Longer Games Are Not Better Games
Prior to the release of Dying Light 2, a troubling statement was issued by its lead developer. They said that the game has 500 hours of gameplay. After taking an online thrashing from hardcore gamers, the statement was changed to 25 hours if you do all the story quests and the necessary side quests (though in reality, it is closer to 35 hours if you go in blind as most players will).
The 500 hours statement was worrisome because it both highlights an ugly modern gaming trend, and it speaks to the way game developers misunderstand what their players actually want. Is it possible that developers have been churning out 500-hour gaming slogs because that is what they actually think we want?
Dying Light 2 is Not That Long
This article is not a teardown of Dying Light 2. The first one had its flaws and was downright unplayable if you didn’t engage with the character. The second one seems to have smoothed out some of the uglier edges of the first, and speedrunners quickly smashed the game’s completion time to lunch break sessions. Dying Light 2 is not that long even if you savor some of its better elements, so why did the developers make the 500-hour claim?
There are a few theories as to why developers are trying to sell games on their length. The classic argument is that people are paying seventy to one hundred dollars and they want to get their money’s worth. Yet, where this may be a surface issue, we all know that 500 hours of samey sandbox areas is no comparison to a tight, well-paced, well balanced, engaging and hopefully immersive game. So, here are a few other theories about why developers are pushing the “Longer Game” angle.
An Insistence Towards Getting The Money On The Screen
When a development company spends millions on making a game, they want that money to be seen on screen. As a creator, it is very disheartening to spend thousands on a scene or area, to spend months honing it and making it perfect, only for the player to fly by it without giving it a second look.
Pretty sky boxes became a big thing in the Playstation 3/XBOX 360 era when console graphics were able to support something a bit bigger and more complex. Yet, this also gave rise to the “Long horsey ride” mechanic. This is where the open-world area has very little to offer by way of discovery, and its large size only makes the travel times longer. In other words, you travel through the open world in your car, on your horse, or on your magic carpet, and nothing much happens or is seen. It extends the gameplay with no real benefit to the user.
One could assume that these long horsey rides are to force you to look at the darn skyboxes and pretty areas that the developers made. Ghosts of Tsushima is not a bad game, but during the later 3rd of the game when things are hotting up, you do get the impression that the long horsey rides are trying to re-sell the scenery and weather effects. A little like a child insisting that you re-look at the painting they did when it is on the fridge already.
The MMO Model Is Being Confused With The Linear/Non-Linear Gaming Model
World of Warcraft has taught us the MMO gaming model. You put players in an interactive environment with quests, leveling, things to discover, and you train them to grind away until they become social recluses. As a side benefit, you get subscription fees, you get people to purchase WOW gold, to buy lost ark gold and Final Fantasy Gil.
Yet, what people forget is that the MMO gaming model is not actually a viable gaming model. The WOWs, the Final Fantasy Online, the Lost Ark games are the exceptions that prove the rule. Look at the many big-budget MMO games that failed miserably. Even Final Fantasy 14 failed before it was relaunched. These failures were not small titles. They had millions upon millions of dollars invested both in their development and marketing and in the hardware required to host the millions of users they never received.
When you apply the MMO formula to regular games, to linear and non-linear games, you get a very long game. However, you also get a game where not enough happens to keep the players engaged. You get repetitive open worlds, you get meaningless quests, you get leveling systems that may not exist after you have received all the upgrades. The MMO formula is not a good gaming model, and that is especially true when the game isn’t even a darn MMO.
Vicious and Pernicious Micro-Transaction Baiting
If we take an honest look at microtransactions and in-game purchases as a whole, they are not fully bad. It is how they are used and abused that is bad. Alcohol is good if you are having a party or a fancy meal, but when it is promoted to children and marketed to cause addiction, then it is bad.
Micro-transactions can help you customize a game so that it plays the way you prefer. On consoles it offers the same sorts of freedoms that mods add to PC gaming. But, we have companies like Ubisoft that load Assassin’s Creed Odyssey with so much grinding that you need to pay for experience just to get through the game. Or, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, which had such a disgracefully obvious mid-game grinding loop that they eventually removed it for fear of damaging their brand forever.
These are examples of obvious and blatant microtransaction baiting to the point where the game is almost unplayable if you don’t pay. Yet, there are plenty of other examples of these sorts of things, especially in first-person shooters and sports games where players are being exploited rather than rewarded for their spending. Where players are spending seventy to one hundred bucks on a game only to have to pay fifty more just to complete it. Longer games make it easier to exploit micro-transaction mechanics.
More Social Media Exposure
A longer game gets literally more time on social media. Play-throughs, tips videos, walk-throughs, lets-plays and reaction videos are all longer if the game is longer. It is possible that some games are made to be longer simply so that they take up more social media space.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Smartphone games don’t get as much social media attention is because they are shorter, or at the very least their gameplay loop is a lot shorter. There may be 2000 levels, but they all look the same so social media doesn’t pay as much attention.
Shorter indie games don’t get as much social media attention partially because they don’t have the marketing influence, and partially because they make shorter games. It is possible that developers are told to extend the life of games to help them get more attention on social media.
A Genuine Misunderstanding of What Gamers Want
As hinted at in the introduction, it is just possible that some developers misunderstand what gamers really want from their game. We want value for money, but we want it through tight and polished gameplay, through meaningful journeys and immersive experiences. When we talk about games, we don’t talk about how many hours it took to travel from one place to another, we don’t talk make memes about our favorite journey, and we don’t make pop-culture references about how big the open-world sandbox is. Shorter games are not necessarily better games, but longer games are certainly not better games.