Thursday, August 18, 2011

I Don't Finish Games Because I Am Old

This article is getting a lot of play today. Short version: Very few people finish really long games.

Duh. I've pretty much given up on playing any long game (say, over 20 hours) that I'm not sure is completely awesome. I just quit L.A. Noire a good eight cases from the end, and I feel like I played it for too long.

I mean, a game that takes 40 hours? A whole workweek? In this day and age? Who can do that? People don't leave games unfinished because they're weak or dumb or lazy or bad people. It's because, unless the game is really awesomesauce, playing it for 40 hours just isn't a worthwhile use of one's time.

Which puts me in a weird position, because I write long games. I try to put a lot of work into the endings, even though I know most people won't see them. Maybe this is a warning that I should start doing something else, but I don't know what. I tried to make Avadon: The Black Fortress a shorter game but a higher quality experience. Dunno if I succeeded, but that's the direction I wanted to go.

It's one of the reasons the industry is moving towards shorter, cheaper games. And I'm moving along with the trend, a tiny bit. But I'll be writing longish games as long as there is a market for them. The main strength of my games is the sprawling, epic stories. I can't really do that in a ten hour game. So I'll keep doing basically what I do, even though I hear the distant rumbling of impending doom.

32 comments:

  1. Yeah, I keep seeing things like this.

    I think the simple truth is, it's not important to people if they miss the ending. They still had fun, had fond memories, thought they got value for their money, and would recommend it to their friends. Most of us have games which we never finished, yet we don't mind, because we enjoyed what we played.

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  2. >I try to put a lot of work into the endings, even though I know most people won't see them.

    And we appreciate that. We know that when we make a choice it's a real choice, not current RPG style "you either get +1 coolness and different phrase in dialog, or +1 badassness and different phrase in dialog". I know that when I make a choice it's for real, cause I miss real content and have a reason to play the game again.

    Anyway, look at the games like Civilization or Europa Universalis, or Heroes of Might and Magic. HoMM has campaign with some story but the true power of game comes from single scenarios and maps. You can master the game, but you'll never run out of challenge and see everything. You had something similar in Blades of Avernum although you had to get user-generated content as there wasn't much of initial content. Another good example is Final Fantasy remakes for Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS: they've added huge bonus dungeons. IOr great hack'n'slash Torchlight has infinite generated dungeon.

    All those games have ways to feel completed on some point (end of campaign or story) but have potential length for people wishing for some really epic gaming. I haven't played Avadon after demo demon yet, but I understand Red Beard is powerfull bonus boss - which is cool, bonus boss is always cool. But what about some additional generated bonus dungeons with stack of powerful items and overpowered enemies? Not much work, I think, but much of appretiation.

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  3. Game length and duration is a whole new subject of things.

    Also, different type of people find different games ... different.

    *Half life for some was long game.
    *The Witcher 2 was shorter than Mass Effect 2, but to me seemed longer, because it seemed boring.
    *Dragon Age 1 was very long game, however I didn't find that a problem at all. It was completely different story with Dragon Age 2.

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  4. It comes down to time and effort versus reward and enjoyment, which is incredibly subjective. As long as players are entertained and engaged by a game, regardless of whether they finish it or not, it's doing what it's designed to do.

    Games only fail when people feel cheated, that their investment of time, effort and money doesn't live up to their expectations. Especially if their time and effort is hampered by poor design or storytelling.

    I've started Oblivion several times, trying out different characters and quests, creating my own story each time, but I've never finished the main quest. I still enjoy it though.

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  5. Dear Jeff,

    I'm totally with you. Since my spare time is rare nowadays, I stopped to buy AAA games 8 years ago, because I always hated to miss its emotional closure (the story's true ending, whatever), but wasn't able anymore to reach it in a reasonable timeframe.
    Imagine reading a fairy tale or a SF novel just halfway through and then - back to the shelf with it, although it got you hooked on to it... incredible. So I really tried to finish my games, regardless what the costs of opportunity were - becoming unhappy about what looked like bad budgeting decisions (regarding my time) afterwards.
    So far for the problem.

    Today, if I wanna see the end and am to far away to get there in time, I'm switching to YouTube and watch it there. But that seems the third best solution to me.

