Batman: Arkham Asylum is one of the few games to create a richer story in order to have longer gameplay.
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When it comes to video games, how long is too long?

Should a game provide “value for money” and pad out its story with as many tedious hours of fetching things as possible, or is there merit in a short, sharp ending?

Fetch quests, you’ve got to love them. Well you haven’t got to love them, but if you love video games you’re probably going to have to learn to at least tolerate them. Play any game for any length of time and sooner or later one of the characters is going to ask you to go to a place, get an object for them and bring it back to them. There’s a reason that this character has asked you to do that and usually that reason is because the people who made the game ran out of story yet felt that the game needed to be longer.

This kind of problem is par for the course with video games stories, torn as they are between three competing priorities.

The first of these is the need for a game to provide value for money to its players and this is typically defined in terms of hours of content. Games pride themselves on their run time in the same way that a restaurant might take pride in doling out oversized portions. In the simple marketing speak of games marketing more is more. Hours of content up for grabs, is it good? Is it important? Who cares, look how much time it takes. No game ever took pride in being short. This can vary wildly of course from action games or rogue-likes where a single run through might take less than an hour to sagas like Wasteland 2 or Dragon Age: Origins that can take around 80 hours.

The second factor is how the story accommodates the chief gameplay mechanics. So for example if your game is built around shooting people in the face, as a lot of games are, then you have to tell a story about that. This poses problems, because there are only so many situations in life where shooting everybody in the face will resolve the problems. You can see this problem manifest itself in the Mass Effect series. As the series went on the diminishing returns of such a game being built on a foundation of hiding behind low walls and shooting people took their toll. As highly regarded as the Mass Effect series was it boasted a completion rate only around 50 per cent, which means as good as it was, most people didn’t see the game to the end. What your game is built to be on a mechanical level limits your scope for the length of time you can expect players to hang in there. An RPG can last tens of hours, while a corridor shooter will often struggle to find fun ways to fill six.

The third factor is the nature of the story itself – the story that the developer wanted to tell when they made the game. So we might look at the recent Tomb Raider for example, a game which is designed to tell the story of how a young Lara Croft goes from bedraggled victim to implacable heroine. That’s the way the story was planned to go, but because of how the game plays, as a third person shooter with a few platform elements, young Lara hasn’t gone more than an hour before she’s creeping up on men and strangling them with her bow or shrugging off gunshot wounds in pitched battles. To compound matters, because the game has to last a decent amount of time she’s murdering these guys and failing to escape from the island for what feels like an age, to the point where she’s killed so many men that you wonder why the rest don’t just down tools and run for the hills.

We can also see these problems in Alien: Isolation. Without wanting to spoil anything, Alien: Isolation has a story that can best be described as dragging quite badly. By the end of the game, from a purely story point of view, it has outstayed its welcome. The designers erred on the side of padding the game out for longer play time rather than going for a neater ending and so the story suffered, which is disappointing given the quality of the design and attention to detail of the setting.

Of course there is a flipside to this: when the game is good you want more and you don’t want it to end. So what is to be done? One solution that Alien: Isolation employs to an extent, and which the early Call Of Duty games also used to good effect, is to augment the main story with additional content. In Alien: Isolation this means missions and side stories based around the mechanics of the main game but set outside it. In the first Call of Duty games this meant that the story of each of the main characters was unrelated to any main narrative and quite short. This solution means that you’re getting more of the game if you want it, but in smaller, more manageable chunks.

In some games, such as Watch_Dogs or GTA V, the padding takes the form of open world malarkey that can be avoided. Usually these take the form of mini-games, side quests and random acts of violence. You can make a straight shot for the end of the story and it won’t take too long, or you can wander about to your heart’s content in the sandbox. This is a good compromise.

Another alternative is to offer more than one way to play through the game, important divergent choices that mean you can play the game again and everything will be a little different. To its credit this is something Wolfenstein: The New Order does.

Of course the somewhat obvious solution is to just make fuller, stronger stories, but this is harder to do than it looks. One game that managed it with aplomb is Batman: Arkham Asylum, but in order to do it the game had to draw upon the large supporting cast from the Batman comics. For a team of developers without all that background to call on and with hours of space on a storyboard to fill, the temptation to just have a character send the protagonist off to retrieve a McGuffin from wherever must be strong.

