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Time is gaming's biggest cost; here's one solution

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Game makers expect a lot from the people who play their games. Certainly more so than most other forms of mainstream entertainment.

When you go to a movie you're not expected to know how to operate anything other than the seat, and perhaps a pair of 3D glasses.

Conceptualizing the deeper meanings aside, when reading a book, the most you need to be good at is turning a page.

But to fully realize and enjoy a video game, players are expected to have a base level of expertise maneuvering in virtual environments with a confusion of buttons and thumbsticks.

Players are also often expected to have some understanding of the genre itself and its visual vocabulary. Shooters mean moving with one thumbstick and aiming with another, while shooting to kill and dodging in coming fire, all in pursuit of some other-side-of-the-battlefield objective. Platformers have players running across or through a screen jumping over hazards and collecting subtly marked special items.

Lately, increasingly, games also expect an inordinate amount of a player's time.

Where a movie is a couple of hours, video games are six hours, or eight, or 20, or 40 or, perhaps, forever.

"I read a paper by a psychiatrist on how the human brain can never remember anything."

Game developers have recently done a lot to combat some of the other issues of gaming's demands upon its players, but that time sink remains. Games are easier to understand, easier to control, but rarely easier to complete. Pick up and play is a thing that seems increasingly to becoming pick up and stay. And that's not an entirely good thing.

Gavin Moore, whose game development credits include the time-consuming (The Getaway) and the intense (Siren), noticed this a few years ago while playing a game with his young son.

"We were playing a two-player game and he just got up and went outside," he said. "As a dad I was kind of happy, but as a creative director for a studio I was kind of, 'No, that not good. You need to stay in your room and play games.' When he came back in I asked him why. He said, ‘We've been playing the same thing. It's been getting boring.'"

His son told Moore that he wanted the game to change every five to 10 minutes.

Moore did some research and discovered that five to 10 minutes isn't an arbitrary amount of time.

"I read a paper by a psychiatrist on how the human brain can never remember anything," Moore told Polygon. "People are much more focused on the finer points, the discussions. A lot of this stuff, if you break things down into 5- to 10-minute chunks, he was saying, people tend to remember those chunks,

"It becomes more of a memorable experience."

So Moore set out to create a game that changes every five to ten minutes. The end result is PlayStation 3 exclusive Puppeteer, a game that has players rambling through a single screen of adventure as a puppet boy whose head tends to pop off.

Every five to 10 minutes the game's entire backdrop lifts up from a stage, and a new one drops back down, creating a new sort of experience for the players.

The game is designed, Moore said, to deliver bursts of memorable experiences five to 10 minutes at a time. Players can pick up and stop whenever they want. A second player can do the same, without throwing the entire game into tailspin.

"If you break things down into 5- to 10-minute chunks ... people tend to remember those chunks."

Despite the staccato delivery of scenes and play, the game is tied together with a fantastical story, a three-act play, of sorts, delivered across seven acts.

"It's a big dose of Tim Burton meets Terry Gilliam with a nice big splash of Monty Python in there," Moore said. "Because it's set in this magical theater and that theater changes every five to 10 minutes, you never know what's going to come next. So you kind of want to keep coming back to see what's happening in the story."

That said, Moore says the game remains true to that original premise for the game: Making a series of bite-size experiences for a console loaded up with big, long games.

"We're bombarded by so much information now," he said. "We either try to get into something so deeply, like The Last of Us, that we keep on playing that way or we kind of stop trying ... you could play my game or go on YouTube or do whatever."

Good Game is an internationally syndicated news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and their bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.