How Long is a Game?

How long is too long? I have wasted so many hours of my life playing videogames that I’m astonished I’ve ever accomplished anything else. Were those hours really wasted though? Well yes. I’m a reasonably competent person. I care about things that aren’t games, sometimes quite a bit. I suppose I could’ve built a house, or learned to play concert piano, or staged a military coup, or cured cancer or something. Probably.

Why did I play games instead? And why so much? Obviously, games are fun. They are a distraction, like art, literature, music, sport and farming.

Here I’m going to be making a brief tangent through history.

Early Homo Sapiens were hunter-gatherers. They didn’t need to stay in one place too much, and didn’t need to specialise in much beyond hunting and gathering. It turns out that this sort of lifestyle is very efficient, and rewards adopters of it with much free time. In this free time these complicated primates discovered the joys of sculpture, painting, jewellery-making and so on. In other words, they started to specialise in roles.

Some of these roles turned out to be pretty handy. Roles like animal-herder or person-who-gathers-seeds-and-plants-them. Oh look, we’ve just domesticated animals and crops and become stuck in one place – let’s build a city! There you go: The dawn of civilisation in 104 words. Other roles were basically just killing time. In a nice way, but ultimately unproductive. Things like carving the Venus of Willendorf, or painting the Chauvet caves, or making shoes.

Sometimes people made things to pass the time, or show how clever they were, or to confuse or amuse their friends. Things like Senet, Go, Mancala and others.  Human beings have always found ways to distract themselves or divert their attention to something apparently pointless.

Queen Nefertari playing senet

Just rage-quit and slap them all off the table

Early computers were bulky and a tad cumbersome. They didn’t even have dedicated graphics cards. However, almost as soon as it was possible to do so, terribly clever people managed to make computer games.

pong-machine

Not actually particularly smelly

Early computer games were essentially curios, but it wasn’t long before the technology allowed for more popular outlets. The first successful arcade game was Pong in 1972. This was followed by various better-known games, and the industry began to be taken seriously.

Because people didn’t have PCs or games consoles back then, most of the time, if they played games at all (which they did) it was standing at huge boxes in dedicated arcades. Arcade games were machines for making money; people had to continue putting coins in them to allow the model to work. The technology though, was primitive (compared to today) and the software that ran the games was necessarily limited. Most early arcade games, therefore, were repeating loops, often speeding up as time passed, to increase the difficulty. All famous games from the seventies followed this pattern: Pac-man, Donkey-Kong, Asteroids, Space Invaders etc.

Early home PCs had plenty of games available, but they were expensive, and most of the population wouldn’t have one in their home.

When home games consoles became available in the early eighties games continued this formula. Super Mario Brothers, Sonic the Hedgehog, and other early games had lives and “Continue” options when you died, only now you just had to press a button rather than put in another coin. The first game to change this was the original Legend of Zelda for the NES in 1987. The game’s cartridge contained a battery which powered a small RAM chip, and allowed players to save their game. As a result, the game could be much bigger and more complex, and it was.

legend-of-zelda-1_139727

Trail-blazing

I played the Legend of Zelda when it first came out, for what feels in my memory like months. It was challenging, beautiful, imaginative and, compared to everything that came before it (in my young mind at least) absolutely epic in scale. Even the cartridge was gold!

Although not every game after that came with the option to save progress, it wasn’t long before a new generation of consoles came out, (SNES and Mega-Drive) and with them the idea became standard.

Console games back in the eighties were as expensive as they are now (perhaps even more so), and people wanted value for their money. While early arcade-style games took a long time to master and complete, the actual playtime required to finish them was never more than an hour or two, once you had learned the tricks and the skills. Now that they had the requisite processing and storage power, games became something bigger, and longer.

Fast-forward to today. My Steam account tells me that I played Fallout New Vegas for 126 hours. I played Skyrim for 265 hours. That’s more than 16 days, if you sleep 8 hours a night and do absolutely nothing else. People have fought wars that lasted less time.

In 2007 Portal was released as part of Valve’s “Orange Box”. Despite being recognised as one of the gaming highlights of the year, reviewers and fans all described it as “short”. In truth, Portal takes a few hours to complete. If you rush, you can complete it in less time than it would take you to watch the third Lord of the Rings film. But that’s a really long film! Why do gamers demand that their games be so long?

I loved Portal. Part of why I loved it was its brevity. At no point was I “grinding”, or repeating anything. Everything I saw was new, and surprising, and nothing overstayed its welcome. This year The Stanley Parable was released, to much critical acclaim. I think I’ve seen at least most of it, and I played it for 114 glorious minutes. It’s exactly the right length for itself, and (when it’s on sale) it costs the same as renting a film. I bought Fallout New Vegas for the same price (in a sale), and I got 126 hours out of it. Does that make it better? I don’t think it does.

war_and_peace_0

Unfinished

One of the best novels I ever read was “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. It is 142 pages long. You can easily read it in a day, and that day will forever be the day you read that book. I once tried to read War & Peace. I got further in than 142 pages, but I have to say that “One Day…” is the better book. IMHO. Nevertheless, publishers don’t like short novels because they know that their primary target market perceives them as poor value.

But if we continue down the road of free-to-play or subscription models the last thing we’ll get is value for money. EA makes more money out of “The Simpsons: Tapped Out” for iPad and iPhone than it does from most AAA games.

Leading on from this, while so-called “gamers” like me tend to think of videogames as big, flashy adventures, in truth most games that are played today are in fact much closer to the old arcade format than one might expect.

Think of the success of Tetris in 1989. Now think of all the people in the developed world with a smartphone. How many of them have downloaded Peggle, or Bejeweled, or Angry Birds? Despite the popular image of gamers as sad, male loners it is actually businessmen on commuter trains and bored office workers who are propping up the games industry as a whole. Farmville made $575 million dollars in 2010. I wonder how many of us “gamers” played it?

angry birds pajaros furiosos 2

I am the future

So-called “casual” games such as these are, in general, much shorter than a AAA or an indie game. Many are designed around taking 60 seconds per session. They also rely on microtransactions to make money. How far are we really from the days of the video arcade?

So how long is too long? I don’t think one can compare Skyrim to War & Peace, any more than you could compare the nutritional information on a box of cornflakes with Angry Birds (however much I might want to), but I think it’s clear that gamers have decided that their games have to be long, while the vast majority of people blanche at the idea of spending more than a few minutes playing games.

Of course I understand that a lot of the work that goes into a game is not, in fact, the playable content, but I think if gaming is to be considered more seriously, and truly enter the mainstream in the way that I think most gamers want, then it may have to abandon the idea of hundreds of hours, and engage with the casual market who are currently starved of the delights of Portal and have to settle with Flappy Bird.

We have always played games, and presumably we always will. The fact that people now play chess or solitaire on their phones and PCs doesn’t change the enduring appeal of those games. Whether or not gamers realise it, they are being played in their turn by games publishers, who know the value of the old penny arcade and the Space Invaders cabinet, and are continuing to use it to this day.

Games haven’t got longer, they’ve just bifurcated into “Hardcore” and “Casual”. I think we should be looking at Cascore instead.

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