The idea that games should be shorter in general is one that has been going around a lot in recent years, with games like Limbo and The Walking Dead being cited as examples of a punchier narrative delivered in a cheaper, more manageable form. There is merit to this approach but there is a risk in short games with a narrative focus that the elements of the game as a challenge and test of skill become sidelined and a game becomes a thing that you experience rather than play. A short game lacks the time to teach you how to play and nobody likes a game that slaps you round the head with the end sequence just as you were hitting your stride.

A long story does not have to be a bad thing, of course. Some games that take ages to complete still manage to have few problems keeping a gripping narrative going. Series like Final Fantasy, Neverwinter Nights and individual games like Vampire: Bloodlines and Planescape: Torment all boast great stories that take days to unfold. If we look at games that don’t even have defined storylines but write their stories on the fly, such as the Civilisation, Football Manager or Total War series we see games that create drama as they go and which can hold players spellbound for hours at a time for as many sessions as it takes to reach the end, where for many players they’ll just start again. The capacity of these games to ravenously consume time in the tens, even hundreds of hours, would seem to indicate that they have locked onto something that mainstream games are missing.

Perhaps the problem for mainstream games lies in the way that they are seen as a visual medium rather than a cerebral one. It is easy to make a comparison between games and movies when perhaps in terms of form and structure games are more closely tied to literature. Movies are rolling entertainment, but literature, like a game, demands the attention of the audience in order to proceed. We can pick up and put down a book, and we can do so with a game too, but it would be unusual to do this with a movie. Games also naturally fit into the chapter structure of books, albeit having arrived at this structure on their own in the form of levels. Cinematic isn’t something that games should see as an aspiration, it is just one approach among many, and designers should be aware that there are all sorts of reasons you don’t make eight hour long movies.

For games to develop as a storytelling medium something has to change. We are seeing progress in short-form indie games and in the long-form RPGs and strategy games, but in the middle, in the land of the ten hour mass-market action games that make up so much of mainstream gaming, we’re still waiting on something better than Half Life 2.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

GRAHAM TURNER/GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA
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How board games became a billion-dollar business

A new generation of tabletop games escaped the family table – and fuelled a global industry.

In Birmingham not long ago, I watched a political catastrophe take place. A cabal of academics was clamouring for a liberal manifesto and an anti-capitalist government agenda. The working classes were demanding authoritarian rule with fewer socialist policies. And the ruling party, beset by infighting and resignations, was trying to persuade everyone that it had their interests at heart. It all felt disturbingly familiar – except that these politicians were brightly coloured cartoon drawings, their policies were drawn from a fat deck of cards and the people pulling the strings of government were a young family and a bunch of cheerful twentysomething men in T-shirts.

This was Statecraft, one of hundreds of board and card games on display at the UK Games Expo (UKGE) in Birmingham last summer. Now in its tenth year, UKGE is Britain’s biggest event in the increasingly crowded and profitable world of tabletop gaming and, with its milling crowds, loud music, packed stalls and extraordinary costumes (I spotted Judge Dredd, Deadpool, innumerable Doctors Who and more sorcerers than you could shake a staff at), it felt like a mixture of a trade show, a fan convention and a free-for-all party.

For anyone whose last experience of board games was rainy-day Monopoly and Cluedo, or who has doubts about the place of cardboard in an entertainment landscape dominated by screens, there was no better place to come for a Damascene conversion.

Statecraft’s creator, Peter Blenkharn, a gangly and eloquent 23-year-old with an impressive froth of beard, was in his element. “Our game also has one-party state scenarios,” he explained, brandishing a colourful deck of terrifying political events. “Sectarian violence. Hereditary establishments. An egalitarian society. Each one tweaks the mechanics and the mathematics of the game. There might be a housing crisis, a global pandemic, extremist rallies, a downturn in the economy, and with each you get a choice of how to react.”

Blenkharn is one of many new designers making careers out of the current boom in tabletop gaming. He founded his company, Inside the Box Board Games, with Matthew Usher, a friend from school and Oxford University, and raised £18,000 on the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to make their chemistry-themed puzzle game, Molecular. It was manufactured in China and shipped to Blenkharn’s mother’s house, where his family helped to send copies to the game’s backers. Last year, a second Kickstarter campaign for Statecraft made more than twice as much money, prompting Blenkharn to go into the business full-time.

