Recently Platinum games released Transformers: Devastation, an action game based on the original cartoon series. And while the game received mostly positive reviews, the most talked about aspect of the game was its length, which was roughly 4 hours. While this length isn’t egregious for video games in general it was a contentious issue based on the fact that it was a $50 (USD) game. Many people are upset and feel that a game that length should cost significantly less. This argument is weighted behind the fact that costing only $10 more are just massive. The Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid 5 can take over a hundred hours to complete. But if the game is good why does this matter? If it’s of a good quality surely there is room for both short and long games in the AAA space, right? It’s possible that in today’s market, that just isn’t the case.
Have the length video games always bothered us? Let’s travel back in time a bit. From the NES to the PS2 games have appeared with all sorts of lengths. In fact, many have been quite short and were still sold at retail. A game like Star Fox 64 for example only took a few hours to beat. In 1990 an average game on the NES cost $50. Taking inflation into account that’s about $91 today. PS2 games equal roughly the same price today and N64 games would cost over a whopping $102 today. There were many games on those consoles that took even less than four hours to complete. Yet it was less of an issue. Short games continued to be produced. So why is the amount of content an issue now more than ever? It’s likely two reasons. The size of AAA games and the emergence of digital distribution.
With the advent of Digital Distribution in the mid-2000s a few things happened. The first is that games had higher profit margins. Publishers could produce less hard copies of the game on discs, and digital stores charged less to publishers to sell their games than retailers. This also meant that small developers and publishers could sell their games to the public without going through retail, thus increasing the amount of studios and games that we classify as ‘indies.’ Because of indie gaming the public now has thousands more options for video games at their fingertips. To top it all off these games are cheaper. With smaller budgets than AAA studios independent developers are able to sell their games at a lower price to make a profit. Their games often have price points between $10 and $30. With technology coming a long way you can buy games of similar or even better quality to those on N64, which 17 years ago could have cost you over $70 could now cost $10.
So if you can buy previous console quality games for cheap prices why on earth would you ever spend $60 on a game? While in the past the answer to that question might have been that it’s a good game that isn’t enough anymore. If there’s a good game for $20 and a good game for $60 its obvious which game the average consumer will choose. Today it seems there needs to be more content. Games from AAA studios these days have a propensity to be absolutely massive. It seems that every new game announced features a large open world. If it doesn’t you can be sure that there is going to multiplayer. In fact, multiplayer isn’t just tacked on it’s the main selling point of the many games. The ability to play with others over and over with unique interactions resulting from each game is a pseudo form of endless content. Games like the Call of Duty Franchise do it best. Additionally, with downloadable content the developer can keep adding new content to the game to keep it fresh. In essence we have reached a state where the ratio of video game content to dollars spent is staggering, and we have become quite accustomed to this state of things.
So what’s more important, Quality or Content? Evidence does show that we still do want a quality product. Some $60 games that last around 15 hours or less have sold well, most notably games by Naughty Dog as well as the Portal Franchise. But these games are from critically acclaimed studios with unbelievable pedigrees. And even they felt the need to add multiplayer. If Uncharted 4 is a 5-hour game, without multiplayer, but the quality is still considered excellent, how would consumers react? In my opinion it seems obvious that many people would be upset. However, if the same game was released for $40 the number of upset people would shrink. It just isn’t possible to judge a game without factoring in its price. While quality is important there is a limit to how much people will spend for quality without quantity, and it has been shrinking rapidly since the mid-2000s.
Let’s flip around the equation, what if a game has an overwhelming amount of content but the quality is generally regarded as sub-par? The most successful games that use this model are some of those found on your phone. Take Candy Crush for example. While everyone admits Candy Crush’s gameplay is nothing special it has an addictive achievement system and thousands of levels. The difference here is that while you can put money into the game, it can also be played for free. However, Models where the user has to pay a big price tag for a sub-par game with a lot of content have fallen flat. Games like Defiance and Elder Scrolls Online are great examples. It’s not as if these games are bad; they are just mediocre. That’s not good enough these days.
With all this said does a AAA game need to succeed in today’s market? It seems to need to be both of a high quality and have a lot of content to justify the $60 price tag. If it has a lot of one, it can afford to perhaps have less of the other but there is little doubt it has to have some semblance of both.