Size Doesn’t Matter Day

This is one of a set of articles all published on Tuesday, August 17th, 2010, the inaugural Size Doesn’t Matter Day organized by Jamie Cheng from Klei, where game developers talk about how the length of a game is or isn’t important relative to its other merits.  Links to all the ones I know about are at the bottom and I’ll update it as I find out more.

"That's a knife..."

I’m not sure how well this claim would stand up in the face of actual data, but after James Cameron subjected humanity to the 3+ hours of Titanic and became King of the World1, it seemed like the film people just gave up on parsimony and stopped leaving much of anything on the cutting room floor.  All the footage went into the movie.  No hard editorial decisions were made.  2½ and 3 hour films became fairly common, and nobody was making 90 minute films anymore.

Now, plenty of film buffs, critics, and people who have to urinate have debated the “length issue”, and I’m not actually interested in contributing to that here.  I am interested in pointing out that the debate rarely seems to center around the concept of “value” in terms of “money/time”.  It’s always about what’s the right length for the material2, or did the director suffer from logorrhea3, or was the studio cynically trying to please all of the people all of the time, etc.  You don’t often hear people talking about movie prices tied to movie length.  Not that people don’t complain about movie ticket prices, mind you, it’s just that they don’t seem to couple them to the movie’s length very often.  People say, “movies are or aren’t worth $X”; they don’t usually say, “$X would be a good price for a N minute movie, but any less is a ripoff!”.

Other mature art forms also avoid this money/time value comparison.  People joke about how gigantic Infinite Jest is, but they don’t talk about it in terms of cents/page.  Should iTunes charge by the minute for songs instead of a flat $.99?  If so, Frank Zappa’s back-catalog would be quite pricey…

However, you see this “value debate” about game prices and game play length all the time.  In fact, it’s the usual way of talking about game value on the internet, as far as I can tell.

Why is this? What’s different about films, books,  and music, as compared to games?

If you’re familiar with my lectures and rants, you will see my answer coming a mile away:  I think it’s because these other forms deliver (or, at least, are clearly capable of delivering) deep and compelling emotional experiences, and it just seems gauche to break them down into money/time or money/size.  You can talk about the value of the painting, and everybody does, but you don’t break it down any farther than that—you can’t talk about the value of that flower versus the farmhouse, or the upper-left corner versus the lower-right—because you lose something ineffable in the analysis.

This topic came up most recently amongst a bunch of indie game developers after LIMBO came out on Xbox Live Arcade, and there was some discussion, and some more discussion, and we decided to do Size Doesn’t Matter Day.  But, it’s got a long history, especially with indie games.

The typical analogy made by defenders of game pricing and value is to the cost of eating out at a restaurant.  When the price being discussed is $15, the food being discussed is usually fast.

And, while it’s true you will pay more for a pizza these days than you will for a “AAA Indie Game”—or you will if your pizza is any good—and, yes, a $15 game will give you more direct hours of content than a $15 movie will, I claim if you’re even engaging at this level, you’ve already lost the argument.

So, while I think the focus on game length relative to game price is silly, I think the only way out is to make better, more meaningful games.  That is the most compelling argument we have against people who complain about $2/hr (Dragon Age or whatever @ $60/30 hours) versus $3.75/hr (LIMBO @ $15/4 hours).  Even when the economy is down, and you lost your job (hey, like me!), or you’re a kid trying to scrape together your allowance, or whatever, if we make games that strike deep emotional chords with people, that, and only that, will wash away the superficial discussions of value as defined by money/time.

Assuming we actually figure out how to do that, we’ll look back on this debate as an historical artifact, like discussing whether a nickel was too much to put into a Kinetoscope to watch the 5 seconds of Fred Ott’s Sneeze.

Links

Okay, here are all the Size Doesn’t Matter Day posts I know about.  Some of these are set to go live in the morning, so don’t report a bug until the sun rises.  Also, post a comment if you find more, and I’ll put them up here.

Also, #gamelength on twitter.

Epilogue

Ironically, because SpyParty has a strong “online multiplayer competitive player-skill component”, this whole discussion is somewhat academic for me, for this game, at least.  My goal is to attain what I call “Counter-Strike levels of replayability”, which traditionally trends asymptotically towards $0/hr of “entertainment value”4.  However, my goal is for people playing SpyParty to want to do so because its engaging them in a deep and meaningful way, not because it’s a cheap way to spend time!


  1. OMG I didn’t know (or blocked it out) until watching that again that Titanic won Best Editing?! []
  2. That link is particularly a propos since he disses video games offhandedly. []
  3. Yes, it’s a real word, and an awesome one at that! []
  4. Of course, the business end of our industry is going to try hard to fix that. []

17 Comments

  1. Fede says:

    I noticed that a book’s price seems to depend more on the publisher than on its length (some publishers are now doing the same for games, think of MW2 for example). Then books are also different because you can have differently priced versions (hardbacks, paperbacks) and it takes much, much more (compared to games) for their price to decrease.
    So I wouldn’t really compare books and games, but apart from that I agree with you.
    (Also, I’m sorry for you, here in Italy you can have a great pizza for less than 10$.)

