Too Short vs. Too Long

Clive Thompson has a great article on wired.com making the age-old argument that gamers who grow up and get a job make: games don’t need to be forty hours long to be fun.

I read a couple of dozen write-ups of [The Maw], all of which were highly positive — but which complained that [it] was “too short.” … The Maw felt like the perfect length — because the game ends precisely at the moment that your learning curve flattens out. After three hours, I felt like I’d figured out every permutation of weird trick I could pull with my ever-expanding Maw — so when the ending arrived, my brain felt perfectly exercised.

I’m on Thompson’s bandwagon and he elucidates the reasoning well, so I am disinclined to make the same argument. But I do want to raise a question: which is better for a game to be – too short or too long?

A game that is too long is defended by its proponents for being full of value (see the Disgaea series’ post-game for an extreme example, but most RPGs are competent examples). In the long game’s example, the subset of gamers who stick with it are rewarded the most, while the quitters take all they can handle. In short games, all gamers get the maximum satisfaction the game offers, but yet many still want more.

Hey! This sounds like a supply and demand problem! Long games provide a utility surplus. Some folks will be at the far end of the curve where utility supplied = utility demanded, some will be where utility supplied > utility demanded, but next to no one will be in the situation where utility supplied < utility demanded. The short game provides the opposite.

So it seems obvious: long games are better because everyone can take their fill – it’s like a buffet.

But that is only correct if your objective is to maximize total utility given. But perhaps the real objective should be to maximize the number of people whose utility demanded is as high as possible – that everyone who gets your game enjoys it as much as possible. This is the case for the short game.

Obviously the truly economic issues matter a lot more than the design issues examined as if they were economic issues. But looking at the problem as if it were a problem of economics allows us to see that the “buffet” style long game is great for those who gorge themselves as it maximizes utility over all players while the “gourmet” style short game is great for those who want the complete package and no more as it maximizes the number of players who enjoys all there is to see.

So asking whether games are too short or too long is suggesting that both Golden Corral and gourmet restaurants can’t exist in the same economy. If you have a short game, market it like a gourmet dinner. If you have a long game, market it like Golden Corral.

I’m hungry.

2 Comments

  1. As I’m sure you’re aware, this also fails to take into account the creation of the games. Can you make several short games during the time it would take to make one long game? Can you increase the quality of, say, the art assets or level design or play test/tuning with the extra time provided by having a shorter narrative?

    Personally I like the shorter games. Give me a long game and I’ll lose interest in it, but spread it into two episodic games released over several months and it gives me a reason not only to pay more but to get back into the company’s IP. I think Valve has the right idea in this area.

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