Friday, June 09, 2006

Episodic content done right

Game length and pacing have gotten out of control. While I once maintained a list of all the games I finished and looked forward to overcoming each new game I find myself cutting many games off around the 2-3 hour mark these days. Part of that is because of lack of interest, part is because of lack of time, and part is because I know I have another 20-40+ hours of repetitive tasks left to finish most games. I also consider myself an avid consumer of RPGs so length hasn't traditionally been a problem - I still look forward to great RPGs and enjoyed Final Fantasy X immensely.

Sometimes complexity is the culprit. The tutorial and manual for Civilization 4 scared me from playing it again. Civilization 4 was essentially my introduction to the series and learning all the rules and strategies was pretty mind boggling. The trouble is that if I put the game down for a month or so, I basically have to replay the tutorial or read the manual to get back up to speed on the controls and mechanics. If the game has a story and I return to it I also need to refresh my knowledge of what happened and who the main characters were. Why don't more games feature some sort of abriged diary or chapter highlights feature? RPGs would greatly benefit from a log. Many of them feature a journal and that definitely helps but something like a 5-10 minute overview of past events would engage me even more. Or how about a way to play snippets of the best moments? These could be 2-3 minute bursts that do not encompass whole chapters or sections.

It's pretty much a requirement that if you want to finish the game you are better off doing it when you first acquire the game or you will have lost even more time trying to get back into it. Perhaps I should try more casual games? I play a few of those as well, but many leave me wanting something a little more robust. What I really need are full size games with a more reasonable amount of content. A few games held me enthralled the entire time and ended when my interest had peaked. Metal Gear Solid, Eternal Darkness, and Shadow of the Colossus are examples of such games.

I enjoy playing old school games as well and some of them are particularly vicious in the cheapness of the challenges. Ninja Gaiden on the NES is one such game. You can get hit by an enemy, knocked back, and charge forward again only to have an enemy you killed respawn in right in front of you. Many enemies and bullets in the game move very fast and knock you right off the ledges. The interesting thing is that I play this game today and I can somehow tolerate these cheap tactics but a particularly difficult boss in a modern game can turn away from playing that game altogether. The NES Ninja Gaiden can be beaten in about 1 hour if you are fast. I know that coming in and even though I'm going to get knocked off some ledges I will keep going because I know that there are a finite number of those rough spots and the game length isn't too bad. In a 20+ hour game I'm not sure how the difficulty is going to ramp up and I don't always care to find out. Even with it's tuned difficulty, Devil May Cry 3 Special Edition is still a beating. You end up bottom feeding on level 1 enemies to power up so you can get through the harder sections.

It appears that solutions are on the way. With the release of SiN Episodes and Half Life 2:Episode 1 we are seeing the rise of digitally distributed episodic content. I've wanted to see something like this for a long time and Valve has definitely delivered the goods. While there were parts of Episode 1 that frustrated me and situations that I didn't feel played as well as they could have, the total package more than made up for any shortcomings. The length is good, the price is about right, and the quality is there. When I first played Half Life 2 I enjoyed the game but felt that it was a bit on the long side. Episode 1 took me about 4-5 hours to complete and consisted of many satisfying moments. Since I knew it was a reasonable length from the start I was determined to play through it. Knowing that I would be able to complete it without a huge time investment kept me motivated. There's also replay value in the form of the commentary track.

While I've read the grumblings from the gaming press and forums about game content being breadcrumbed out at a higher cost to consumers, I feel like Episode 1 represents a solid chunk of game and a surmountable challenge for the price being offered. Now the question is whether this model will work on consoles and whether more companies will offer it. I'd still love to see more traditional games with a reasonable length but I feel like episodic content enforces approachability. My fingers remain crossed.