“Video games are too long”: Symptoms of a more fundamental problem

Shawn Layden, former PlayStation executive at Sony, recently re-initiated the good old debate of video games being “too long”, using The Last of Us Part II as an example. While he was primarily concerned with the sustainability of modern AAA development, all kinds of discussions about “entertainment value per dollar”, the pros and cons of short “interactive experiences”, grinding and various other related topics started happening on social media (for example below Jason Schreier’s deliberately provocative tweet).

But one question isn’t really being tackled: What is it specifically about AAA games that makes many players — not just executives, developers or critics — consider them “too long”? Of course open worlds are getting bigger, feature lists are getting longer, there’s more content in general — and all these factors create their own problems for the reality of day-to-day production as well as in terms of game design.

However, a long playing time is not really the problem in itself. Players with thousands of hours in League of Legends or chess are not uncommon. And after each match, they decide whether they’ve had enough, i.e. whether they’re still encountering interesting and unsolved situations for themselves or whether they’ve seen it all. So games based on players repeating the same gameplay loops over and over do not have this “too long” problem it seems.

Match-based games let players decide when they want to jump off — over and over, after every match.

Now, the problem with many AAA titles is that they use that same model of gameplay loops, but also embed it in a — sometimes more, sometimes less — pre-determined and linear story structure. As a result, players often find that they have already learned all there is to learn when it comes to gameplay, but it still continues for a pre-defined number of hours, because it still has to tell its story. The game is “too long” for its own structure.

The fact that many of these games are very similar in terms of gameplay, so that players can transfer their skills from one to another pretty easily, further aggravates the problem (alongside the almost necessarily rather low level of challenge of mass-market entertainment products).

Many AAA games want to engross players with both gameplay and story. Learn quickly and you will get bored.

However, adjusting a game’s duration to the player’s learning curve is not really a solvable problem since it strongly depends on the individual. Fast or slow learner? Genre veteran or newcomer? Construction worker or computer scientist? All these aspects result in completely different curves for any given game and would in theory require changes to the design. Difficulty levels help to a degree, but can’t really tend to every individual and thus will ultimately always remain far-from-ideal solutions to a “cursed problem”.

By the way: Of course there is also the opposite issue. If a player doesn’t get accustomed to the gameplay quickly enough, the narrative’s pacing suffers.

Titles like What Remains of Edith Finch on the other hand do much better. Instead of clinging to the idea of gameplay loops, they closely link their interactive elements to the story that’s being told — an actual synthesis. Each scene comes with its own rules, actions and gameplay-driven statements that can be adjusted to serve the respective narrative content.

“Experiential narrative” games get rid of gameplay loops and instead tightly couple story and interaction.

In this case, the gameplay does not get its meaning from the player’s learning process, but rather by purposefully supporting the story. The game is exactly as long as it has to be. If it’s not, then it can be criticized based on its own standards. However, this is by no means an impossible-to-solve problem like the one described above.

Conclusion: A game lasting the “wrong” amount of time is usually not a problem of any specific game or of how AAA development works these days. It is rather a symptom of a fundamentally problematic approach to the medium that lacks focus and coherence.

Game designer chasing the elusive beauty of systems. https://twitter.com/Ludokultur