Time is a critically important resource. It’s hard to find uninterrupted chunks of time to put towards playing games. When players choose to play your game, you should do everything in your power to use their time respectfully. In this post, I’ll examine thoughts from several games-industry thinkers on the efficient use of time.
As a married man who … wants to keep some semblance of a social life, time is a precious, beautiful commodity. So I can’t help but notice when I feel like video games are wasting my time.
The stereotypical audience of young gamers with tons of free time still exists, but now we have older demographics in addition to, not instead of, the existing ones. These older demographics have more money and less time than their younger counterparts, which makes the hours-per-dollar metric less important than having a concise, meaningful experience.
Fun from Efficiency
Total fun = Meaningful decisions / Time played
From this formula we can see that a game is more fun if it has more decisions. It’s also more fun if it has the same number in less time. Let’s take a look at some games that successfully apply this idea.
Portal is a great example of a short, high-quality game. Gaming website HowLongToBeat.com estimates the average player finishes the game in 3.5 hours, where other games of the same genre take 8-12 hours.
It’s the only game to earn a glowing review from the notoriously critical show, Zero Punctuation, where the game’s length was specifically cited as a factor:
It’s only 2-3 hours long, but that’s a good length for it. It means it doesn’t outstay its welcome … absolutely sublime from start to finish.
Brevity is clearly a powerful tool, but it’s not the only takeaway. The key idea is that the game must earn its length. Portal was only as long as it absolutely needed to be. It created an experience that was consistently dense with meaning.
The designers of iPad game, Monument Valley, used a similar approach. The app was widely praised, but some players wanted a longer experience. The developers addressed their complaints with the following statement:
One of the things we really cared about when we made the game is to make every level (or chapter, as we prefer) unique. Each one has a distinct and separate theme, gameplay mechanic or story beat to get across. … As we say: “all killer, no filler”. We like to hand-craft, not mass-produce.
Apple describes the game as “akin to a walk through a museum”, which speaks to the richness of the experience. It’s no wonder they declared Monument Valley the 2014 iPad game of the year.
Inefficiency is Disrespectful
We’ve looked at examples of games that are judicious in their use of the player’s time. But what about other games that are less careful? Is it really that bad to give players extra content, even if it’s not polished?
“Many of today’s console games exert a time crush. They demand tens or even hundreds of hours of attention to complete, some or most of which often feels empty. In that respect, one could argue that many games seem to destroy time. … [This] involves the disrespect of time that we might otherwise spend doing more valuable things.”
The unspoken assumption made by inefficient games is that your time is not valuable. The player incurs a heavy opportunity cost for choosing the game over other, more enriching activities.
The worst perpetrators of inefficiency are those that punish the player beyond opportunity cost. These games use operant conditioning techniques to make the player anxious during time spent both with and away from the game.
These games are the result of money-focused, short-term thinking. This quote is a popular example of the thought process:
I knew that I wanted to control my destiny, so I knew I needed revenues, right, fucking, now … I did every horrible thing in the book to just to get revenues right away … so that we could grow and be a real business.
The founders of this studio strove for success, which is great, but they were willing to treat the player with complete disrespect. Their reputation for creating bad experiences ended up being disastrous for the company in the long run.
The Player / Developer Relationship
As someone crafting an experience, how can you know when you’re respecting your audience’s time? Independent game developer Jonathan Blow has some wise words on this topic. Jonathan describes the relationship between developer and player as necessarily being strained by its financial nature. How much respect can you possibly give someone when your goal is to sell them something? The best a developer can do is clearly communicate the costs to the buyer, then deliver an efficient game experience.
“I always try to be in a mindset where I’m respecting the player. I think of the player as a very intelligent person, a person with a rich life, whose time I want to make the game worthy of. I don’t want to waste their time. I don’t want to degrade their quality of life outside or inside the game.”
Keep Efficiency in Mind
Steve Jobs used to ask why a product deserves to exist. In your own work, ask the same question of each and every thing you include. Ask yourself if your work earns its length. Ask yourself if you are providing a rich and efficient experience.