Shawn Layden, former CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment, came out last week with a controversial opinion. He made the point that games as they are now take too much development time and money to create, and that developers should focus on making games shorter.
It’s a complex subject to be explored. There are definite pros and cons to having development studios make smaller, more refined experiences. It costs less, players get more games within different genres, and there are more chances for these studios to create a smash hit.
Shorter Games: The Pros
We all love games like Skyrim, Red Dead Redemption 2 and Grand Theft Auto 5, but not all games handle the content of large scale, open world games as well as these heavy hitters.
A Mile Wide, But an Inch Deep
No Man’s Sky and Destiny 2 are examples of this, at launch at least. These games were often labelled “a mile wide, but an inch deep”. In laymen’s terms, this means there appears to be lots to do in the world, but none of it very effectively moves the games story forward, or feels impactful.
No Man’s Sky at launch, was a game about gathering fuel and resources on your way to the centre of the galaxy. There were some different friendly races to interact with on the way, as well as monuments with alien language dotted about. But that was it. The game felt like it lacked development time and polish, and only after a year of the games launch, did it start to feel like a finished product.
This is no doubt due to the lack of revenue streams for the developers, Hello Games, and the need to inject funds into the company by releasing a poor initial experience.
A similar situation was present at Bungie for the launch of Destiny 2. This game was supposed to be incredibly large in scope, but fell flat in the first few weeks due to over-promising and under-delivering. A large amount of players abandoned the game citing the lack of promised content, and a very lacklustre campaign.
Looking back on the games release, it seems apparent now that Activision pressured Bungie to meet their expected release date of September 2014, not allowing them to delay again in order to release a game that was a more well-rounded, story driven RPG.
Time is Money
These are just a couple of the poorly performing titles that have released over the past few years, but there have been many games that don’t hit the mark they want to.
When games are shorter, developers have a great deal more time to polish the storylines in their games, and the areas that house this content. There is a great deal less money involved in creating shorter, more refined experiences as companies don’t have to pay staff salaries for 5-8 years without a return on their investment.
Instead, if a game takes 3 years from its planning and pre-production to hitting a shops shelves, companies receive a return from that game in a much shorter time-frame. In all likelihood, these shorter experiences probably sell as well as a game with double the development time either way.
Shorter Games: The Cons
As always, there are two sides to an argument. Some games fumble their development, not allocating enough funds or time for development. But the flip side to this are the games mentioned at the top of the last section. The Elder Scrolls, Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption are always going to be massive titles, making a huge return on the investment for their publishers and developers.
This is for a couple of reasons…
These games, as well as many other successful examples, are very well established in their genre. Fans love a great open world experience that is well crafted and thought out. New studios and IPs often are looked at with more scepticism than one that’s had 2 or 3 successful predecessors.
Skyrim, GTA V and RDR 2 all have at least 2 previous successes. A large number of the people who enjoyed the last game, who were happy with their investment, will buy again. They trust these studios will continue to innovate on these successes, bringing even greater experiences next time round.
Dollar Per Hour
I’ve used this point before, but this system does affect the mentality of gamers everywhere. The Dollar per Hour metric is used to figure out how much you spend, per hour of entertainment.
If the industry shifts towards shorter games, such as 15 hour experiences as opposed to the 50+ hours we’re now quite accustomed to, that value drops sharply. A lot of people really value the fact that they can spend $60 on a game, and play it for months before they need a new one.
If we assumed that Cyberpunk 2077 was a 20 hour experience, players would be less enthusiastic about the title. The fact is, people are so interested in the game because it deviates from the developers telling us a story, instead letting us experience it on our own terms. Gamers love exploration, lots of quests with interesting characters, and the ability to go wherever and do whatever.
Gamers love choice. They love the ability to create a character, and experience a large, sprawling world through that characters eyes. Shorter games are linear by design, usually pushing you through missions, checkpoint to checkpoint. While there is a place in the industry for this, it’s not something that should be adhered to by all developers.
We like big games. I have a strong suspicion that there will be pushback on all sides to Shawn Layden’s comments.