Please get your mind out of the gutter! I’m talking about game length. Seriously. Some people…
One of the consistent issues facing video games is the ever-decreasing size of many big-budget gaming blockbusters.
I’ve heard both sides of the story; quality will always trump quantity, it’s true. But equally, the flipside is that a movie of about two to three hours in length can set you back anywhere between £3 – £15, dependent of course on Stream, DVD or Bluray. A video game, costing £50, is three times the expense of that. A three hour gaming experience at £50, no matter how good and earth-shattering it may be, is always going to look like poor value for money in terms of entertainment.
Cinemas are of course more expensive, sure; the last time I went to the movies, it cost £20 (I’m seriously not joking). But even there, as a day out – there are far more expensive options available, and I’m not buying any of the hardware. I pay my money, I get ‘Le Bucket O’Coke’ and some Popcorn thrown in, and I get helped in by staff to spend a few hours in front of a big screen, in a well-kept and maintained theatre, to see whatever it is I paid my money for. And that’s not even taking into consideration the overheads (rent, taxes, supplies, licensing etc.) or the expense that has come with going digital and the frankly super-expensive mistake that was 3D Movies.
A video game has additional expenses as you go in; the console costs money. Online, for two of the major competitors at least, costs money. And then you’re paying an additional £50 for a video game on top of that. This isn’t chump change; you’ve paid your cash long in advance here, and this is before you jump into the realms of DLC and Microtransactions. And don’t think PC Gaming is any better; those of us who have been PC Gaming for a while know that it’s no less costly to maintain a viable PC build in an industry always seeking to have and indeed, try more.
At the very low end, you’ll have paid £200-£300 before you even get to play a game.
This is the thing that many defenders of the Triple-A Industry gloss over; it’s not the consumers problem if your development costs are spiralling out of control. It really isn’t. We’re not the problem, as is clearly evidenced by many low budget success stories over the years, it’s this idea of trying to compete making the “New Big Pretty Thing”. When so much work goes into the visual detail, you often end up with less depth as a result and ultimately, as things like The Order: 1886 demonstrated earlier this year, you also then latch onto old trends that used to be popular to effectively try and make any of that money back. The end result is games which aren’t taking any risks, and feel like we’ve done them before and so much better at that.
And with so much space being used up, we see smaller games. Not in terms of storage, but in what we get to experience. That said, one can utilise the smaller size in effective ways – but this requires the holy grail of the video game industry, which is replayability.
Splatoon is perhaps the latest example of this; the battles are three minutes long and there isn’t a wealth of maps (although it has been getting better and with more new maps and modes promised in the coming months, it’s likely this criticism may not stand in the future), but people keep going back for that old, worn-out line of “Just One More Go”. People keep playing and enjoying the game, despite its size disparity compared to other bigger-selling arena shooters, because it coaxes people back in. Simple, solid and fun, the central theme and indeed, gimmick of Splatoon is one that doesn’t wear off easily. I also like being a Kid now, and then a Squid now, and the joy of switching between the two remains one of the simplest and most brilliant design moves in… well, this whole generation in fact. And I’ll go back next week, next month and the month after that because that £30 game (lower-cost because Nintendo, obviously) has the design genius that wraps its tentacle-suckers around us, refusing to let us go.
But this often requires the idea to be thought up in the design process; a “cinematic” experience isn’t likely to be concerned with that, because we’re meant to be somehow grateful for having the ‘opportunity’ to play some of these video games. This has always been the problem with such auteur developers; the consumer be damned, it’s their pet product and if we don’t like it, we’re the bad guys.
Consumers – and in this market, that is the Gamers – are not bottomless sacks of money. One of the biggest crimes of modern development has been the rise of the budgets giving developers this kind of odd attitude that this industry is awash in cash. The truth is – it isn’t. Since the end of Generation 7, the games market has been shrinking and spending isn’t quite as good as it once was. We can of course see this, we can feel this, and denying it isn’t going to make it go away. The era of the novelty – of the Bluray, the Wii Remote and the Kinect – is over. Many economies are still in recession, and wages haven’t risen with the rising costs of living, meaning that the amount of disposable income people have has shrunk over the last five to six years.
And to bring us round full circle, if you’re only buying one game a month or one game every two or three months, you as a consumer want that purchase to have some length to it. It’s a purchase that you want to tide you over until the next time you can buy a game, or the next big release, and that means shorter games are getting looked over, ignored and even criticised because men in suits, locked away in their towers of Ivory and Gold, are blissfully unaware of the realities of their own consumer base. With the end of this generation coming very soon, there is no time for the PlayStation 4 or XBox One (or, indeed, the Wii U) to depreciate in terms of production costs and value-aided redesigns. The mass market often waited for the costs of these machines to come down below the £200 mark, and in some cases, even less than that. Remember that the PlayStation 2 hit a retail price of £129.99 before that generation came to a close, which of course is going to make it a more appealing and perhaps safer investment as an entertainment product.
People expect things that cost more to last longer. That’s just the way it is – we see expense as something that tells us that a product is quality, and lasts longer. It’s not always true, but that’s how we are as consumers in general, across all markets. Generation 8 so far has been showing signs of forgetting this; glitchy products, poor DLC practices, Microtransactions in full-priced games and shorter single-player campaigns have dented for many their confidence in the market. And it’s not a surprise that, despite all the noise Sony likes to make, that the industry is grinding to an undignified standstill and continues to overall generate less revenue than the prior year.
But most gamers don’t read blogs, and don’t actually care about these rising developmental costs or the decrease in overall market spending and revenue. They see people complaining that a game is too short, hear that it’s a £50 game with a near-as-makes-no-difference three to four hour campaign, and they think; “You know what? I can wait until I can nab it off eBay/Amazon for a tenner or so!” And that actively keeps revenue down and makes developers and publishers lose money. Welcome to the Generation 8 Vicious Circle.
So yeah, the length of a game matters. It’s not the end of the world; of course not. But it matters, however incidentally, to a market that is frankly getting tired of this rubbish. It is indicative of a belief that consumers are sacks of cash in a time of often widespread economic hardship. It’s indicative of a market desperately trying to be “cinematic”; but forgetting that it’s a video game, not a movie, and it costs a shed-ton more to make. And it speaks of a market that all too often is surprised when consumers bite back, or turn their noses up in disgust or indifference, because they feel we as consumers owe THEM something.
And let’s end with the other catch; if I’ve finished your single-player game in four hours and there’s nothing left to do, chances are I’m trading that game in for something else. This means that someone else will see a cheaper, second hand copy next to a full-priced release copy. Which do you think they’ll be picking up?
If we weren’t trading these games in, we’d probably see more full-priced copies selling. But after twenty years of knowing this, I don’t expect the video games industry to quite understand that. If they haven’t learned that lesson by now, they probably never will…