing games that focus on having an awesome experience, they don't necessarily need to be narrative or story driven or have some official completion point. They're more like a crossover between a toy and virtual tourism. How does that sound to you?

Jacob Germany
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Woah, where do you live that Big Mac meals cost 20 bucks?

The future? Do you live in the future? ... are there jet packs?

Oh, and I agree with your actual point. Quantity and quality are both important in a way that plays off each others.

William Johnson
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I disagree. Content is king. Give me more content to consume.

Okay, so this isn't exactly a proper social topic, but its the best example I have. I play my Nintendo DS on the toilet. The games I play are either adventure games or RPGs, because they lend themselves well to short play sessions. I'd go and while I do my business, I solve a puzzle in Prof. Layton, or sometimes two...and sometimes several and then my legs go numb and I've realized I've been done for a while.

Anyway, these games don't need to be shorter, if anything I think they need to be longer. I felt that the narrative of Prof. Layton games could stand a bit more explanation. And how are you going to explain it better? Well, you got to add more content and make the game longer.

On the flip side, for games that I don't play while on the can. If the mechanics are good, I want them fully explored. Once again, that means more content. I don't want to be given a new mechanic to only use it in maybe 2 highly gimmick ways in the entire game. I want lots of puzzles to solve with my new found mechanic that makes me feel like a genius!

And while I can kind of agree with the idea of removing some of the filler in games. But at the same time, that filler gives your actions weight. I mean, if I was spending my entire time dungeon crawling without the trek to the location in Elder Scrolls, that dungeon crawl wouldn't seem nearly as magical.

I don't want nothing but set pieces. If we're always taking the dial up to 11, then it just makes everything muted because you're going to have a hard time taking it up to 12. So we need that filler content to take it back down to a 7 or 6, so when we ratchet it back up to 11, its something that we should sit up and take notice.

Joshua Darlington
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Games are a computational media. That means that a 40 hour game should be able to provide entertainment of any subset of length.

Professional storytellers from the classic traditions modded stories every time they were told depending on audience and time frame (price etc). Games should be able to deliver something similar.

Is the price point for movies $20? Or is it $1 at Redbox? Or is it all you can eat for $15 per month?

BTW It's weird to hear a screenwriter say that movie studios don't care about length. Distribution deals have length requirements. Exhibitors prefer movies of a certain length.

dana mcdonald
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While I am sure there are a number of people who would purchase these types of games I have doubts about the quality level that these games would have.
I think we have seen that making games to be more like movies isn't cheap. It seems that to make these games you still have to make all of those art assets, but now you are required to have much higher end voice acting than the average game, and I would think lots more unique animation, since those would be the selling points of the game. It couldn't be skill based, or else if somebody wasn't very good at it it would ruin the pacing of the story and it wouldn't be bite sized anymore.
I can't help but think gameplay would greatly suffer, both because it is not the selling point, and most activities you can do as gameplay aren't good for telling the story in and of themselves.
What often people might call "Filler" in some story driven games is sometimes the only actual gameplay in it.

I know there is a market out there for this type of game (I don't know if it is very large), but it seems to me like maybe they should just be making a movie instead.

I am curious if those developers who are excited about the prospect of making and experiencing these games would leave the game industry for the film industry if given the opportunity. I guess a better way to ask is this: If you could work in the film industry with the same pay as you get now, with the same level of creative control, the same hours, and from the same location, would you work in film instead of games?

Ian Uniacke
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On the one hand there are many of these types of experiences on the Wii (Mad World, HotD: Overkill etc). They are very good quality well written games with generally good game play.

On the other hand these didn't exactly make heaps of money so it's not an argument for or against what you're saying, just something to think about.

Kyle Redd
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"I can't help but think gameplay would greatly suffer, both because it is not the selling point, and most activities you can do as gameplay aren't good for telling the story in and of themselves."

Honestly, for me that would be a worthy tradeoff. In other words, I would be more than happy to pay for and play a 2-3 hour game that had a compelling, relevant, well-edited story with quality voice acting, even if the gameplay itself was thoroughly mediocre.

Maybe that will be a minority opinion, but because truly great stories are practically non-existent thus far in gaming, I'd be willing to slog through a few tedious puzzles if the prize at the end was a riveting narrative.

In this way, games like To the Moon and Dear Esther have the right idea. I didn't particularly enjoy the stories of either of those games (the former vague and pretentious and the latter saccharine and overwrought), but I appreciated that the creators prioritized their stories over the gameplay itself, contrary to the common wisdom.

