Games come in all shapes and sizes these days. Some are hard, some are easy, some are made to satisfy the masses and others are built from the ground up for a niche crowd.
We live in an amazing era of gaming, one that some would even consider a golden age. There's variety and fresh takes on genres at every turn. With all of that variety comes a wild swing in length.
Is a two hour game worth $20? Should we be upset that a Call of Duty entry arrives with four hours of campaign? Is one of Persona 4's biggest selling points its 80+ hour storyline?
Should a game's length define its value?
The short and simple answer? Yes and no. The long and winding one? Well, here it is from our perspective.
I sat down with Eric Frederiksen of the TechnoBuffalo gaming crew to chat this one out.
So. Eric. Gone Home?
I don't think there's a better place to start than that. Gone Home is a good example of how you can't apply the same value-length formula to every game.
I'm not going to pretend Gone Home isn't expensive for the amount of game, but at the same time, I feel totally fulfilled by it. I've spent hundreds of hours in games I can't remember, but I remember every room in that house, even details about the rooms like where the Super Nintendo games were in Samantha's room. I remember finding her dad's magazines under a pile of books, the layout of the basement. It was time well spent.
Which I think gets right down to the heart of this issue. A game's value should be perceived by its weight.
It's also an extremely subjective thing.
I personally don't think that Gone Home is worth $20. Two hours of, albeit very interesting, gameplay in that exact situation didn't really do it for me. It was neat, it was odd, but it wasn't a world altering experience.
That happened to me with Journey. Journey sells for $14.99, $5 shy of the aforementioned home visit, and it checks in a just north of two hours.
Journey had me reeling after my first playthrough. I went back for seconds, thirds and fourths. Every completion happened in one sitting, and I can say that it was some of the best money of spent on gaming in a very long time.
What did it for me with Journey was a combination of the sense of discovery and the replay value of the experience. Those two things made $14.99 a no-brainer.
Keeping subjectivity in mind is incredibly important. The value proposition of a game isn't going to be the same for everyone. For some of us, we want a meal, others want a Costco-sized economy pallet worth of that particular brand.
Not every game is going to dish out 130 hours of gameplay like Fallout 3 and Skyrim. Inversely, I also don't think we should charge $400 for Fallout.
WIth that said, I think pricing the game to match the experience is still important, and I also think the designer has to have an eye for when they've created a complete experience.
Resident Evil 6, for example, was way, way too long.
Which brings two separate interesting folds into the conversation. We're obviously okay with some games being short as long as they deliver a weighty and unique experience. However, what about short games with no weight and games that are exceptionally massive?
Let's start with the former. I used Call of Duty in the intro of this article to lay the groundwork for this bit of the discussion. I'm a single player campaign type of gamer. I enjoy them, I go out of my way to find the good ones and they typically define a large portion of my motive for buying specific titles.
Modern shooters these days almost all come with absurdly short campaigns. Call of Duty is guilty of it, but so is Battlefield. You get your four hour training mode peppered over a bad story with bad acting, and we shell out $60 to enjoy it.
Look, $60 is too much for a multiplayer experience with a barely functional storyline. I brought that up as a gripe in my Titanfall review, and I stand by it today. There's simply not enough bang for buck in that package to validate the price point.
I think replayability has to count for something, though. When Pac-Man CE DX came out a few years ago, I think it cost more than the $9.99 it can be bought for today on the Xbox Marketplace. Sure, there are a bunch of levels, but it's all still Pac-Man. And if we're being honest, I mostly just play the main level over and over like everyone else. It's the most fun and most challenging. But I didn't pay $10 for 5 minutes of game, either.
And I think this is where subjectivity comes back in. For someone who plays a lot of games and is focused on single player, an experience like Assassin's Creed is going to offer a lot of value. For some, though, a game console ends up being, essentially, a Call of Duty Arcade Machine. They put this year's Call of Duty disc in, and it doesn't swap out until the next Call of Duty hits.
For those people, they're going to spend countless hours drop-scoping noobs or whatever it is the kids are doing these days. They're going to spend hours online using Activision's servers, which also cost money. I think that Call of Duty is worth every cent for those players, and I think if Activision went to a subscription model, a lot of people would pick that up as well.
But obviously, that doesn't work for you, and it doesn't really work for me, either. I like Call of Duty, but it's not something I put hundreds of hours into. Tens, sure.
I completely agree. This game length = value discussion could really be summed up with a single cliche: your mileage may vary. That's true for almost every single game in the medium. If you are willing to only experience the multiplayer element of a Call of Duty game, and that's the whole reason you bought your fancy pants video game playing machine, you'll be good to go with $60 spent.
I think what trips me up, though, is when I try to come at this as a critic. Do I consider value when it comes to dropping a review on a game, complete with score?
I'll reference Titanfall again. I gave that game a 7.5. A lot of that reduction came from my perceived value of the package. A few guns, though everyone really uses basically three of them, a few maps, no campaign (that wasn't a campaign, you guys), a few game types and absolutely no cosmetic customization added up to an experience that really wasn't all that "valuable" to me.
There wasn't enough meat in Titanfall to push it into a long game, and that was a big problem.
"No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough."
That's a quote from the critic, Roger Ebert, and I think it applies here, too. Gone Home worked for me because I was fully engaged by the experience. The time proposition didn't even come into play when I thought about the value. I brought it up in my review more as a concession to the typical expectations people have of a review. As a game goes from good to mediocre, that value proposition can start to become more apparent.
You liked Titanfall, but you're not a huge multiplayer fan the way the core Titanfall audience is, so the lack of a real campaign weighed more heavily for you than it would for others.
I'll bring up Resident Evil 6 again and say that because the game was so troubled, its length made its problems more apparent. If there was one less campaign in that discombobulated mess of a story, it might've actually helped my opinion of the end product. Instead, I ended up resentful of it.
What about the flip side of the coin, then? What about games like Skyrim that are obviously extremely long but also very good?
To me, that's part of Skyrim's roster of selling points. It's super long. You could have purchased Skyrim and, if it was your type of game, absolutely nothing else and been good for months on end.
Length, just like your quote from Mr. Ebert suggests, really hinges on the quality of the product. Skyrim's length is great because Skyrim is great. Journey's brevity works because Journey works.
When I review a game, I consider length an important part of the equation. I look at length as a supporting evidence for my opinion. I loved, let's say, Red Dead Redemption. A lot of that love came from the fact that it kept going. I wasn't done with it yet, and it kept going. That's a beautiful thing.
We've compared games to movies, now what about food? I think it comes down to this: We always want to try new stuff, and sometimes it doesn't taste very good, or it's great and there's simply not enough. The best meals, though, we want to keep going back to over and over again. I go to the same restaurant on a nearly weekly basis because their cheeseburgers are just that good.
Sometimes a short game is the right price, like going to an upscale restaurant and trying the way-too-expensive steak they're famous for. Sometimes a long game is right because you know you can go back to it over and over – it's the right price to keep you coming back.
As much as people would like to think it, reviews are not objective, and what you get out of a game is never going to be exactly the same as what I get out of a game, even when we both like it.
Is there one value = portion equation we can apply to all games? Definitely not, but we know it's messed up when we see it.