Content Tourism and the Value of Gaming
Is Need for Speed: The Run a two-hour game? Digital Foundry on why games are being defined by how long it takes to beat them
The headline is damning: "Need for Speed: The Run in Two Hour Completion Shocker". Could it be true? Could the game that EA/Blackbox spent two years developing actually be completed in just over 120 minutes? And in an age where a game is so much more than the sum of its single-player parts, was the fuss justified any way?
The notion of games being judged by how it takes to complete them is a phenomenon I like to call "content tourism" - a phrase I first encountered on the Battlefield: Bad Company 2 difficulty selection screen. Easy mode was for "content tourists" who presumably just wanted to sail through the game, see what it had to offer, extracting the easiest Trophies/Achievements and then either replay for more challenge, move onto the online mode or more likely just skip ahead to the next game. There's an implication that for some, games have become a "disposable" form of entertainment, judged not on the quality of the content but on the amount of time they keep the player occupied.
There's an implication that for some, games have become a "disposable" form of entertainment, judged not on the quality of the content but on the amount of time they keep the player occupied
The debate surrounding Need for Speed: The Run kicked off when Gametrailers mentioned that the basic single-player racing mode could be completed in just two hours, causing a wave of forum outrage and website headlines, when the reality is that players would need to be in full "speed run" mode, skipping all cinematics, on-foot quick-time events, and on top of that, handing in a completely flawless gaming performance.
In short, it's actually physically impossible to finish Need for Speed: The Run in just two hours - and even if you do count just the racing, the amount of time you'd need to invest to become good enough at the game to sail through it in two hours would be absolute immense - and voids the bad value argument by itself. Let's put it into context by comparing it with another game that hasn't been accused of short-changing its users. According to Naughty Dog, one of its staff completed Uncharted 3 in a near-flawless three hour speed-run - to the best of my knowledge, there weren't any headlines calling the PS3 title a three-hour game.
I decided to check out Need for Speed myself, firing up The Run for a mid-afternoon spin and fully expecting to have the single-player mode licked by tea-time. As you can see from the time-lapse video below, I was finally finished by bed-time, with a run-time of five hours, 35 minutes - this from a concerted effort to rush through as quickly as I could.
Blackbox had made a fundamental mistake here - and it wasn't down to the amount of content in the single-player mode, rather the clock at the top of the screen which tots up your time through the game without factoring in the amount of times players need to restart a checkpoint, or an entire level. In short, the loading screens were advertising a deficiency of the game that didn't actually exist, but was picked up by press and gamers regardless.
We've been here before of course. However, when Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3 were labelled "six hour games" at least everyone knew there that these were titles primarily targeted at the multiplayer audience, and thus the true value lay elsewhere.
However, Platinum Games' brilliant single-player only shooter, Vanquish, was criticised by Game Informer for being able to be completed in under four hours, based mostly on the game's final stats screen (where the timer appears to be wrong) resulting in a wave of bad publicity for a game that was already a tough sell at retail. The reality of the situation is that the game took me well over eight hours to finish - and even if you cut out all the retries and cut-scenes, I found that the game still offered just over five hours of raw "content".
The fact that games are being judged in this way at all comes down to a shift in the way that developers are structuring the playthrough, and the way that games are being played in general. Games are now a mainstream proposition. More people are playing them and thus, to make sure that the content publishers invest millions in isn't wasted, games are generally far easier than they were in the past. To present an extreme example, almost every 80s gamer most likely played Manic Miner - but how many completed it, or even saw a majority of its 20 levels?
In an effort to make games more accessible, we have moved away from the notion of the game session being limited by the number of "lives" players have. Look back into the mists of ancient history and games magazines used to print cheat codes for infinite lives - now it's a standard component of every game we play. Even the notion of the health bar - which constrained players' progress through the game, has basically been abolished in favour of regenerative health or shields.
As an industry we like to compare ourselves with music and movies, but the fact is that in the consumer's mind, a £15 Blu-ray movie is up against £35 to £40 games - of course value is going to be scrutinised and weighs heavily in the purchasing decision
There's little to no need to hunt down health packs or 1UPs any more in most games - simply duck into a corner somewhere and all your health returns. I remember pointing and laughing at The Getaway's mechanism of regenerating health by leaning against a wall. Little did I know that it was the template of things to come.
Bestowing infinite lives on the player also means that almost every game can be completed simply through a matter of brute-forcing your way through, exactly as I did in my NFS: The Run playthrough. This is something of a shame for a game like Vanquish, which harkens back to the era when highscores, and developing an actual technique for playing the game were important over and above "clocking" it.
On the one hand, it's disturbing that gamers are being labelled - often incorrectly - by the time it takes to complete them, as if that encompasses the entirety of the product. Some games can be defined by their content in terms of levels, missions, quests or whatever - the Assassin's Creed series is a good example of this. Others, like Vanquish, present value in terms playing and replaying the game, improving scores and peeling back the layers of the experience. As for Need for Speed: The Run - the notion of value is the least of its problems, for all the reasons Tom Bramwell pointed out in the 5/10 Eurogamer review.
That said, the fact that the "length" of a game becomes headline news demonstrates that value is clearly a priority for the core audience. The high price of video games (on launch, at least) is such that buying a boxed retail product is still viewed by gamers as an investment rather than an impulse buy. As an industry we like to compare ourselves with music and movies, but the fact is that in the consumer's mind, a £15 Blu-ray movie is up against £35 to £40 games - of course value is going to be scrutinised and weighs heavily in the purchasing decision.
Credit where it's due - by and large, the industry has adapted to this, and many AAA projects offer astonishing value. The Assassin's Creed and Uncharted games, for example, not only include a phenomenal amount of single-player content, but a robust online element has been added too - and these multiplayer elements are essentially standalone, complete games in their own right.
It's impressive to think that major franchises are now offering two games for the price of one - indeed, in the case of Assassin's Creed: Revelations on PS3, it's actually three individual components, with the original game included on the Blu-ray for free - an interesting idea for making use of the massive storage space the format offers. But what it does mean is that consumer expectations have never been higher. A game like Skyrim can project value despite being a solo experience, but with the lack of success in a brilliant game like Vanquish, it suggests that certain types of single-player game are now a much tougher sell.