Nick Harris
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"I can't help but think gameplay would greatly suffer, both because it is not the selling point, and most activities you can do as gameplay aren't good for telling the story in and of themselves. What often people might call "Filler" in some story driven games is sometimes the only actual gameplay in it."

I think we should stop calling them games. It sets up misleading expectations. Even if a product does include gameplay (competitive objectives / risk and reward / trial and error / etc.) maybe it would be better to emphasise the story element and call them adventures instead.

GTA IV combines multiple game genres too numerous to categorise and can be experienced in a completely objectiveless hapahazard way as you soak in the ambience of its city simulation. The story of Niko Bellic may not even engage many players, who will happily find something else to do within the open world. However, whether the player engages with the narrative's challenges, or rejects them in order to "mess about", they invariably create their own adventures as every one plays with the "toys in the sandbox" differently.

Is Journey better described as an adventure, rather than a game?

Is a man, trapped in a labyrinth, relentlessly pursued by ghosts, sound like an adventure?

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Craig Dolphin
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There may or not be a market demand for this kind of game. But i do take issue with the statement that people who value game length and dollar per hour do so at the exclusion of all other considerations. A more accurate statement of that position would be that, all else being equal, more is better than less.

And for me, an rpg has to be both compelling and provide a reasonable duration to make it worth $60.

I might play a 1 or 2 hour long game but i certainly would not be willing to pay more than a couple of bucks to do so.

Ian Uniacke
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I think that's the same thing. As an example, if you buy a pizza there are those who would say "more toppings is better" there are other people who would say "more toppings makes the pizza taste worse". I might be stretching the food analogy a bit far here, but I think there is a problem with the statement that more is better than less.

Jacob Germany
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I think a pizza analogy would be more accurately this:

Some people like small pizzas they can seat in a sitting.
Some people like large pizzas of which they can eat their fill, put it in a take-home box, and have leftovers later.

However, you would never buy a 6 inch pizza that costs the same as a 16 inch pizza. So, quantity still matters.

Mark Venturelli
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This article makes me want to kill myself with a hammer.

Dave Vileta
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I think you should explain why it makes you want to do that.

Roger Tober
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I would love to see games with deeper stories. I am so sick of army men games, games where the elf/human/whatever wakes up with no memory and develops power to kill the bad guy, jumping games, shooting games, blah.

Joshua Sterns
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Too drunk to read comments, so I apologize if this has been said already.

About half way through the article I thought of L4D. Simple 1-2 hour levels that feel like a story onto themselves.

As a fan of short stories, and 1 1/2 hour movies I'm all for shorter cheaper (but quality) videogames.

Matt Cratty
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This article is like poison to my tastes.

But, I think its inevitable.

Joshua McDonald
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"It still amazes me that some gamers are happy to explicitly say they don't care about the quality of a game, it's only the dollar-per-hour cost that defines value for them."

Citation needed. I've never heard or read a gamer state this point of view.

Sure, plenty of developers pad their games so that they can put bigger numbers on their box ("Over 100 unique weapons and 80 hours of gameplay"), but I've never seen a gamer say that quality doesn't matter as long as there is quantity.

Ian Uniacke
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Perhaps not many gamers would say it in that way, but when it comes time to decide whether to purchase or not I've heard many gamers pull out the dollar per hour argument (regardless of quality). As an example guild wars versus world of warcraft. It's a taste thing of course, but I think it's fair to say WoW is the much higher quality choice, but many of my friends chose guild wars because they felt they were getting better value for money (whether this is actually valid or not is up for debate of course).

Joshua McDonald
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Presented that way, I wouldn't have had a problem with it (though Guild Wars does have a lot of cool stuff that WoW lacks), but the fact that the article says that gamers explicitly state that view suggests that they did, in fact, use those words.

Besides, quantity does matter.

hanno hinkelbein
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all in for short games without fillers. there needs to be some more specialization. we people who like stories need to have our share of innovation and accessability too. it can't be all jump in mobile apps and facebook games just because accidentally someone found that niche first.

Whitney Lai
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I do agree with some of the points in this article, but I think the emphasis should be on the portions and pacing apart, as opposed to the opening which argues that there's a generation of players out there who only want/can only play short games (the small with quality vs poor with quantity argument).

I love long games that take weeks to finish, even if I don't have the time to play them because of work/school/whatever. I think a better approach might be just to structure those games in those small portions, but all those portions together still add up to something with both quality AND quantity. It's like having short, achievable quests that drive the storyline but also provide good stopping points once they're finished, and moving more toward making a TV show series instead of a full-length movie.


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