Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Last Enemy That Shall Be Destroyed: A Look at Game Difficulty and Length

A recent news story from CNN has brought to light a staggering statistic: 9 out of 10 gamers don't finish the games they play.

Fuck this level
CNN recently published an article by Blake Snow, which concentrated on the decreasing likelihood that video games are played to completion. Keith Fuller of Activision said that the “expectation is that 90% of players who start your game will never see the end.” This seems like it may be a little high, but when I thought more about it, I’d say thats probably exactly right. I, myself, have only made it a point to complete the campaign portion of my game purchases within the last two console cycles. I’ve had a video game console in my house ever since I was born, and to this day I’ve never completed any of the Mario games, nor Sonic, nor that damned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game with the electrified seaweed.

Just recently, I have recommended L.A. Noire to a friend who generally enjoys Rockstar games, and he has yet to finish the story, citing the time commitment as being the barrier. It seems that the days of 20 to 30 hour single player games are heading for a steep decline, fueled on by the insane popularity of multiplayer games like Call of Duty and Battlefield. While I enjoy the campaigns of the Call of Duty games I’ve played, I will admit to finishing them well after I had sunk 50+ hours into the competitive multiplayer. Also, I played those games on Easy.

That’s right, I admit it. If a game gives me a difficulty selection, I almost always choose Easy. I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember, and I really don’t have any desire to change. While I realize this might be blasphemy to some, it is really the only way I can still enjoy the games I want to play, do it in a reasonable amount of time, and see them all the way through to the end. I came into this generation of consoles a bit late, and I am still trying to play catch-up with all the AAA titles that came out in 2005-2007. Playing games on Easy allows me to see the entire story, and do it relatively pain-free.

But I wanted the Fantasia hat!
If a game doesn’t give a difficulty selection, such as Red Dead Redemption, or L.A. Noire, I have to be incredibly invested in the story or characters to be around to see the credits. Luckily, Rockstar produces games that always seem to grab me, and I’ve finished both those games with near 100% completion stats. I’m not ashamed to say there are games I’ve put down and have yet to come back to, and truthfully, never will. Splinter Cell: Conviction, Rainbow Six Vegas, and Banjo Kazooie Nuts & Bolts will be left to live and die a cruel death in the entertainment center, perhaps I will return to them next generation. I can’t say if it was the difficulty that drove me from these games completely, but I can assure you, if they offered an “easy-as-shit” mode I almost certainly would have finished them.

After all, game companies don’t care if I finish their games, they’ve already got my money. With decreasing demand to create long single player experiences, which demand more employees, working longer hours, equally more pay, developers are shifting to shorter game lengths. Call of Duty campaigns usually clock in somewhere around 6 hours, and recent games such as Homefront and Vanquish barely reach the 5 hour threshold.

I've never seen this before
Personally, I think this is kind of great. Shorter games, with tightly focused stories is exactly what I want at this point in my life. I have a daughter, a full-time job, and other commitments which limit my game playing time to somewhere around 10 hours a week, tops. If that means I can play AND finish 4 or 5 games a month, money notwithstanding, I’d greatly prefer that over wasting my money on games that will live and die on my shelves. While I can, and do, enjoy a challenging epic like Fallout 3 or Mass Effect every now and then, I only play 1 of those games a year, and that’s fine by me. Bring on the thrill rides.

Christopher Linendoll has never finished Mario 3, even though he'd consider it one of the best games ever.

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