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    GameGuy: The “How Long is Long Enough?” Edition

    By Mark H. Walker

    I loved The Matrix. It was gripping, thought-provoking, and well acted, but I don't think I would have been so enamored with a six-hour version. Would two more Kenau/Fishburne karate scenes improve the product? Perhaps another spat of bullet dodging? Probably not, the producer/writers /director knew when to leave well enough alone.

    I wish software publishers would do the same.

    Baldur's Gate put me to sleep, Septerra Core bored me, and Ground Control's sole flaw was its 30-mission campaign. Are publisher's making games too long? Let me kill the literary suspense right now. The answer is YES. All caps. The game has not been made --be it RPG, strategy, shooter, or whatever-- that can bear the weight of more than 50 hours of play. Software companies forget that the terms “more” and “better” are not synonyms.

    We all like to finish our games. Invariably, my favorite games have been those that are not only good fun, but finishable (sic). Fallout, Parasite Eve, Shogo, Odium (okay, Odium wasn't really a good game), and Shadow Watch. I finished each, didn't forfeit my life to do so, and loved every last minute of it. On the flip side of the coin, I've played way too many games that take a good 15-hour story, 7-level shootout, or 15-mission campaign and double it, adding little more than several hours of tedium.

    Who's to blame? Two parties: Publishers and journalists. Unfortunately, publishers are caught up in a huge game of "keeping up with the Joneses." For example, if real-time strategy title "A" has 30 missions, then the real time strategy title in development had damn well also better have 30 missions. It doesn't matter if it only takes fifteen missions to craft a great campaign, having less missions than the competitor looks bad on the back of the box. Please understand, many of the folks making these decisions are not gamers, and quantifiable measurements such as number of missions are easier for them to grasp than quality of play.

    But who (beside our entire culture) gives publishers the idea that more is better? It's us, the gaming press. I remember reading the Fallout reviews; almost all said the same thing: great game, but too little of it. It took me about 30 hours to finish Fallout. That's approximately $1.65 per gaming hour --way cheaper than the typical movie. That's enough bang for my buck.

    Neither is Tim Cain's classic the lone gaming ranger of titles slammed for supposedly short-sheeting their customers. Critics who liked (read --understood the subtleties of) Red Storm's Shadow Watch nevertheless diss'd its length. To add insult to injury, most of these comments on length come from critics who --let me whisper in your ear-- never complete the game. It's easy to admire Wizardry 8’s 70+ hours of play *if* you haven't trudged through it yourself.

    Of course the problem isn't just too many similar levels, too much dead-dialogue story, or a glut of look-a-like missions. Feature creep --the inevitable addition of new characters/creatures/weapons/cars/spells/what-have-you as a game develops grabs even the best developers. Case in point, Diablo II ships with five character classes. Who the heck is going to play through it with more than one?

    Bottom line, publishers are dumping too much development money into creating more, when they should be creating better. By the same token reviewers dump too many words into evaluating length instead of quality. 

    Movies aren't judged on length, books aren't judged on length, why should games be so judged? I don't know, maybe I better ask the Matrix people.

    © Mark H. Walker, LLC 2001

    Mark H. Walker is a veteran interactive entertainment journalist who has written over 40 books including his recently released Medal of Honor and Wizardry 8 strategy guides

    " "

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