With this week’s launch of the PlayStation 5 in the UK, following the recent arrival of the Xbox Series X|S, the new console generation is firmly here. While the consoles themselves are both incredible pieces of hardware in their own rights, something curious seems to be happening on the software side – the shiny new 4K games heralding their arrival appear to be getting shorter.
This is more notable on PS5, where the breakout title – Insomniac’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales – delivers a 12-20 hour experience. Despite its comparative brevity though, it’s a refinement and elevation of the previous game on PS4, and while Miles’ story is more personal than the threat faced by Peter Parker there, the tighter focus combined with Miles’ more expansive power set, less filler content, and better pacing, makes the finished product feel even more polished than its predecessor. It also looks fantastic in the process, with a city more vibrant, alive, and richly detailed than any game has previously delivered.
Similarly Sackboy: A Big Adventure, a brilliant platform adventure that fully exploits the visual power of the PS5 and the hardware features of the PS5’s DualSense controller, feels a full and complete experience, clocking in again at around 20 hours to complete, but chops out the level creation suite of the core LittleBigPlanet games from PS3 and PS4. It’s not just Sony’s first party titles though – the third party Godfall will also take around 12-15 hours to complete its story-driven campaign mode.
The trend is less notable on Xbox, where the likes of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Yakuza: Like a Dragon are lengthy standouts, but Microsoft’s stance of no generation-exclusive games – for the time being, everything on Xbox Series X|S is also released on Xbox One – may impact developers’ decisions. Even so, the first party Gears Tactics, which was our review benchmark for Series X and S, clocks in at around 25 hours.
This bucks the trend of the last several console generations, where single player games in particular have trended towards bigger, longer epics – masterpieces of immersive world-building where players can spend hundreds, if not thousands, of hours. Games where multiplayer is central to the experience operate on different engagement mechanics, the sense of competition or collaboration keeping players invested far beyond the time they might spend on a story-based game, but for those “triple A” single player titles, the reality for many players is a barely touched and often mounting ‘pile of shame’; games barely played before being distracted by the next big release.
Developers, meanwhile, are caught in a loop of creating ridiculously detailed worlds and adding beautifully nuanced touches that only a few people will ever experience – and often burning themselves out with notorious “crunch” windows in the process, just to deliver those ignored details. As we enter an era of hyper-realistic 4K games, could a trend towards shorter but higher quality games actually be beneficial for both players and developers?
“It’s too early to say whether or not shorter premium experiences are an established trend, but nowadays it seems everyone has a backlog of titles, says Kevin Carthew, creative director at British developer and publisher Team17. “Because of this I think players are more willing to accept shorter games, as long as the experience remains high quality.”
“The quality of the experience is key,” he continues, “and developers should be mindful of how their games are played; not just by their target audience, but by a range of different types of player.”
Part of the problem in shifting to prioritising quality of play over length of game time is the perceived value to players, especially as PS5 and Xbox Series X|S have seen a leap in RRP to £69.99 for many titles – and close to £90 for some “ultimate editions”. “For AAA games, there is pressure to justify the price,” says Chris Dring, head of games B2B at exhibitions company ReedPop. “Gamers still take a short run-time as a negative. Even this new Spider-Man game, which is truly excellent, has been dismissed as an expansion or glorified DLC by some communities, because it is 20 hours versus 40 hours. If someone is going to spend £60 on something, they want to make sure it is going to entertain them for a long period.”
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When it comes to the next gen launches, and PlayStation 5 in particular, Dring says Sony was being smart with its development resources to ensure it had a strong and quality line-up. “It’s proven to be a very effective approach,” he says. “But based on how huge The Last of Us Part II and Ghost of Tsushima are, I would be surprised if the next Horizon or God of War follow the pattern we’ve seen at launch. I expect them to be huge, long games.”
However, is there even any point in developers crafting 100-plus hour sagas filled with material few will ever see?
“In terms of making games that people are more likely to complete, I honestly don’t think it’s a motivation for developers any more,” says James Batchelor, UK editor for GamesIndustry.biz. “Data from Trophies and Achievements show how rare it is for people to complete most games, even the shorter games, and that’s been the case for years. Instead, developers are trying to strike a balance – providing enough content so that those who dedicate themselves almost solely to their game have enough to entertain them for months or even years, and providing an enjoyable early experience for those who will inevitably get distracted by the next big new release.”
As media has evolved, “engagement” has become as much of a measure of success as financial results – if you can get someone to invest huge amounts of time in a property, it’s a form of cultural capital. It can also translate to actual capital – the more time someone spends with a game or series, the more they’re likely to evangelise it to friends or, more recently, on their social media. Plus, get a consumer hooked on a franchise, and you have often have a mainline to their wallet – that’s part of the reason almost every major film is now at least a trilogy, if not a whole ‘cinematic universe’.
Even in passive media such as film and TV though, could that 20-30 hour window of commitment be the ‘sweet spot’ that we may now be seeing games aiming for? The total runtime for the core Star Wars series, the cinematic Episodes I-IX, is 1236 minutes, a little over 20 and a half hours. The Marvel Cinematic Universe comes in longer, at 49 hours and 56 minutes to date, but is also divisible into its “Phases”, which run between 12.5 and 25 hours (744, 757, and 1,495 minutes for Phase One, Two, and Three, respectively).
On television, the tendency for at least the last decade has been towards shorter, tighter seasons with more defined arcs. Although you may see the occasional longer individual episode, sometimes breaking the one-hour mark, the average season length for a scripted drama is now ten to thirteen episodes, a far cry from the 22-26 episode seasons that were the hallmark of what was deemed a successful show up until the early 2000s. Longer running shows – the likes of The Walking Dead, or Game of Thrones’ eight-season run – are more of an exception than the rule, these days, and even they tend towards those lower per-season episode counts.
Yet just as a shift in viewing behaviour came about in part because of the rise of on-demand streaming platforms such as Netflix, an increase in game subscription services see a transformation in how games are made, and how long they are.
“It’s interesting to see with some TV shows how people criticised them for being too long,” says Dring. “For AAA developers utilising something like [Microsoft’s Xbox games subscription] Game Pass, there is an opportunity to release a shorter, high quality game without the need to justify the price tag.”
No one seems to think extremely long single-player games are going away just yet – “shorter games are more likely to be traded in at retail or avoided until they’re heavily discounted,” points out Batchelor – but there is another incentive for shorter games: the needs of a changing demographic of players.
“There is a maturing gaming population, and more and more people who are craving adventures but are unable to spend 100s of hours in the game,” says Dring. “We’ve seen some developments there, but a lot of it has come in the hardware and services. The flexibility of Switch and being able to take gaming on the go, the ability to carry on your Xbox game via your mobile using xCloud, the instant loading times on the new machines… all of that makes console gaming a bit more accessible to those without the time to spare.”
Between that shift and the rise of subscription services that allow developers more freedom to deliver shorter games without as much online clamour against perceived brevity, Dring expects to see shorter games thrive during this console generation, with a caveat. “While AAA games cost £60+, and ‘engagement’ is the true metric of success in this business,” he says, “the biggest brands will continue to be big in all areas.”
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