    The best solution - the one I would now implement into my own games, would resemble a step back from interactivity into a more passive mode of game consumption, where the story of our heroes is told from an ex post perspective (maybe with some decisions still to be made by the gamer). That would leave me with my emotional closure BUT should still allow the gamer to continue himself from his saved positions if he should be motivated sometimes in the future.

    This point, where the gamer would be allowed to switch into that passive mode, should be somewhere after your typical demo - if you'll still provide those in the future. That would still guarantee the emotional bonding towards character, game and gaming world, leave you with a possible customer of your future games, and would the customer allow to dodge the choice between playing your games and keeping his girl friend (more risky than the other way around, isnt' it?). And since you, Jeff, are a true specialist at writing epic stories, you really would have to tell a story to those who need to opt out of the active mode.

    Best regards, Yann

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  6. There is always the sequel. Digital upgrades are a new fad these days, and "episodic content". But, movies and games found a way to do "episodic content" a long time ago - sequels. Though I understand for RPGs which are traditionally based around long character progressions, it makes less sense. When Square-Enix went and resurrected their "Final Fantasy 7" brand with several mini-sequels I found myself wishing I had the time for them. I do find it an interesting way forward though. The modern makes it easy to simply purchase another game, and have it running on my iPad in seconds. So, I find it neat to build a brand, a story universe, on the platform and then re-explore that universe. With minor tweaks to the rules an ui along the way.

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  7. I'm 30 years old, have a full-time job and still don't get the trend towards shorter games at all. It should be completely irrelevant whether a game is 5, 15, 25 or 65 hours as long as there are proper save features (either full save/quick save functionality or generous checkpoints). If you can divide those 65 hours into nice little 0,5-1 hour chunks of gameplay there should be nothing stopping even the busiest person in the world from getting through the game (eventually!).

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  8. I do like long games... Let's see. I need to play a Geneforge game up to 50 times to finish it. Assuming I play for two hours each time (world knows it's more than that) that's 100 hours minimum. Of course, not all at once, I do this over the course of a year.

    Maybe 100 hours is a lot (the fact that I insist on picking up every item worth anything at all and hoarding it all in a building somewhere couldn't help)... But I enjoyed the whole thing. The interesting story makes me feel like I haven't wasted any time once I've finished.

    I've only played the first two Geneforge games (I finished the second earlier this month), but having played those I feel fully confident that any games you made are more than worth their cost (which I find is also very low compared to my other games).

    But you know, I guess I probably still would enjoy a shorter game, so long as it's as interesting as the ones I've played. Considering my way of playing, I'll probably never finish in under a month no matter how short it's supposed to be, anyways, so I'm happy.:)

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  9. This is a very real issue for me as well. I'm a "completist"-sort of guy. I really love to play all the games I buy to the finish. Back in the days of C64 and Amiga and Atari ST there weren't all that many RPGs, and I'd pick up the best titles and then play them to the end.

    Today it doesn't feel possible. First, there are so many RPGs available (a non trivial amount of them with "innovative fighting system" which apparently is shorthand for "time consuming fighting system"), and secondly there is the pressure to make them long to "justify the price" (or something like that). However, making a game long apparently means "increase the play time and/or force the player to play through the game a second time to see the whole ending", usually increasing the length means adding no story, but increase the amount of grinding required.

    I remember with fondness Dune 1. I managed to complete that game in a single 10h session the *first time* I played the game. It was an awesome experience, because the story just kept progressing, really drawing me in.

    Another game I really liked which didn't force me to grind was Vandal Hearts 1 for the PS1. All of the battles in Vandal Hearts are what one could classify as "Boss battles", i.e. they cause the story to progress in a meaningful way, as opposed to random encounters which is the standard fare.

    I don't mind random encounters per se, it's just that they're usually just an excuse slow down progress. If one really is serious about random encounters, make them extremely fast, or only place them where you want to hint that the player should not go, e.g. frequent and dangerous random encounters in areas the players should not enter at a certain point in the story. Another way is to be able to permanently clear an area of monsters, that works well too (i.e. there is a limited amount of random monsters in an area).

    The most annoying random encounters is in those games when you are forced to fight random level 1 creatures even when you are like level 100, just because you wandered back to the starting area. Especially in those games where battle start and end takes a significant amount of time, no matter how fast the actual combat takes. Unfortunately, this is how most of today's games work...

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  10. I have never finished a Spiderweb game. I am deeply ashamed of this fact.

