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Do short games equal lost sales? One dev discusses the risks of brevity

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Short games can be great things, especially for those of us who suffer from a chronic lack of time.

Many of you agreed with my story about why I love shorter games, and one of the minds behind The Vanishing of Ethan Carter even wrote something of a manifesto about the movement for shorter games at the beginning of last year. There is a difference, however, between the idea of creating a short game and the reality of releasing one into the current market.

"It’s tiny bit easier to be a rebel when you don’t have a wife, a child and a mortgage. It’s exactly why some AAA studios could not be any happier if the employee has a family and a house that a bank owns," designer Adrian Chmielarz told Polygon. "Guys like that think twice before changing jobs or risking their own studio."

Risking it all on a short game

Chmielarz shared many thoughts about what it's like to follow through with the idea of a shorter game. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is around three to five hours long and is available now for $20. The team put every dollar they had into the game; there is much riding on its success.

"So when we kept seeing people complaining about this or that game’s length, we sort of stopped advertising the fact that Ethan Carter is not an eight to 10 hours long game," he said. "I did mention the idea of shorter games a few times in the last two years, and I did have some conversations on Twitter about the silliness of equating game play time with quality, but I wasn’t the short games paladin anymore, screaming that 'Ethan is a four hour game' from the top of the mountain."

Going over his notes and thoughts on releasing a game of this nature is interesting. On one hand, the critics liked the game and gave it good reviews. It has a 90 percent "recommended" rating on Steam.

"What more could one want, right? But we have an insane number of people putting our game in their Steam’s wishlist," Chmielarz said. "I can only think of one reason why: 'It’s a four hour game, that’s cool, but I’m gonna get it on sale.'"

He thinks the reviews could have been even better if the game had been longer. One of the more common things in reviews is to see someone call it "great but short." Then the word "short" is put in the minuses column in the review.

"It’s fucking pissing me off. It makes no sense. And not in the 'game length does not equal quality' sense. It makes no sense in the 'game length equals quality' sense either," he said.

"Like, we had a guy who finished the game in four hours and 17 minutes and went to our Steam forum to complain about it loudly. If he tripled the price to get to the AAA standard of $59.99, it would mean that the game he played was an equivalent of a thirteen hours long (3 x 4:17) single-player campaign of an AAA title. One that’s without filler, without padding, without collecting a hundred goat skins to make a level two wallet. That’s a pretty decent campaign, right?"

There is no easy way to look at game length, and it's one thing for a writer like myself to argue in favor of them when there's nothing at stake for me to do and quite another for a studio to release a shorter game knowing it's going to be held against them in reviews. Even if quantity doesn't equal quality, the fact remains that people seem to want the longest possible play time in every game they buy.

What's the next step?

So the question is, what conclusions can you draw about game length and cost of a game in order to maximize sales and increase the chances of your studio's survival and ability to fund the next game?

"Sadly, as I said, I have no idea," Chmielarz told Polygon. "We sold 50,000 copies of Ethan Carter in the first fifteen days — would we have sold 100,000 if the game was $14.99? Or would it have had to be $9.99?"

"I have no idea where to go in the future"

"Or maybe we would have sold exactly the same amount because the audience for this type of games is limited anyway and they pay whatever as long as the price is reasonable?"

This is what happens after you release a game, and I've spoken to many developers who go through this kind of doubt and frustration as they go through a sort of mental post-mortem.

Even if the game does well, you wonder what you could have changed, what might have been adjusted to make players and critics — and most importantly, the people buying the game — happier. Is there some formula for success, and can it be replicated? There may not be any concrete lessons to learn, in fact. What works for one game may not work for the next.

"What’s the sweet spot here? Nobody knows, really. People are not rational," Chmielarz said. "[Paying] $19.99 for a four hour game might be too much for some people, but I suspect that the same people might consider $9.99 for a two hour game a 'perfect' price. Or maybe not. Again, no clue.

"So I have no idea where to go in the future," he added. "We may keep doing what we’re doing. We may tweak the design to make sure that our games offer 8-plus hours for $19.99 even if it means adding fillers and loops. Or we may go in the opposite direction and make a movie-ticket priced game that is proud to be 'a one sitting game.'"

Maybe the better question is whether the blade will ever swing in the other direction, especially when it comes to reviews.

"A dev friend mentioned to me lately he dreams of a day when a standard game review could feature sentences like: 'Perfect one-sitting game, 10/10,' or 'sadly, we had to lower the score, as the game is a bit too long, 8/10,' or 'second half unnecessarily prolongs the game with grinding and padding, 7/10,' or 'be warned, this is not a game to finish on a weekend.'" Chmielarz said.

"But I have a feeling that day won’t come any time soon."