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SHRINK TO SUCCESS

22 Jun 2009

[This week's Monday Musings article is a repost of my submission for Game Design Aspect of the Month for April 2009. All-new Monday Musings content will resume next week.]

Shortly after the success of Portal, a movement for shorter games began to form. It hasn't gained much momentum in the mainstream, but game designers are beginning to recognize the advantages of "short-form" games, and I predict that producers and publishers will join the chorus within the next few years.

When I say "short-form" games, I'm speaking comparatively. A short-form game, for purposes of this discussion, is one which is significantly shorter than a mainstream AAA title; specifically, a game of roughly 2-4 hours in length, regardless of genre. The establishment of specific duration criteria implies that the game is at least somewhat driven by narrative, if not largely so; for example, it would be difficult -- if not impossible -- to quantify the duration of Tetris, so such non-narrative games are omitted from this discussion.

Short-form games can be uniquely compelling in ways their longer cousins can't. For starters, their shorter duration necessarily eliminates "filler" gameplay, resulting in a more-or-less uninterrupted state of player education. This is compelling because, at their core, games are learning machines. The process of play is a cycle of learning, then applying:

learn-apply-cycle

When new concepts are being learned -- whether they're mechanics, environments, characters, or plot situations -- player engagement rises. When known concepts are subsequently applied, or "tested", engagement may begin high, but quickly falls as the application of the concept becomes repetitive; this is "filler" gameplay. The education of new concepts introduces novelty into the game flow and helps maintain player interest over time, but filler -- too-long periods of application without learning -- breaks the game flow and ultimately bores players.

Short-form games don't have room for filler; thus, short-form games need not break the flow of education. New concepts can be educated to the degree necessary to ensure mastery, then applied for just long enough to provide validation of the new skill (and no longer!) The learn-apply cycle is compressed, resulting in greater overall player engagement:

learn-apply-cycle-compressed

Short-form games also tend to be more focused, in terms of both gameplay and story. Less overall content means room for fewer mechanics and fewer plot points, so short-form designers have to make the most of what they have. Portal, for example, has very few mechanics:

  • Fire blue portal
  • Fire orange portal
  • Pick up (and drop) objects (e.g. Weighted Companion Cube)
  • Turrets
  • Crushing pistons
  • Jump pads
  • Bouncing energy balls (with matching conduits)

By contrast, Grand Theft Auto IV:

  • Driving (cars)
  • Driving (motorcycles)
  • Helicopter piloting
  • Melee combat
  • Gun combat
  • Cover system
  • Cell phone
  • Bowling
  • Darts
  • Pool
  • Drunk-driving (and drunk-walking)
  • "Wanted" system
  • Vigilante missions
  • Internet cafes
  • Clothing customization
  • Safehouse customization

That GTA4 has a longer list of mechanics than *Portal *is neither surprising nor disturbing. But try ticking off, for both lists, the mechanics which were implemented poorly, and a very different picture quickly emerges. A major strength of short-form games' necessary focus is that while they contain fewer mechanics, those mechanics are generally of a more uniform, and higher, quality.

The same goes for game stories. The stories in Braid, Knytt Stories, and World of Goo are simple, digestible, and most importantly, thematically and ludo-narratively coherent. By contrast, the stories of games like Metal Gear Solid 4 are sprawling, often incomprehensible, and packed with useless information and a low proportion of memorable moments. Not that I support games uncritically aping film, but there's a useful maxim in screenwriting that applies to writing scenes: "Get in late, get out early." The idea is that by presenting only the most irreducible core of a scene you increase audience comprehension of that scene, and by extension its impact and memorability. Put another way: distracting the audience with irrelevant or redundant content not only makes *that *content suck; it also drags down the perception of the "good stuff".

So far, it all boils down to focus: short-form games are necessarily more focused than long-form ones, and therefore less likely to break the flow of player education or distract the player with meaningless content, leading to an ultimately more engaging experience. But there are several financial benefits to short-form games as well, and these are arguably more likely to make allies of producers and publishers.

First, the average gamer is 35 years old. That means he or she is likely to be employed full-time and to have a family, or at least a spouse. This is not a person with a lot of free time. Films are an enduring entertainment medium because they run about two hours, which isn't difficult at all to fit into an otherwise busy schedule. 60-hour gaming extravaganzas are a whole different story, but a quality 2-4 hour game can be completed in a sitting or two and not feel like an endless slog. A ubiquity of 2-4 hour games would place games firmly in the same "impulse buy" space as movies and music, for the simple reason that consumers would no longer see games as a significantly greater *time *investment than those mediums.

However, even if such a ubiquity came to pass, games are still seen as a *financial *investment, due to the unconscionable $59.99 standard price point. The most common argument given by publishers at the beginning of the 360/PS3 generation for the price increase was that "next-generation" games were more difficult and, critically, more expensive to develop. While it is true that game development budgets increased significantly from the PS2/Xbox generation to the 360/PS3 generation, they are still, with the exception of a very few outliers, far below the average budget of a feature film. The key difference, as I have argued previously, is the difference in audience size. $10 DVDs sell to tens of millions of consumers and make a handy profit on $100 million dollar films. If a game sold to tens of millions of consumers, it wouldn't need to be priced at $60 to make a profit on its measly (by comparison) $20 million development budget. And if you're wondering where we find those extra customers, all you have to do is lower your price point.

But for the sake of argument, let's indulge these publishers' assertion that higher prices are necessitated specifically by higher development costs. Short-form games have dramatically lower development costs than long-form ones; notable short-form indie titles like Braid and World of Goo were done in their entirety for under $200,000. Such lower development costs should make reduced game pricing a non-issue, and as Valve's data shows, reduced game pricing is highly likely to result in dramatic increases in net revenue... and that's before we even factor in the short-form game's superior focus, consistency, and ludo-narrative coherence, and the subsequent word-of-mouth and goodwill boost it's all but guaranteed to receive!

It's no coincidence that games whose duration is nearer that of films are likely to prove more compelling in many respects than 60-hour epics. Short-form games necessarily hold sacred the all-important flow of player education, keeping engagement high by avoiding filler and redundancy. They are more tightly focused, presenting a better-integrated set of mechanics and superior ludo-narrative coherence. They are cheaper to produce, which means they can be sold at a price point that supports impulse purchases, and good data suggests that price-point will actually *increase *net revenue. They fit sensibly into the average gamer's schedule, all but eliminating the negative perception that games must be a significant time investment. And perhaps most importantly, they are small enough to be memorable in their entirety, rather than recalled in disparate pieces tainted by a plurality of poor experiences.

Presented with such a win-win package, why would producers and publishers *not *jump on board?

(This article was originally published at Game Design Aspect of the Month.)

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