    Some of the links give a 404 error right now (for example: 2dboy, the witness), I guess it’s because they have yet to publish the articles?

  2. Here’s my take, although slightly “off topic” in a way. I think you are completely right though, nobody really needs to defend themselves in terms of “length of gameplay”. But it does invoke that argument of value for money, so I guess its going to stay with us.

    http://mindflock.com/2010/08/why-arent-there-more-middle-ground-games/

  3. Hey happy SDMD.

    I created a site a while back that graphs how long every game I have played is. You can find it here.

    howlongisthisgame.tumblr.com

    I wish I could update it more but I actually don’t have time to play a lot of games to completion.

    If someone would like to track how long a game they play is, feel free to contact me and I can post your graph: me[at]chriszukowski.com

  4. Chris G Waine says:

    I think you’re wrong about this. In the example of cinema tickets, I think the film industry actually avoids it, not through compelling emotional experiences, but by providing movies that meet the expectations for what people consider to be a feature length film. If short films were commonly individually screened and marketed in the mainstream, I bet you would see people talk more often about duration vs cost, and how such-and-such a title was too short. Same kind of thing applies in music, with albums being priced higher than singles: we have expectations about the length of an album, and the music industry will put in filler tracks to meet them…

    • checker says:

      > by providing movies that meet the expectations for what people consider to be a feature length film.

      I dunno, film lengths change over time, and music tracks also vary quite widely, but the discussion when that happens isn’t about value in terms of money/time, it’s more about the right natural length for the work. I see a very different flavor to the discussion about the other forms from what I see about games.

    • Sean Barrett says:

      If somebody put out a 15-minute movie and charged full ticket prices in a theater, people would talk about it.

      The fact that it doesn’t happen so people don’t talk about it doesn’t seem to me to prove much.

      There is no “natural” right length for movies, it’s just the current ballpark length is what the art:commerce meetup that is the film industry has settled on.

    • Sean Barrett says:

      Also, for what it’s worth, Amazon mp3s are $0.99 (or $0.89) for album tracks iff they are under 10 minutes. If they are ten minutes or over, they are usually only available on the full album download.

      This can lead to absurdity, such as when the full album price is only $1 more than the individually purchasable songs, as here: http://www.amazon.com/Tarkus/dp/B001CS2TFS/ or it can go the other way… I can’t find it now, but we found an example of an album which had about five 9 minute songs and one 10 minute song, so the 5 songs cost $4.95 if bought individually, or the whole album cost $9.99, so the one slightly longer song effectively cost $5.

      So I’m just saying, I don’t think there’s any clear evidence against a price/length proposition in other artistic media.

  5. Alex Vostrov says:

    Perhaps people view current games as quasi-commodities.  A lot of people play games for escapist purposes.  One possibility is that they see games as delivering a fixed quantity of flow state, with the details ultimately being irrelevant.  From this perspective, the length argument makes sense.

  6. Seth says:

    I’m inclined to agree with Chris Waine. I think one of the reasons the film industry avoids it is because, although there are a lot of long movies, the amount differs so little. 90 minutes to 3 hours versus games, where you might get one hour to 100+ span. Besides that, 3 hour movies are often too long.
    Like Chris said, I’m sure if short films were released in your local theater and cost the same amount as a full length production, people would definitely not go. I’ve only seen short films offered in a large collection, and at my local indie/foreign theater.

    I think books are the better view of what you’re conveying. Although smaller books are usually cheaper, that’s not always the case. I’m sure very few people would pay $20 for a 100-page book unless there was something very special about it. But it sounds more reasonable than $50 for a 5-hour game.

    What it comes down to is balancing that “experience,” which games are often missing, versus general rules of capitalism. Consumers will spend their money where they think it will get the best value. If there’s a 10-hour awesome game and a 20-hour meh game, I’m sure most informed consumers will take the 10-hour game. But the length is definitely a factor. I’ll use Brutal Legend as a recent example. I liked Brutal Legend a lot. Fun, clever, etc. All the things you’ve come to expect from a Tim Schafer game. But I just couldn’t recommend it for $60. If you don’t play multiplayer, it was just too short, to me, to recommend at full price, when there are other very good games out that are much longer. So is length so important relative to other merits? No, of course not. But it does play a role.

    • checker says:

      Let me clarify:  I think saying “game X is not worth $Y” is totally fine, and in fact, it can even be healthy.  I’m just saying that the length of the game is one of the least important factors in that completely opaque (and often irrational according to the data, it turns out) value judgement about a product, or especially about an art and entertainment experience. Or, at least, it should be one of the least important factors, but unfortunately the game industry and current design wisdom seems to emphasize it, with number of collectibles, achievements, etc.  And, sadly, the press and fans aren’t helping here either.  Length is not the thing to complain about, quality is!  :)

  7. To some degree it’s about comparing to other items from the same medium, so even if an experience is very emotional for someone, there are other GAMES that have a lower cost/hour and many will find that they have been tricked a bit. Now, if the game was being played at a theater…

  8. hosndosn says:

    I just don’t like that mainstream games (yea, those flashy things you read about at Gamespot) are hijacking this argument and present 4 hour campaigns with utterly uninspired gameplay but very detailed visuals and cut-scenes. In other words, a modern sweat-shop games company investing more in embellishments than actual gameplay. The benefits are better graphics for trailers, less investment in difficult-to-produce aspects of development (say, _actual_ originality and gameplay content) and, in the end, the short attention span of modern gamers will not even notice.

