Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Short Games, Mini-Games – Who's To Blame?

A lot has been made of games being shorter and increasingly 'casual'.

Along with some of the more narrow-minded arguments where Wii's success will apparently bring the 'downfall of our fair industry as we know it', one of the cornerstones of this laboured misconception is that gaming will lose its hardcore dominance, software will degenerate into mini/non-games and the market will no longer sustain the sort of titles many of us grew up on.

Of course, it's all a load of decaying animal faeces.

Wii isn’t going to create a gaming apocalypse, there will be a mixture of all game types on the system, and casual/non-gamers have long been an influential part of videogames in one form or another. More so now because the audience is larger and more diverse than it's ever been, and the medium has evolved massively over the space of its three decade-plus lifespan. But as they say, 'the more things change, the more things stay the same'.

However, one thing that has become increasingly apparent is that we're looking in the wrong places to attribute culpability when it comes to the growing number of shorter, 'small' games. We blame casuals, non-gamers and Nintendo via Wii for supposedly pandering to them.

But we're burning the wrong witch.

If you're looking for someone to blame, don’t point a finger at them. Instead, invert that twitchy little RSI fated digit to yourself and you'll find the culprit.

Because we're all to blame. Every single one of us.

We've always consumed products faster than it takes to create, no matter if it's food, music, film, games or whatever. That's just the nature of things. But the dawn of the digital age, internet and all, seems to have amplified this substantially, making us less willing to digest and savour what we've just watched, read or experienced. We want to get to the point and fast. We ask people -regardless of whether they're friends or strangers- to tell us why a piece of entertainment is worth our time and money, because both concepts are so valuable to us, and then when we get it, all we want to do is progress to the end as quickly as possible… or at least have someone let us know it's worth it.

We live in a time where spoilers are totally prevalent and movie trailers give away all but the whole film, if not a few of its twists, just to get audiences to pay attention. Where we delight on getting 'first post' even if we have nothing to say, just to be, well, first. Where anything which takes longer than a few minutes to read can often get shunned (after all, are you REALLY reading this, or are you merely skimming for the essentials?) and extended features within the print medium are a dying breed over snappy sound-bites and pictures.

We want to know what happens in our entertainment without experiencing the effort taken to reward it, and so it becomes a little like having nothing but sweets for breakfast, lunch and dinner; they taste great at first but there's no substance to them. And so the craft rots away like our teeth would after meals of nothing but chocolate and candy. No essence, no challenge.

And they exist because there's a market for them. We've made it that way.

Is there any wonder why many developers want to stick to shorter games when our attention span is so fleeting? After all, why spend thousands of dollars and several years making something that lasts over 50 hours when we're all just going to complain that the beginning is too slow, how we want to get to the end quicker (both things I've often heard levelled at Twilight Princess), that we can't be arsed, and how other games demand our attention?

Why are we in such damn a rush?

All these mini-games and such are a reflection of a changing society, where speed is of the essence. The handheld market is bigger than ever, because playing games in the gaps of doing other stuff is an easy way of getting a quick fix. We're too busy to play at home, and when we're not at home we're at work/school/whatever, but a 30 minute stint on the bus or train? Perfect.

We've been pandering to this sensibility for years as the range of distractions grow in the shape of new media, with new ways to take up our free time. How many of us have unopened DVDs? Games that we've been waiting years for, only to remain unfinished along with the rest of the shelf-bound titles that we keep promising to get back to? CDs where we don’t even wait until the end of a certain track before skipping to the next one, made all the more notable because we can't even remember the track titles anyway? I'm certainly just as guilty as anyone of committing these bad habits.

The games industry is one of the fastest growing within entertainment right now. But it's also becoming hugely expensive. As budgets increase, so do the risks – and many developers live in fear that the game they've spent a moderate portion of their lives dedicated to will end up on the 'bomba' pile all too quickly. Whether it's because we, as an audience, are giving it a decent chance or not is academic. But this is why shorter, more casual games are so attractive to those who make them.

It's true that while big established names and sequels always have a chance in this progressively more throwaway market, new intellectual properties and brave ventures take a leap of faith where there's a greater likelihood of them disappearing without a trace (Beyond Good & Evil) than getting a much needed lifeline in order to start a fresh and successful franchise (God of War). And even then there's a possibility we'll just complain that our beloved sequel is too long, too tired and too familiar for our ever-changing tastes.

This isn’t to say it's an excuse for poor software. Nor is it to say Wii will be flooded with smaller, quicker games. It's no secret that some of the higher rated Wii titles are also among the longest (Zelda, The Godfather and Resident Evil 4). But supply must meet demand; it's simple business. And right now, the demand across all territories is for the games we hardcore so often frown upon. We're a vocal minority, but when it comes down to it, no matter how loud we shout, that 'minority' part speaks far louder. The silent majority lets the chart sales speak for them.

Nintendo was essentially smarter than any other company because it saw this happening and aimed to fill the gap as quickly as possible – and if the big N hadn’t, someone else would have, because companies like Yahoo! Games and Miniclip were already tapping this expanding and difficult to ignore demand. Wii (and DS) offer what our society currently craves, crafting the art of not only the 'throwaway' game, but also more nostalgia-tinged software which manages depth beyond the simplicity it belays – as was the case with many titles during the medium's formative years.

However, just because a game is short by typical standards, doesn’t mean it has no longevity. The ability to create titles that allow us to dabble without long term commitment but have a distant goal, is a valuable one, marking a more careful transition from lengthy gameplay to something more transitory. Titles like WarioWare and Wii Sports provide this in varying degrees, and have that indispensable crossover appeal that draws in people from all demographics. The psychological factor cannot be underestimated for these types of games – we're aware we can be entertained in small doses, but we're rewarded for MAKING time to delve deeper. It's this intangible and tricky element that holds the key to satisfying both casuals and hardcore gamers, allowing us to get plenty from our games without feeling guilty should we abandon them for newer ones barely a month later. Which we inevitably will, given the large array of choice on offer.

But the transition isn’t going to be fast -ironically- and as we can see at the moment, development teams will initially struggle to get that balance, which will do no favours to anyone wrongly equating 'short' and 'mini' with 'bad'. Yet gaming is a business, and if it doesn’t follow market trends and what it thinks the audience wants, then it will die a slow and painful death. What you're seeing is merely a reflection of what publishers need to survive in this cut-throat and fast moving attention-seeking world.

But don’t confuse Wii for being the cause when it's merely a symptom of something we've all had a hand in… regardless of whether we like the results or not.

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