Mike Bithell considers the place of smaller, two-hour experiences in an industry full of 40+ hour epics
I remember my first visit to the USA as an adult. I went to a breakfast place, and ordered eggs, pancakes and a side of potatoes. As a charmingly naive Brit, I was expecting a large breakfast, but when the waiter wheeled out plates of nine-inch pancakes, mounds of eggs and at least three potatoes chopped and fried, I was terrified. I ended up taking most of that breakfast away in a doggy bag. That was all I ate for the day.
Humans like value. Bigger is better. In American dining, that arms race of scale was pushed so far that ordering too much food to eat in one sitting got normalised to the point that you’re expected to take food home with you.
I challenge the assumption that time spent equals value,
Mike Bithell, Mike Bithell Games
PC and console games followed the same path. While the price of a NES game was more than a modern day open world release, the expectation of scale has grown exponentially. Unlike movies, where duration is strictly held in place by screen turnaround time and the noble desire to sell popcorn, no cap has held our gluttony for content in games at bay. And arguably, we shouldn’t be held back! We want value, if the industry can deliver that value, then why not?
In short, I challenge the assumption that time spent equals value. We see a bunch of content in modern games that feels like filler, or is absolutely designed to be missable. Is a game ‘better’ if it lasts 30 hours instead of 20? It’s certainly a factor in selection between competing games at the store: how much fun you’ll get for your cash. But is it the absolute design and development principle we believe it to be? When the audience for games was predominantly cash-strapped teens, value was a big deal, but now? Gameplay content is wise to the ageing audience (parenthood as viewed through the lens of zombie outbreaks, anyone?) but unwise in the scale of that content. Does a parent who connects with Horizon Zero Dawn’s themes of compassion and responsibility have the time to enjoy all its side quests?
Many indie developers are already proving that there is an audience for one-sitting games. Games like Her Story, Gone Home and burgeoning VR experiences take one or two hours to tell a compelling story with fascinating original gameplay. Portal, a three hour AAA game produced by a major studio, rightly makes it onto many best of all time lists. I don’t feel I was cheated out of value by these games, indeed, creative pricing means that many of these games feel like bargains.
Thanks to digital distribution and the lowered costs of sale, price points that fit shorter games are becoming viable. Platforms like Humble and Itch.io are going even further in supporting easy distribution of smaller games. A lot of people are starting to mutter in meeting rooms about the ‘Netflix of games’. We see XBox heading in that direction with their Game Pass, and we can assume other platforms will try for the same play. If gaming is about to become, at least in part, a capped spend per month, then the old value arguments soften on a game by game basis. There will be a place for games that get to the point quickly and provide satisfaction within a single session. Less risky for the devs, and a ‘must play’ for gamers.
There is a tendency among devs to think in absolutes, so let me be clear, I’m not calling for an end to epic games. My argument is for a diversity of experiences, a range of games at differing price points and durations, even more so than we have currently. While there has yet to be an enormous break out hit at a $5 price point on PC and console, I see no reason a polished, ‘must play’ game couldn’t redefine our idea of what’s possible with a one or two hour long game. There’s an opportunity there.