“Publishing your own games is definitely profitable,” Blenkharn told me. “The profit margins are enormous on medium runs, and there’s a huge amount of room for more indie publishers . . . People collect 20, 30 or 40 board games at £20 or £30 a time. You can play with a range of different people. And while video games have a fairly niche age range, as you can see . . .” – he gestured around at the milling crowds – “. . . these games appeal to everyone. The market is exploding.”

The figures appear to support this optimistic prognosis. Last August, the trade analysis magazine ICv2 estimated that the “hobby games” business in 2015 – that is, board and card games produced and sold for a dedicated “gamer” market, rather than toys – was worth $1.2bn in the US and Canada alone. On Kickstarter, where independent designers can gauge interest and take pledges to fund production, tabletop games made six times more money than video games in the first half of 2016.

One of the most startling of these Kickstarter success stories was Exploding Kittens, a simple, Uno-like game illustrated by the creator of a web comic called The Oatmeal. This unassuming deck of cards, crammed with daft cartoons and surreal humour, earned nearly $9m in the month of its crowd-funding campaign, making it the seventh most successful project in Kickstarter’s eight-year history; so far, the only products on the platform to raise more money have been four iterations of the Pebble smart watch, a travel jacket with a built-in neck pillow, a drinks cooler that ices and blends your drinks – and a reprint of another board game, the fantastical (and fantastically expensive) Kingdom Death Monster, which costs $200 for a basic copy and is taking pledges of up to $2,500. It has already raised more than $12m. The figures for other games are scarcely less impressive: a game based on the Dark Souls series of video games, for example, raised £4m in crowd-funding pledges last April.

Touring the aisles of the UKGE, I started to wonder if there was any subject about which someone hadn’t developed a board game. A family was deep in a new edition of Agricola, a German game that involves scratching a living from unforgiving 17th-century farmland. “I’m going to have trouble feeding my child this harvest,” I heard one of the players say. Nearby, two people were settling into Twilight Struggle, a tussle for ideological control set in the Cold War, in which the cards bear forbidding legends such as “Nuclear Subs”, “Kitchen Debates” and “We Will Bury You”.

I spotted three games about managing fast-food chains, one about preparing sushi, one about eating sushi, one about growing chillies and one about foraging mushrooms; I watched sessions of Snowdonia, about building railways in the Welsh mountains, and Mysterium, a Ukrainian game in which a ghost provides dream clues to a team of “psychic investigators” using abstract artwork. A game called Journalist (“‘Where is that promised article?’ roars your boss”) seemed a little close to home.

Spurred by the opportunities of crowd-funding and the market’s enthusiasm for new ideas, a legion of small and part-time designers are turning their hands to tabletop games. I met the Rev Michael Salmon, an Anglican vicar whose football-themed card game Kix, a tense battle between two players with hands of cards representing their teams, has echoes of the Eighties classic Top Trumps. Nearby was Gavin Birnbaum, a London-based driving instructor who designs a game every year and carves them individually from wood in his workshop; 2015’s limited edition from his company, Cubiko, was Fog of War, in which perfect little tanks crept around a board of wooden hexagons, zapping each other.

Perhaps the most impressive prior CV belonged to Commander Andrew Benford, who developed his hidden-movement game called They Come Unseen beneath the waves in the Seventies while serving on Royal Navy subs. Sold at UKGE in a snazzy cardboard version by the war games company Osprey, it had come a long way from the “heavily engineered board covered with thick Perspex and secured to an aluminium board” that the nuclear engineers prepared for the original. Benford, now retired, was already thinking about an expansion.

This surge in innovation has also made these interesting times for established creators. Reiner Knizia, one of the best-known names in board games, told me, “There are enormous changes in our times, in our world, and this is reflected in the games. It’s wonderful for a creative mind.” Knizia is a German mathematician who quit a career in finance to become a full-time designer in 1997. His interest in games began in his childhood, when he repurposed money from Monopoly sets to devise new trading games, and he now has more than 600 original games to his credit.

Knizia’s games are frequently remarkable for a single innovative twist. In Tigris and Euphrates, a competitive tile-laying game set in the Mesopotamian fertile crescent, players compete to win points in several different colours, but their final score is calculated not on their biggest pile but their smallest. His licensed game for the Lord of the Rings series developed a method for co-operative adventure – players collaborate to win the game, rather than playing against each other – that has become a separate genre in the 17 years since its release.

