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Opinion: Short Games Are King

by Ben Reeves on Sep 24, 2013 at 10:25 AM

The day before Grand Theft Auto V came out I could feel the knot in my stomach growing. I wasn't excited. I was nervous. I was worried that GTA would soon consume my life, and part of me just wanted to play something shorter.

I don't get game anxiety often, but when I do it's usually around a game that I'm looking forward to and know that I'm going to spend a lot of time playing. I love playing games like Skyrim and Assassin's Creed III, but they aren't small commitments. At the risk of sounding like an old man, when I was younger these kinds of time commitments weren't a big deal; I had all the time in the world, and all I wanted to do with that time was play games.

I also couldn't afford many games, so when I got one, I wanted it to last a really long time. Now my life has changed. I can afford nearly as many games as I want (and I want them all), but I've also acquired certain familial and relational obligations that eat up some of my free time. Basically I have more games to play, and less time to do it. Damn, that does make me sound a bit like an old man.

I hear this argument a lot, and even though I agree with it, I'm also tired of it. The simple fact is that we produce more entertainment than you'll ever be able to consume in your lifetime. While that makes the completionist in me cringe a little, it should fill the bored little eight-year-old in me with joy.

Back to my main point, I think there is space in the gaming market for larger games like GTA V as well as shorter experiences. Not long ago, I played Gone Home. It was a breath of fresh air. I loved the game's haunting atmosphere and relaxed, exploration-based gameplay. In fact, it wasn't much of a game, but more of an interactive storytelling experience. And I was fine with that, because the whole experience was extremely compelling.

Gone Home only took around 2-3 hours to complete, but I enjoyed everything I did throughout. Compare that to games like GTA or Skyrim, which are bound to feature a few lame-duck missions or periods where you feel like you're grinding. Shorter games get to the point quickly and can deliver an impactful experience without fluff because they're not worried what the clock will read when the credits roll. Short games can focus on a singular gameplay element and polish it to the extreme because developers don't have a dozen other systems to worry about. 

Honestly, I'm not trying to complain about games like GTA V and Skyrim, which do a great job giving players massive worlds to explore and plenty of entertaining ways to do so. I'm worried about the games that feel like they have to compete with GTA V and Skyrim – the less-polished titles from developers that think no one will buy their game unless it is a sprawling 50+ hour experience. I'm worried about games that are full of fetch quests and repetitive combat arenas in an effort to artificially lengthen their playtime. All games don't need to be massive. In fact some of my favorite games over the last generation have been shorter titles, like The Walking Dead, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Portal, Plants vs. Zombies, Journey, and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon.

But who can blame a studio for feeling the pressure to artificially lengthen a game when people complain about game length all the time?

We don't value short games as much as longer games – at least I know I don't support short games as much as longer ones. I spent $60 on Diablo III, because I knew I'd get my "money's worth" from the title, but I borrowed this year's Tomb Raider because I figured I could beat it in a weekend. However, looking back, I think I value my time with Tomb Raider more than I value my time with Diablo III. So was I wrong to borrow a game instead of buying it? I don't think so, but I know that I need to rethink the way I view the value of a game.

I've been conditioned to think that if I spend $60 on a game then it needs to last a few weeks or more. On the other hand, I'm willing to spend $10 to see a movie in the theater that's only an hour-and-a-half. So why do I cringe when I'm asked to spend $15 on a game that's twice as long? I'll easily drop $40 in one night out with friends at a restaurant; so why do I feel like a game with the same price point should last a week? There are games out there that I've enjoyed more than a trip to Disneyland, and yet I don't spend Disneyland money on video games?

We've all been socially conditioned to expect a certain price points and a certain completion length from our games. But maybe we should stop asking, "How long is this game?" and start asking, "Does this game deliver a meaningful experience? Is it a constructive use of my entertainment budget? Is it a valuable piece of gaming art?"

I think we've come a long way. Back during the PlayStation 2 generation, I remember people complaining that Ico was too short. The game took about six hours to complete, but it ended up being one of my most cherished memories of that generation. Can you imagine if the industry had taken gamers' reactions to Ico to heart? Would developers have felt confident enough to release games like The Walking Dead, or Journey, or Portal?

I know that some gamers have to be cost conscious, and I'm not saying that you have to spend more money on video games, but let's stop complaining about how long a game is, and start rewarding developers for making good games that have real value whatever their length.