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  11. Hi Jeff,

    Agree with you that it's difficult to find time for longer games these days. Part of that is a demographic shift of what defines gamers today: I used to be able to play nearly every evening after school as a kid, but now with a job, it's difficult.

    Avadon is a very good game, but I do think there is one aspect that made it feel too short. You have three independent quest arcs that do not really feed off each other. The linear nature of the plot bounced you between them in relatively suspense-free ways. Each segment, more or less, ended with too much closure and too little flow to the next to keep the excitement going. As such, the endgame section (awesome in its own right) occurred very abruptly. There was no steady rising action that kept the player in anticipation of the inevitable crescendo. Rather, the game felt like a series of disjointed quests, and "BOOM!" the endgame occurs. For this reason, I think it felt too short to many players.

    My advice for future titles is to keep the same length, string plot arcs together more tightly, and add suspense when the player has to leave one to do another. During this process, the player should clearly see the problems grow throughout the story until the final and most exciting parts occur.

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  12. What about Civilization? I'm on hiatus from Civ V, but it was up to 200+ hours according to Steam. I've put a lot of time into some iPhone games, though others you can finish mostly in under a week. There are games on my Wii that I'd like to play more, more badges and such to unlock. I'm not insane about completing stuff but I am an outlier. Never finished Avernum 6, kinda got stuck fighting a fight I couldn't win and haven't gone back to either an older save or another go...

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  13. I dont see why anyone should not see the end of a game unless they dont like the game from the start, or simply lose intrest in the storyline/plot... as someone already said that is what 'SAVE' is for.. And I'm pretty sure that games were not meant to be completed in a matter of an hour or two (unless they are Uber casual and cost about 2cents.. And anyone that says they dont have enough time to finish a game, well, tbh..then it would seem that you shouldn't even start an RPG or game with a similar theme, length and depth of storyline...stick to tetris or puzzle games.. I really hope that the day when RPG's can be completed in your lunch hour never come..I have played such a game - one small outdoor area with 5 bad guys and a dungeon with about 6 monsters inside.. I cant say it was fun.

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  14. P.S - Please Jeff, do not shorten your games, I think they are epic, as do many others.. The new game in a series can be 'slightly' shorter as there will no doubt be more time spent on engine design and programming rather than content.. Otherwise I think your games are damn near perfect in length.. To many companies nowaday are making their rpg's less and less like an rpg should be and 'FAR' too casual in gameplay and length..

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  15. I totally agree Jeff. I've been playing Risen and after hour 30 I'm like ...Okaaayyyyy... this is getting old. The gameplay is virtually the same, they're just making me do more of the same. And nothing (including how much I die) is that different from any other part of the game. The game would have been perfect if it ended at about hour 25. It would have been just enough Risen-cake. But too much, and your stomach starts to hurt and it becomes a chore. Bethesda games also have this effect, believe it or not. By about hour 50, you can totally identify like ALL of the game mechanics and predict them too easily. Plus you start to realize just how hollow the world really is, including all the wooden characters with their "radiant AI". My experience starts to tank at about hour 40, but I'm sure they'd say that "I can do what I want" so I could have just finished the game at hour 30 if I wanted. But for gamers who are completionists that just doesn't work. We've been conditioned to do every side quest, lest we face an impossible, frustrating battle at the end.

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  16. Personally, I love a short game. I like to be able to bam through a game in a weekend, or maybe a couple weeknights and a weekend. 6-8 hours is probably the sweetspot for me. Much longer than 10-15 hours and I check out.

    However, your games are the exception. Of the Spiderweb games I've bought over the years (Exile, Exile II, Geneforge, Nethergate, Avadon) I've finished them all (with the exception of Avadon - I'm still working on it).

    Which is remarkable for me, and a testament to your skill at game design and writing.

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  17. I'm quite fussy about what kinds of games I like (specifically WRPGs) and I will only have one major console game "on the go" at any one time. Usually they take me months to finish, but I play slowly, and I try to be a completionist when it comes to sidequests etc. I anticipate I will be playing Skyrim well into 2012. So long console games are fine for me - great, even, since there aren't many in the genre that I like.

    When it comes to computer games and mobile device games (iOS) then any length is fine. That said, while it's ok if a $1.99 iPhone app is only a couple of hours, if I'm spending $30 or more, I want at least 10-20 hours gameplay for that. Which I usually get, since I'm a slow player.

