Archive for August, 2010

Gggaaammmeee Llleeennngggttthhh

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

Yesterday a whole bunch of folks blogged about the issue of game length, calling it Size Doesn’t Matter Day.  The consensus seems to be that length doesn’t matter, quality does.  But I think they are ignoring some important things.

First, let’s get these out of the way.  They should go without saying but just in case:

  • There are lots of great games that are very long.  People should keep making those.
  • There are lots of great games that are very short.  People should keep making those.
  • Game quality and having a good gaming experience are indeed more important than the length of the game.
  • Replaying a game complicates the discussion a lot.  How long is Counter-Strike?
  • A game that takes one person five hours might take another person ten.  The length of a game is often determined as much by the player as it is the game.

There.  Now:

Of course size matters!

Most people seem to be casting the question in terms of how long games  should be in general or in terms of price per hour.  Neither of those have one answer that is right for all games.

Some ways size matters:

Games are an expensive hobby

$60 is kind of a lot of money.  I suspect that a lot of indie developers are too busy making games to experience this, but imagine that what you do to relax in the evening is play these $60 games.  So on Monday you start it up and play for a couple hours.  Then on Tuesday you do it again.  Then on Wednesday you have completed it.  Uh oh, time to drop $60 on another one.  This adds up really quickly.  So you have to either put a whole lot of money into your pastime, or go without for a while.  Wouldn’t you prefer that these lasted longer so that you wouldn’t need new ones so often?  Can you blame folks for wanting to rent rather than buy the short ones?

Stories have different lengths

A lot of games have a story to tell.  Not all of those stories are the same length, and how gameplay fits into that varies greatly.  A game needs to last long enough to tell its story, and often it needs to stop once the story is done.

People play games differently

Not just different people but even the very same person plays differently in different times and places.

Imagine Johnny Gamer goes to work on Monday.  When his lunch break rolls around, a 20-minute game might be about right.  Later, when he wants a short break from his work, a 5-minute Flash game works great.  Then work is over and he heads home.  Oh but then he remembers that he’s out of bread, so he stops by the store first.  While he waits in the checkout line, a 30-second game on his phone is perfect.  Once he gets home, he eats dinner and hangs out with the wife and kids for a bit, and then is ready for some leisure activity.  What works great here is the 40+ hour game that he has been playing through in small sessions over several evenings, like watching a TV show.

The next day is Tuesday, his regular MMO night.  That evening he joins his guild in a raid in a game that he has been playing for years.

On Wednesday night, he wants to try out something that he has heard was great, and the length doesn’t matter much.

Eventually the weekend comes.  On Saturday, he has a bunch of family over to celebrate Junior’s birthday,  so Johnny picks out a game that people can jump in to play for a few minutes, then drop out to socialize, and return to later.  On Sunday, his wife and kids are out of town visiting grandma!  Johnny takes this opportunity to invite a couple of friends over for a few hours to co-op through a campaign.

So there is room for games anywhere from just seconds in length up to thousands of hours, but the length of a game is a big factor in how it fits into someone’s life.  It’s going to be annoying to people when it looks like a game should fit into a niche, but is too long or too short for it.


Many games don’t and don’t need to, but some games are served well by giving the player a lot to learn and explore, or to let them build something up over time.  Those things require time!

How long is too long?

Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop. That is, if it’s got more for the player to learn and new things to see, it should probably keep going, and if it’s run out of those things, it should probably stop soon.

To hit the main points one more time:

  • If playing games is something that you spend a lot of time doing, then price per hour of play is important.  It gets expensive.
  • Games aren’t expected to be long because of something wrong with gamers.  They are expected to be long because they are categorized, priced, and presented exactly like the long games are.
  • There’s not a right length for all games, but a game can be too long or short for it’s role in the player’s life, it’s price, or what’s in it

The other articles

Rather than try and track them all down, I’ll link to one of them and you can use his list to find more.

Captain Lambe!

