Indie | Short Stuff
A virtue of independence…
As the debate about the acceptable length of games continues, Fraser McMillan looks at the issue from an independent perspective.
GAME LENGTH has been a contentious issue for years, with the assumption that more hours of play equals better value for money. The latter is a problem that’s ostensibly muted where we’re concerned; freed of shareholders and budgets, indie developers should naturally exist outwith the traditional sphere of financial constraint and its unwavering potential for conflicts of interest. In the case of freeware games, especially those that cost little or nothing to make, controversy is understandably limited. Even if the developer has made some financial investment, it’s possible to rely on donations to cover the cost of past and future projects.
The old attitude may still be there, as evidenced by a fellow customer overheard in a gaming store earlier today – “it’s not a very good game; there’s no skill to it” – but it is in decline. This is a result of indie games’ ability to be as short or as long as necessary. It used to be considered scandalous if a mainstream title’s run-time averaged less than half a day’s play. Now, they routinely fall under the five or six hour mark. It’s still occasionally singled out as a specific con in reviews, but just as we’ve become accustomed to shorter games, we’re less likely to break our investment down into pounds per hour.
What this indicates is that the outmoded notion that it’s necessarily difficulty or playtime that constitute “value” in our games has been challenged by indies. Valve, who are consistently ahead of the curve, have followed the trend with their Half-Life 2 episodes and the splendid Portal, still cited as the marquee short game. Its almost film length duration was one of its best assets, which admittedly makes me somewhat nervous of the sequel due later this year.
Ten second rule
Valve’s masterpiece may have demonstrated to the wider audience the potential for shorter, more contained gaming experiences, but even they were merely following the smaller independents’ lead. Indeed, the community’s output is arguably becoming more and more weighted to the trend, reaching its logical conclusion in the Experimental Gameplay Project’s recent “ten seconds” theme. Molleindustria’s hysterical Run, Jesus, Run demonstrates the power of the shorter game to an even greater extent than his earlier titles Oiligarchy and Every Day the Same Dream. There’s no need to pad anything out, as is customary with surprisingly many commercial titles, and it all fits together neatly.
One of the key advantages of these leaner titles is that it’s possible for the player to come away with a fully formed experience without plugging away for hours on end. I can play through a Don’t Look Back in a half hour and reflect on it, drawing what I can from the tremendously high quality of those 30 minutes. It’s almost universally recognised that the majority of games run out of steam before the end; how many times have you honestly been satisfied upon reaching the conclusion? A fun, enlightening and tightly designed short game has the capacity to deliver a consistently great experience from start to finish, whereas that’s mighty hard to maintain in even the very best linear games lasting more than a few hours.
Yet players moaned about the pricing of Flower, World of Goo, Braid and most recently VVVVVV because of their relatively modest lengths. Even forgoing the quartet’s comparative cheapness, it’s hard to comprehend just how blinkered the argument is. They each present at turns immensely satisfying, original adventures that are cohesive and well-rounded. They clock in between one and six hours each and cost from five to 15 pounds. That doesn’t seem unfair in any way, especially given that many players will have got more from each of those than the vast majority of full-price releases.
That’s not to say long games don’t have their place. By far the most interesting mass-market releases of the last several years have contained literally hundreds of hours of content, and there’s certainly something to be said for that format. Indie games don’t have to be short either – the freedom to last ten minutes also means the freedom to create a three thousand hour RPG. Something along those lines wouldn’t be viable on store shelves, so we’re served the theoretically infinite Love as a download straight from its lone creator’s site.
But it’s the tyranny of the obligation to bloat that the indie space is challenging the most. The perceived need to do this evaporated along with the publisher and platform-holder monopoly; not every interactive experience need last forever to be of merit, and that’s an important turning point for the medium. A decade ago, we bragged to Hollywood that we could pack 50 times the content into our boxed product. These days, we’d be better off laughing at the notion of sitting through three hours in one go.