Let’s Make Longer Games!
Okay, so we all agree that games were better back in the glory days when my mom gave me free food and I didn’t have to work for a living. Right? Good. But why is that? Is it because giant polygons look better than photorealism? Is it because games back then had obtuse interfaces? Is it because Bobby Kotick is secretly Satan in disguise?
No. It’s because games are shorter.
Let’s face it — the most important thing about a game isn’t whether it’s fun, or engaging, or thought-provoking, or immersive. It’s all about the length. The most important determinant in a game’s quality is how long it takes to reach the end credits. It’s simple logic, really; a game is supposed to take you away from reality, so if a game takes you away for longer, that means it’s better at being a game.
People say that game developers can’t make games as long as they could back in the old days, but I don’t agree with that. There are some simple design techniques you can use to ensure maximum game length for the player. This means you can put a label on the back of the box saying “Over 7000 hours of gameplay!” and you’ll inevitably make more sales. The player gets to play more, you get more money. Win-win, right?
This is an incredibly simple technique, and it really pays off. You don’t have to make the environments bigger or more expansive; just make the player character slower. If you let the player breeze through the levels he’ll be done in no time and won’t be satisfied, so slow him down to a snail’s pace and let him hold the right arrow key and watch as he inches along.
It also helps if you slow down the enemy movements. Take Fallout, for instance. In each turn you get to watch each and every enemy mosey around the battlefield, one-by-one. Players don’t want flow. They want to spend five minutes watching radscorpions crawl around in a dark cave.
The NES era was the best era for games. Games like Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden are some of the longest games we’ve ever had. But if you record how long it takes to get from beginning to end without dying, those games aren’t very long at all. The reason they last you so long is because you inevitably die every three steps.
This is a brilliant way to add more hours to a game’s length, and there are so many wonderful ways it can be achieved. If you’re making a platformer, move each platform as far apart as you can without it being completely out-of-reach. Make the player have to stand so close to the edge that he looks like he’s not even standing on solid ground. If you’re making a shooter, make the enemies so precise and deal so much damage that you have to know what’s coming and where before you even walk in the room. This way the player will be forced to replay the same room over and over until he knows every intricate detail. Because that’s fun. That’s what gaming is all about.
Repetitive gameplay is the best kind of gameplay because it’s easy to produce in bulk. It’s as easy as ctrl+c, ctrl+v. If a certain encounter or scene is fun, the most logical thing to do is to repeat it several times. You can tweak each encounter slightly and the player might not even notice.
This is a very obvious design technique, and yet so many developers these days completely forget about it. Portal was a pretty cool concept, but it wasn’t a real game because it was only a few hours long. If it featured more slightly different renditions of the same few puzzles it would have been far better.
Super Meat Boy was a recent game that did well with the Obscene Difficulty, but one thing it forgot to incorporate was a lives system (except for the warp zones, which were brilliant in every tangible way). By adding an arbitrary lives system that kicks the player out of the game after they die one too many times, you end up eating a lot more of the player’s time by forcing them to replay the same content over and over. This is a fantastic way to extend a game’s length.
The bottom line is, if a game isn’t boring or frustrating, it could probably stand to be a bit longer. Games need to eat up more time. After all, it’s not like we have jobs or social lives to attend to. We gamers need to work for our fun, and games don’t feel quite enough like work. Not as much as they used to.