Opinion: Are RPGs too long?

Jay Barnson has an opinion piece up at the Rampant Coyote blog exploring the possibility that RPGs are just too long. A snippet:

The real problem isn’t so much that the games are too long as a whole. But eventually any games (or stories of any other medium) will begin to drag in the middle. The beginning may be great, the ending may be fantastic, but at some point the middle will have simply gone on too long. This happens with RPGs more often than not, in my opinion.

But that’s just the story side of things. Some novels and movies have the same problem. The power of games is that they are much more than a storytelling medium.  Solid, compelling gameplay will keep people (like me) playing with only the barest hint of an end-goal in sight, let alone an actual quality plot. Hey, some of my most recent indie favorites – like Din’s Curse, Legend of Grimrock, and Knights of the Chalice – are exactly like that. Story-wise, there’s really not a whole lot there in any of them. But there’s enough interesting things to do and challenges to face that I keep playing. Whether it’s the Diablo-style feeder bar of constant leveling and items that increase my power, or the need to constantly revise my tactics to react to interesting puzzles or tactical challenges, I can go for hours with the most threadbare of narratives.

My own feeling is that there are two issues being addressed here that aren’t entirely related.

One is the hard limit that many of us face on our available time as adults. I hear this increasingly from RPG players of my generation, and I sympathize. Speaking personally: I have a girlfriend, a full-time job, my second occupation designing games, and this website to keep updated. I just don’t have the amount of free time I had as a kid! Particularly long RPGs can demand more time than I actually have to give.

The second problem is not about length per se, but about the method developers often use to pad out a game’s length: namely, dull and repetitive tasks (typically battles).

The first problem reduces the amount of patience I have for the second, but is otherwise unrelated. Of the two problems, I consider the second one more consequential. I do not play RPGs to be treated like the subject of a fantasy-themed Skinner box experiment.

By the same token, if a game is really well-designed and compelling, I’ll find ways to scrounge up the necessary time to complete it even if it’s longer than I’d like. Many turn-based  tactical RPGs can still command my attention for many, many hours–even the ones with threadbare or ridiculous plots (e.g. Disgaea)–because they (1) have deep and engaging battle systems with a large possibility space; (2) they do not force me to fight battles every few steps; and (3) when I do fight, I do not have to fight the same battles over and over again. There is variety, in other words, both within the battles and between the battles.

This is something I tried to do with Telepath RPG: Servants of God. The game has a deep combat system; almost no random battles; and when random battles do occur, they are unique battles generated procedurally. You will never fight the same battle twice on any given playthrough.

The bottom line is, developers have to learn to respect their players’ time. Respecting the player’s time doesn’t mean making your game short: it just means keeping it free of filler. There is room for both long RPGs and short RPGs. But forcing players to randomly reprise minor variations on the same simplistic battle over and over and over again? That just doesn’t cut it anymore.

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  • Nomic says:

    So many games, so little time …
    And RPGs are particularly long, so we have even less time for them …

  • Matt says:

    I think it was you so I apologize if it wasn’t…

    … but didn’t you say that RPGs need that element of boredom to enhance the exciting portions?

    • Craig Stern says:

      I’m pretty sure I’ve never said that. What you might be thinking of is a theory of game pacing currently popular among developers: namely, that games should be paced by breaking up periods of high challenge with short breaks and areas of low challenge (see e.g.) I don’t recall having made this argument myself, but I’ve certainly heard it used before. In any event, I wouldn’t say that the theory justifies employing an unrelenting series of repetitive, unchallenging, monotonous battles. Just the opposite, in fact!


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