There’s a narrative going around the game development community. Games are getting shorter, it goes; people are busy, they don’t have time. As the average age of active gamers, and particularly paying gamers, continues to rise, game makers feel justified in making smaller, more polished, often cinematic games. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, they make games with very short session times; what can you do in the time it takes to get coffee at Starbucks? Simpler games are better, games with easy to understand mechanics. Gaming is both maturing and mainstream, colonizing other media, like Japan’s Prime Minister as Mario at the Rio Olympics, a little grey around the temples, but still playful.
Lately, though, I’m starting to feel like it’s not games or gaming, it’s game developers who are getting old, who only have a few minutes to devote to something here or there. It’s not just No Man’s Sky; lots of people have forgotten the peculiar joy of figuring out a game’s behaviors through trial and error, experimentation and exploration. But that game is just the latest of what I suppose you could call the world-exploration genre. Fallout 4, for example, has many of the same elements – procedural battles, resource gathering, crafting, upgrades – and at a base level, you spend most of your time wandering around the world, looking for things. Or Shadow of Mordor; while more combat-focused thematically, it was still largely a game that was driven by exploration of its world, whether literally its geometry or the back-story in the little collectibles.
What these games all have in common is that they take a very long time to play. The grind for upgrades in No Man’s Sky is very similar to the grind in any MMO (yet another kind of world-exploration game); covering all of the ground in post-war Boston or Mordor takes a lot of time. On top of that, there’s extensive replayability. In Fallout 4, there are the various storylines and factions (one of the many excellent implementations being the warning before taking a story-altering action) in addition to the world-simulation elements. Shadow of Mordor has the revenge and fealty systems to constantly shuffle the deck for as long as you feel like playing. It goes back to one of the early arguments for gaming – that on a per-dollar basis, it is one of the most effective forms of entertainment.
Yes, we used to play endless hours of Quake 3 or Counterstrike or Civilization or whatever your particular flavor was, but when you divided that $50 (assuming you actually paid for something) by the number of hours you played, you got some infinitesimal number of pennies, whereas you were paying $5+ per hour at the movies. With arcades, you were paying $0.25 every 3-5 minutes, so about $4 per hour. Hell, with early internet connections, some people were paying $2 per minute or $120 per hour to play their favorite games, or check their e-mail for that matter. When we were young and poor, students or just starting out, the value you got from gaming was tangible. It was better than television (the next best thing to free), but affordable in the long run precisely because we had so much energy to burn and they kept us occupied for so many hours.
For a lot of gamers, nothing has changed. League of Legends, one of the most popular games in the world, has an average session length of 30-35 minutes, and gamers sit down expecting to play multiple sessions. Raids in World of Warcraft are still multi-hour affairs, albeit not the insane grinds they used to be. In terms of value per dollar spent, they still eclipse everything else in terms of media. If you have a lot of time to kill, these are great ways to kill it. So are free-to-play games, don’t get me wrong. They are huge in their own ways, constantly growing, constantly evolving. It is terrifying to think of the collective amount of time spent tapping the screen to move gems or candies or barbarians or cartoon houses.
So, both ends continue to expand. Tentpole games aren’t going anywhere. Yes, they cost tens of millions of dollars to make, but each one returns hundreds of millions. Services will live as long as their player base supports them. The high-risk areas remain the unproven and the middle ground, and indies are happily throwing themselves on as many grenades as they can find. At the moment, we’re still in a growth market. More people are playing electronic games today than at any point in history. People are finding more ways to play, dedicating larger amounts of their time and resources to playing. There’s VR/AR, location-based gaming, and so many other avenues that are ripe for development. Surely, that can’t hold true forever. At some point, there will be a saturation of the audience – young and old, poor and wealthy, the time-rich and the time-starved, the twitchy and the cerebral.
But, for now, surely these are the salad days. It seems odd to say after decades of experience playing and making games, but we are still at the beginning. There is more to invent in front of us than there are established models behind. And yet, one thing, I would caution, remains true. Players want time-consuming games, deep, rich, long, rewarding engagements that can last weeks and months, not just days or hours. It’s great to create experiences, but worlds will win, nine times out of ten.