But Knizia is no doctrinaire purist. The design experiments he conducts from his studio in Richmond, London (“I have 80 drawers, and in each drawer I have a game, but no sane person can work on 80 products at the same time”), embrace new methods and unusual technologies – smartphones, ultraviolet lamps – in their pursuit of what he calls “a simple game that is not simplistic”. When I mentioned the assumption common in the Nineties that board games would be dead by the millennium, he raised an eyebrow. “That clearly wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “Just as if you said travelling would die out because you could see everything live on television. There are basic needs of human beings: to socialise with other people, to explore things, to be curious, to have fun. These categories will stay. It doesn’t mean that we have to have printed cardboard and figures to move around: we might lay out a screen and download the board on to the screen. The act of playing, and of what we do in the game, will stay,
because it is in our nature.”

This question of the appropriate shape for board games – and how they are to utilise or shun the glowing screens that follow us everywhere – is one that many game designers are asking. Later in the summer, I had the chance to play the second edition of a game called Mansions of Madness, a reworking of an infamously complex board game based on the work of the horror writer H P Lovecraft. In its original incarnation, players navigated a series of terrifying colonial mansions, encountering monsters and events that needed to be drawn from piles of pieces and decks of cards by a human opponent. Like many games that involve huge numbers of interacting decisions, the first edition was a horror of its own to manage: the set-up took an eternity and one false move or misapplied card could ruin an entire game. For the second edition, its publishers, Fantasy Flight Games, streamlined the process – by handing over responsibility for running the game to an app for smartphones and tablets.

“To some, I’m the great Satan for doing that,” Christian T Petersen, the CEO of Fantasy Flight, told me when we discussed the integration of apps and games. “There was a portion of the gaming community that resisted it for various reasons: some on the basis that they didn’t want a screen in their lives, some on the basis of interesting thought-experiments that if they were to bring their game out 50 years from now, would the software be relevant or even possible to play? Maybe it won’t. I don’t even know if some of these inks that we have will last 50 years.”

Also a designer, Petersen was vigorous in his defence of the possibilities of mixed-media board gaming. “We’re trying to use technology to make the interface of games more fun,” he said. “Too much integration and you’ll say, ‘Why am I playing a board game? I might as well be playing a computer game.’ Too little and you’ll say, ‘Why is it even here?’ But I believe there’s a place in the middle where you’re using software to enhance the relevance of what this can be as a board game. We’re still experimenting.”

Other experiments have gone in different directions. The program Tabletop Simulator, released in 2015, is a video game platform that represents tabletop games in a multiplayer 3D space. Players can create their own modules (there are hundreds available, many of them no doubt infringing the copyright of popular board games) and play them online together. A recent update even added support for VR headsets.

While designers debate the future of the medium, tabletop gaming has been creeping out of enthusiasts’ territory and into wider cultural life. In Bristol, one evening last summer, I stopped by the marvellously named Chance & Counters, which had recently opened on the shopping street of Christmas Steps. It is a board game café – like Draughts in east London, Thirsty Meeples in Oxford and Ludorati in Nottingham – where customers pay a cover charge (£4 per head, or £50 for a year’s “premium membership”) to play while eating or drinking. The tables have special rings to hold your pint away from the board; the staff read the rule books and teach you the games.

“When I was growing up,” explained Steve Cownie, one of the three owners of Chance & Counters, “board games were associated with family time: playing Monopoly at Christmas and shouting at each other. Now, it’s been repositioned as a way for young professionals, students, just about anyone, to spend time with each other. It’s a guided social interaction, where there’s a collective task or a collective competition.”

There is barely a smartphone in the place. “People aren’t sitting around checking Face­book,” agrees Cownie. “They’re looking each other in the eye, competing or co-operating. It’s amazing to see, really.”

A board games café is an odd social experience but a compelling one. Before taking our seats at Chance & Counters, my companion and I were ushered by a waiter towards a wall of games that ran down the side of the building, past tables of other people bent in rapt concentration or howling in riotous disagreement over rules. “Would you like something light?” he asked. “Something heavy? Something silly? Something strategic?” The rows of gleaming boxes stretched out before us. Somewhere in there, I knew, was exactly the game we wanted to play. 

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era