    In other words, instead of using the lower length to spend more time on gameplay, they’re using it to do the opposite and twist their reasoning once again in the PR wars (modern PR people scare me… those fake laughters…). It can be a cop out. And it _can_ swap back to indie devs. Not saying Limbo is an example… but look at those iPhone “art games” that make it on the front page of places like TIGSource but are just plain superficial crap. Sorry.

    Sometimes depth DOES need time. We’re arriving at a point where reviewers are scorned for daring to mention a game being too short. And that is bad. Short gameplay can be a symptom of a lack of depth or not taking an idea to its full potential. Sure, reviewers should talk about the actual causes not the symptoms but I find it strange that indie devs choose THIS of anything as a mass crusade against game reviewers. There are better arguments. For example, whether it’s a good idea that most reviewers try to guess the taste of the masses instead of developing a good taste of their own…

  9. StGabe says:

    Yeah, I’m not seeing this. Your comparison of games ($2/hour vs. $4/hour) actually covers the same exact range that movies do (1 ticket / 1.5 hours vs. 1 ticket / 3 hours). Had LIMBO been priced at $60 I think most people would have considered it to be clearly overpriced. There are other examples: for example larger books ARE frequently priced higher. However this occurs through the less obvious strategy of breaking up larger stories into multiple books. It’s also unlikely that people would pay full price for a book that contained a single short story.

    I can see the argument that you could create a more artful product by cutting Dragon Age down to 4 hours, however it’s incorrect (IMO) to assume that consumers are art connoisseurs in tbis instance. For many a value proposition of spending $60 for a game they will play all month versus $15 for a game that will enjoy in one evening is clearly defined in those terms only. There is some flexibility here but it’s not as clear cut as you’re trying to make it and I don’t think your analogies to other entertainment markets are all that accurate.

  10. MOOMANiBE says:

    Oddly enough, I think I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum here. I would say I apply such a value of dollars per hour / enjoyment to ALL purchases I make – artwork, novels, movies, games. The massive value per dollar of games vs movies is, indeed, why I almost never buy DVDs, and carefully eye shorter books to see if I really want to spend my money. As someone who shops quite stingy as a default, does that mean I don’t connect with the “mature art” on an emotional level? No, I simply view them all as being on a roughly equal playing field and purchase the ones I feel will give me the best experience for my cash.

  11. Henri says:

    Games are interactive, and hence inherently non-linear. The story and the path your avatar follows through the game world may be linear, but the way you play the game isn’t. You stop for toilet breaks. You load save games. You restart the game. You play through it again. The gameplay is an experience. You don’t think about the value of a game in terms of the satisfactory conclusion of the story because it is often not tied to the game’s experience. You think of the value in terms of how much you enjoy the experience, and how long that experience lasts. If you really enjoy the experience, you want more of it.

    Films, or at least the films we watch in cinemas, are linear. We experience them differently. They tell a particular story. When the story ends, so does the experience. If they manage to tell that story to its satisfactory conclusion, whether it takes 1.5 hours or 2 hours, the experience was worth the ticket price. The reason most films are the length that they are is because that’s how long it takes to tell their particular flavour of story. Audiences’ tastes change and vary, and Titanic was the length it was because that’s the length James Cameron felt it had to be to do justice to the story, at the time it came out. The same with Lord of the Rings. Shorter films these days can create a similarly satisfactory experience because audiences’ tastes vary.

    The same is true of books, paintings, poems, etc. They are inherently non-interactive art forms. I know the audience engages with these works mentally, but in games, we can change things, however marginally. We get to express ourselves in them. That experience is unfortunately tied to the game’s length. If you don’t have anything more to do in the game world, but your appetite for the experience hasn’t been sated, you feel cheated.

    It’s kind-of ironic, because a film’s length directly impacts the value of the experience. A long movie often feels less satisfactory than a shorter one, because the impact of the story is diluted by lengthy monologues or periods of quiet. So a shorter, tighter, better-told film could be worth _more_ money than a longer, long-winded one. Gameplay, on the other hand, is more difficult to relate to time. Your actions in a game determine the value of the experience. And the better that interaction and immersion is, the longer you want it to last. Hence, you don’t value good but short games that don’t deliver enough of the experience they offer, and feel that they are priced too high.

    TL/DR Games are interactive. Movies aren’t. Provided the experience is awesome, length increases a game’s value, whereas length can actually decrease the value of a film, because it detracts from the experience.

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