Monday, August 9th, 2010

(This is a re-post of the same thing over at Indie Kombat)

Captain Lambe is done!

Actually it has been done for a while now, but I thought I’d break the silence as we wait for Ichiro to make some progress and for Fish Squid Time Machine to get approved for XBLIG.

Here’s a music-videofied playthrough of it[1]!

Inspired by Rob’s post, I thought I’d write up something about why I made the game I did.

Captain Lambe ostensibly takes inspiration from Inago Rage.

Like Dejobaan’s better-known AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! — A Reckless Disregard for Gravity, it takes place in first-person view amongst a bunch of floating objects with no solid ground in sight.  The player jumps around with the aid of rocketboots or a jet pack or something and tries to earn a certain number of points within a time limit by collecting gems and shooting at geometric shapes.  It’s a neat game!  Sadly I’ve only played the demo, since the buy page doesn’t work anymore.  In fact, you can’t even get the demo from Dejobaan’s site anymore, but I did get ahold of it from here or some site like it.  Inago Rage was the starting point, but my game ended up very different.  A lot happened to that poor idea once it got in my head.

It mixed a little bit with Super Mario AcidSuper Mario Acid isn’t a real game that actually exists.  It is something Tim Rogers talked about here.  It’s about the great moments in platformers where you are always about to be in trouble and need to get out of there[2].  You have a selection of moves you can use to get around and mastering them allows you to react quickly and appropriately to a wide variety of environmental challenges.  You do master them, but the pressure is always on.  The floor is dropping away, the enemies are coming, the powerups are running away, or time is running out.  So even though the entire game up to that point has been training you for it, you fall.  And that last bit is the important part, I think.  This feeling of having great control but never being totally in control.

There’s a reason it is Super Mario Acid and not Sonic Acid or Gears of War Acid.  Mario may not have started out this way[3], but once Super Mario 64 came along[4], you didn’t have just a jump any more, you had several jumps that each worked differently in important ways.  You still had the vanilla jump, but now you also had the long jump, back flip, wall kick, triple jump, somersault, “superman” dive, and the Yoshi’s Island ground pound.  This gave you a lot of options for getting around.  David Belle has got nothing on this guy.

I probably seem a bit inconsistent saying I had that stuff in mind and yet made a game with only one kind of jump and no death!  And I must admit that it does not show through much in the final product.  But Inago Rage suggested to me that Super Mario Acid needs neither acrobatics nor death.

Inago Rage didn’t have a variety of jumps[5], instead it had it’s jetpac thing that instead gave you a lot of control over how you moved vertically.  Importantly, though, you were still fighting with gravity and you had limited use of it.  So you are basically making the same jumping decisions, but you have finer control over how you move, which may be even better.[6]

It doesn’t have death because I think death is unnecessary and the ubiquity of it in games is a little unfortunate.  I enjoy a challenge in games, but I do not enjoy repeating the parts that I have already overcome to get back to the part  just failed at.  So when you are hit in Captain Lambe, you are knocked around pretty hard, but the game doesn’t stop, and everything you’ve done so far still sticks.  The gameplay in it is about getting into position for shots, though, so you do have to avoid getting hit if you want to succeed.  Hopefully this means that landing on platforms and dodging enemy shots are as important to the player as they would be if there were death, but without punishment and “you’re dead” screen.

It is also a little bit “floor is hot lava”[7].

I don’t know if I was a weird kid or if everybody did this, but I used to pretend that the furniture had suddenly become islands of cool rock surrounded by lava that used to be the carpet. Simply moving around the house became a game.  A couple things about that game:  If you did touch the floor it wasn’t game over, it was just “whoops” and then I went back to staying off the floor, and it wasn’t somebody giving me some rules, it was me just making up a challenge because it was a fun thing to do.

