When I came back from my trip to Australia, I hadn't played video games in about six weeks. Before I went, I started playing Mass Effect 2 for a little while—basically just enough to get an idea of the gameplay and sense why it got rave reviews. Then when I came back, something funny happened. I was reluctant to pick it up again. Instead I played Wario Land on my Virtual Boy. Mass Effect, as brilliant as it is, seemed too much of a commitment. I arrived at a stage where I was asked to scan planets for minerals and cross the universe for quests. Hours upon hours of gameplay lay ahead of me. I refused; my time budget would have been blown.
The next game I played was Heavy Rain, which I got for cheap during my stopover in Hong Kong. I bought it because I was curious about its adult content; but I also bought it because it is linear, it is divided into shorter chapters, and because I could finish it in 10 hours or less.
One thing I liked about Modern Warfare 2 was that the single-player campaign was brief but sweet. It was an intense action-filled six-hour experience with no pause. I loved it. For everyone else there was the multi-player.
The thing is: I'm the norm.
Yes, games get bigger, and yes this ambition is hailed by a vocal part of the gaming public and critics. And really, why wouldn't we want more?
The problem is, the vast majority of gamers don't really behave the way they say they do. How do we know this? Because an increasing number of games incorporate telemetry systems that track our every action. They measure the time we play, they watch where we get stuck, and they broadcast our behaviour back to the people that make the games so they can tune the experience accordingly.
Every studio I've spoken to that does this, to a fault, says that many of the games they've released are far too big and far too hard for most players' behaviour. As a general rule, less than five percent of a game's audience plays a title through to completion. I've had several studios tell me that their general observation is that "more than 90 percent" of a games audience will play it for "just four or five hours."
Moreover, as Davison points out, the game business, unlike any other part of the entertainment business, is maturing at roughly the same pace as its most influential (or at least most affluent) consumers. Not only the players are getting older, but also the designers.
As designers are deciding that they want to make different experiences to indulge their own lives, they can be fairly confident that their audience is in the same boat.
So what could this mean for the future of games?
For once they are going to become more modular, offering a (shorter and cheaper) core experience that can be expanded by downloadable content (DLC) or episodic content, which can accommodate different tastes.
This is something Namco recently recognized:
Namco Bandai’s Vice President Olivier Conte has said that game companies should diversify videogame selling in the future. He even went as far as saying that videogames are “too expensive for the audience” and that “a good price of a game should be around £20.”
He suggested making games cheaper by shortening them to around “four or five hours” and using additional DLC to increase revenue from the titles. “Games just have one model, the sale of the product either as a box or a digital download. So we need to think about how we can develop a secondary business model”.
Of course one of the dangers is that in the long run this gateway to micro-transactions will come with a hefty price tag.
The other change could be to accommodate players' tendency to, as calls Davison calls it, "dick around". How did you spend your time in GTA IV? Doing all the missions or having fun with its open world?
Games could increasingly reward this behaviour and become more of a playground. They might be based on actual player behaviour and not misguided assumptions about it. You don't have to follow certain structures; you will get something you can enjoy in small doses, something that feels less like "work"—follow the rules, get rewarded, move on—and liberating. This is why the GTA series, for example, has a reward system for spectacular car crashes.
What do you think? When was the last time you completed a game? How many unfinished games do you have lying around? What games do you want to play in the future?