Editorial: Bigger Isn’t Better

Posted by: 6/21/2010

Considering you’re reading this fine blog, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you, as a gamer, have read many game reviews over the course of your gaming career. Many different reviewers have different criteria for what makes a good or bad game, but one of the most common ones is the concept of “replayability”, or how long you’ll be playing the game after you’ve beaten the single player mode. It frightens me that replayability is so important to so many people, because it’s actually hurting the quality of the games we play.

I completely understand why replayability is important to some people; the fact is that games are expensive. If you live in the United States, depending on your platform of choice, a brand new triple-A title can run you anywhere from 50-60 dollars. That’s not exactly cheap, especially when you consider the massive amount of quality games that are released every month. Staying up to date with the latest games can be very costly for the average consumer, so that consumer will want to make sure he gets his money’s worth, and that will certainly affect the games that consumer will purchase.

Obviously, developers want people to buy their games, so they’ll put in all sorts of content to insure that players will continue playing the game well after the credits roll. Some developers will put in a multiplayer mode, others will design achievements and trophies that require a lot of time and skill to obtain, some will add more difficulty modes. So how exactly is that hurting the quality of games? More content should be a good thing, but unfortunately, the above features aren’t the only things that developers will do to extend the replay value of their game. They’ll try to make the main game longer as well.

Perhaps you’re still confused as to why this is such a bad thing. Picture this, you’re in a town in the new RPG you just bought and you’re looking at your objective list. Your current objective is to go talk to the old wise man and get the key to unlock the next dungeon. Sounds simple enough, right? You walk over to the wise man’s house and discover that he gave the key to the dungeon to his friend that lives in the mountains. Now you have to traverse across the overworld all the way from the starting village back to the mountains, tediously grinding a bunch of enemies that you’ve battled before. You get to the friend’s house and he gives you the key. Now you have to make your way back to the dungeon, which was in the same forest the village. So you have to make the long return trip, battling the same enemies before you can finally enter the dungeon and continue your quest.

Let’s say that getting the key from the man in the mountains and getting back to the dungeon took you about an hour. That’s an hour of your life you just wasted. The plot didn’t progress at all during that hour, and there weren’t any new or interesting locations to visit because you had already been to the mountains before. All getting that key did was waste your time. That my friends, is what we call “filler”, in this particular example, it was of the fetch quest variety. Developers will put this pointless crap in their games all the time, and for some bizarre reason gamers are willing to put up with it if only to increase gameplay hours. I’ve gathered a few examples of games that were worse with the filler than they would have been if they simply cut the crap and made the game a little bit shorter.

Alan Wake

This is actually the game that got me thinking about this subject, but let’s get one thing straight, I LOVED Alan Wake. The story was fantastic, the atmosphere was chilling, and the game had some truly remarkable set-pieces. When I was reading the reviews for this game before I purchased it, I noticed that one of the most common complaints was that the game was too short, only about 7-8 hours of gameplay. But when I bought the game and finished it, I left thinking that it went on for too long. Alan Wake had plenty of great moments such as the rock concert and the finale, but Remedy knew that people would complain about the game being short. So they filled it with lots of running around in the dark woods, which got a bit repetitive after a while. There was one moment that sticks out in my mind, and I’ll try and be vague to avoid spoilers, but Alan was walking down a well lit tunnel to avoid the monsters out in the forest, when all of a sudden, he got a call from his friend asking him for help. So Alan leaves the tunnel. What should have been a simple cutscene turned into another opportunity to run around some more repetitive woods. The little moments like that added up, and I bet that Remedy could’ve cut out about an hour of filler to make a much more engaging experience.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