Many games, I think, are too busy giving you very specific challenges and planning out specific routes through levels to allow for this sort of play.  Not that there is anything wrong with that.  I enjoyed the heck out of Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time even though for all of the prince’s acrobatic ability, there was generally only one way past each obstacle.  Contrast this with N, where the wide open levels, the high and far jumping, wall jumping, and air control give you lots of opportunity for approaching each screen differently.  I find it very interesting and engaging when a game lets you find your own challenges and do those because they are difficult and interesting to you, rather than giving you very specific challenges and checklists.  I think that is partly why “quicktime events”, achievements, xp/loot, and quests rub me the wrong way.  They work against some of the things I like most about playing games, and I feel like I’m being patronized when the game rewards me for an activity that should be it’s own reward.  “The intrinsic reward for knifing dudes is knifing dudes.” as Chris Hecker put it.  I know a lot of people see this differently, but when a game starts “rewarding” me with stuff it really kills my enjoyment of the game.

This matches my experience with sports, too.  Kicking a ball around, hitting a tennis ball back and forth, and trying to hit a golf ball halfway straight are things that I find fun to do!  The problem was always that when trying to play these things with others, it generally became more about the score than the activity itself and that sapped a lot of the fun out of it.

But I’ve never heard of competitive Floor is Lava or achievement unlocks for making it to the kitchen.  I tried to make Captain Lambe allow that make-your-own-fun kind of thing.  The floor is kind of a crappy place to be and so hopefully you want to stay on the floating platforms, and hopefully the jumping/hovering has room for letting you attempt maneuvers that might be difficult but fun to try to pull off anyway.  Hopefully that kind of thing can be done without suggesting it to the player specifically or putting in punishments for not doing it.

Mostly Captain Lambe is “Bowser Jr.’s Boomsday Machine”.
Mario just gets the best damn games.  In particular I find the variety to be found in his 3d outings to be among the most delightful things to ever happen in video games.  Many pieces of these games could well stand on their own as separate games.  At the time that I was coming up with ideas for my Indie Kombat game, I was especially happy with the “Bowser Jr.’s Boomsday Machine” boss fight from Mario Galaxy 2 at the end of world 5[8].

I think this boss fight really captures what I was talking about above.  The disappearing/destroyable clouds and the projectiles keep pressure on you, the boss’s weak spot is up high so being down low stinks, Mario’s got his set of moves which now includes a limited ability to create temporary floating platforms, and enemy shots are more likely to hit the clouds and make you fall to the ground than they are to hit you and take away health.  I thought that Inago Rage‘s jetpack could be a good substitute for Mario’s moves or possibly even an improvement on them.  Using shooting in place of a ground pound let me put the weak points on the sides of the boss, which made the rotation matter, and made you have to be more aware of and in control of what height you were at.  It’s very slow to try and circle around the boss from far away, so I don’t think shooting really removed the need to approach the boss.

That all makes it sound like I was more deliberate about how I built the game than I truly was.  What actually happened was that I came up with a vague idea of Inago Rage crossed with that boss fight and winged it from there, but these are the sorts of ideas that were floating around in my head and definitely shaped that process.  I think it wound up as an interesting game.  But most importantly, it was a lot of fun to work on!

  1. I got frustrated with my crappy video editing software and just had Windows Movie Maker do it’s automovie thing. It seems to have worked out okay.
  2. I guess I shouldn’t put words in his mouth.  This is how I personally interpret the idea.
  3. In his first appearance, Mario could only jump 1x his height, and falling any further than that was lethal!
  4. Actually I see this a bit earlier, in Game Boy Donkey Kong, which is the greatest video game ever made.
  5. I think you wouldn’t want them in a first-person-view game, but it would be cool to be proven wrong!
  6. I think this is how Nintendo got FLUDD wrong and Hermitgames‘s Super Mario Pac got it right.
  7. You’d think the adjective was unnecessary, but for some reason it was always “hot lava”, not just “lava”.
  8. Sadly, the mistakes are edited out of this video, so it might not do a great job of showing you what the boss fight is really like.