    The JRPGs and KRPGs (Zenonia and their ilk) are almost endless to me, because so much grinding is needed. But as a result they are *boring*. Some grinding is good, so you get a sense of effort/reward. But grinding ten levels, or having hopelessly unwinnable boss-battles on "Normal" mode - to me that's just boring. I actually don't think I managed to finish any of the Zenonia/Inotia etc games, I enjoyed playing about 75%, then they just got too hard and too repetitive. I also didn't manage to finish Eschalon II because it just became too hard, and that disappointed me.

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  18. For the people claiming that "Save" is the answer, there's also the question of mental space.

    If you're putting in clues or information at a specific point, (for example, where are the living statues, where's the secret entrance, what's the codeword you have to tell Asp), it makes a big difference whether you encountered that information 3 hours ago, 3 days ago, or 3 months ago. 3 hours ago, you remember it. 3 days ago, you have to look it up in your log. 3 months ago, you can't remember if it was in your log, or who told it to you.

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  19. Jeff, This reminds me of the first game I ever played. Elite by Braben and Bell.

    The authors made it so that there was a horribly high score necessary to get the "Winning" status. There was no actual reward, in game or other, aside from being "Elite".

    So they really didn't expect anyone to play through to get the Elite status. But a few months later people started sending over photos of their pilots status having achieved the stupendous amount of kills necessary to get Elite.

    It might be true that the majority of game sales are moving away from long-format games. But as someone who just finished playing the third massive add-on to Fallout3: NV and is now playing through Avadon, I assure you that there are still game players who like plunking down every night to play the same game for a few minutes, even over a month.

    Most game players now are playing FarmVille clones. Loads of new gamers, but not really the target audience for RPGs.

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  20. FarmVille - oh I really hate that...
    TBH, currently I don't see ANY game, that is not for some sort of WCG or any other competition that worth even an 6-8 hours of my life. Most of the games nowdays built like "throw them anything we have from the beginning, let them think that our game is awesome, use same features all along the game." That is pretty lame - I want to see something new in progress - not just "yet another boss" or "yet another puzzle" that have same mechanic.
    Also every game must have its atmosphere, or it will be just blank. For example - I played for 1 year Exile 3 shareware with my friend. We gained lvl 30 for all our 6 chars, explored whole shareware part, and still having alot of fun.
    TL;DR - game must be short IF you have short arsenal of what to show to the player. If you're creating a game with in depth story, complete unstraightforwardness and world that change depending AND independing on your actions - then it should be pretty long to feel everything.

    Afterword - look at Dwarf Fortress. Some players have 1 month of non stop playing (I mean if you drop all pauses inbeetween), and still having alot of fun

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  21. I have seen this.."No one wants long games anymore" B******te quite a bit of late...And from what I have read its not true, the people who like rpg's and games like assasins creed etc dont want them shorter, quite a few want them longer as they seem to have gotten shorter.. I think its all a case of the publishers want to shorten them for money reasons..

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  22. I think it all depends on how much free time you have. I tend to want shorter games because I probably only have about 3 hours of pure gaming time to spare a week. If your audience is generally older then you need to keep that in mind. However, if you audience is more in the teen category then you're going to need far more content.

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  23. It's not about the time it takes to finish a game, it is the fact that when you actually finish a game, the novelty wears off.

    I am a hardcore gamer and I never finish games. At least not in the first ten playthroughs, and unless I am really curious about the ending (Planescape: Torment ftw).

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  24. It's not because you're old, it's because digital games today are awful. Games aren't about "completion".

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  26. I think that this is really good, my father said me the same words, but it is not totally exactly because I am not finish the games to , I am 20......................
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  27. I would love to see you make shorter games with multiple, intertwining storylines that beg to be replayed. This seems in-line with some of the things I've read you blogging about over the past while.

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  28. Aieee. Please do not make your games shorter. When I find a good video game world to lose myself in, I want to be able to stay there forever (or at least a really long time). Maybe it takes me weeks to finish, but that means it's that much longer before I have to say goodbye to characters I've gotten attached to and shell out the dollars for another video game. I played all five Geneforge games to completion and would have been happy for more.

    If a lot of people like shorter games, that's fine, but I hope the niche who like deep, extensive stories doesn't get thrown under the bus by this trend. Given that Spiderweb games are sort of "retro" anyway, they already have a target audience that is outside the mainstream.

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