Twilight Princess is the longest Zelda game by far; it took me about 72 hours to beat my first time through. In case you’re math stupid, that’s three days. Three days is quite a long time to spend on one game. But is it a coincidence that Twilight was also by far the weakest in the series? It’s true that Twilight Princess was the longest Zelda to date, but it wasn’t because it was an epic rollercoaster ride; it was just padded with so much filler. Did anyone seriously enjoy running around as a wolf, searching the land of twilight for stupid bugs? Or how many enjoyed taking time out of slaying monsters and exploring a grand world to go fishing to hunt down some stupid yeti? It was like three hours in before you even got to the Forest Temple. Where were you in those three hours? In the incredibly boring home village herding goats. Let me repeat that, three hours. Herding goats. You know how long it took Ocarina of Time to get to its first dungeon? About ten minutes. Which one is remembered as being the greatest achievement in video game history?

Sonic Unleashed

The most tragic use of filler to date, it turned what could’ve been a glorious return to form into a horrible monstrosity, and the worst Sonic game to date. Sega seemed to get everything right at first, Sonic moved at blistering speeds, the graphics were beautiful, and they actually decided to program it properly. But unfortunately, some thick-headed moron decided that people wouldn’t want to play a short game that’s just running. So what happened? You know exactly what happened! Scientifically proven to be the very antithesis of fun and joy, the Werehog’s levels were hour long levels of terrible combat and uninspired platforming. Everything about the daytime Sonic stages, the great level design, the speed, the amazing graphical quality, was absent from Sonic’s lupine counterpart. These leviathans of awful could last anywhere from 1-2 hours. But if that wasn’t enough, Sega put in even more filler in the form of collectable medals that were required to gain access to the game’s levels, à la Super Mario 64 or Banjo-Kazooie. But the thing about the levels in Mario 64 and Banjo is that they were open-worlds that required slow movements and exploration. Sonic’s stages are completely linear and he moves at unimaginable speeds, so they didn’t put very many medals in his stages. Nearly all of the bloody things are in the Werehog’s levels, meaning that you would often have to play them multiple times and search every nook and cranny of every terrible level just to gain access to the next beautiful Sonic stage. I don’t know about you, but I would much rather pay $60 for a two or three hour long game that’s just the Sonic stages as opposed to the twenty hour failure we ended up with.

Morrowind vs. Portal

We’ll end on a comparison of two seemingly incomparable games that actually serve to prove my point very nicely. You can purchase both The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and Portal for twenty dollars each on Steam right now. So which one is more worth your money? Morrowind is a massive RPG that can take away sixty hours of your time if you let it, and Portal is a fun little action-puzzler that will only take you two. At a first glance, it would seem like Morrowind is the better deal, simply due to the amount of game you’re getting for your dollar. But Morrowind is one of the most broken games I have ever played. The combat simply doesn’t work, it looks hideous, and the journal system is the single worst objective list in any video game ever made. I couldn’t stand five hours of that game, let alone sixty. I’ve heard that Morrowind eventually gets really good, but I’ll never know simply because I can’t put up with its broken rubbish. Compare that to Portal, sure it’s only two hours long, but those two hours have been masterfully designed, expertly paced, and brilliantly written to make sure that the player is never bored or frustrated. Can you imagine if in Portal you constantly had to backtrack to get to new testchambers? Or if there was some sort of pointless hub world to make it longer? In my opinion, Portal is a better game than Morrowind despite, and partly because of, its short length. It doesn’t overstay its welcome and never bores you. I understand that you can’t really compare an RPG to a puzzle game properly, but the point is I enjoyed my time with the shorter, more focused game than the longer, more flawed one.

If you took one thing away from this article, children, I would want it to be this: sixty hours of gameplay sounds great in the advertising, but if you can’t fill those sixty hours with interesting gameplay scenarios than you may as well not waste the player’s time and cut it down to two. Gamers and developers have become far too concerned with the length, not the quality, of video games. The quality experiences are the ones that you remember most, not the longest ones. I think many developers and gamers would do well to remember that.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09700251726895407035 Craig

    Holy crap, this guy gets it.

  • aaron

    yeah he does