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Dear Santa,

December 24th, 2007 by

I just wanted you to know that I’ve been a very good game reviewer this year and that I’ve done my best to see the good in everyone (even Xenosaga II). I’ve been fair and measured when I wanted to rant and whine, and I’ve even stopped swearing while I play Contra.

I think some compensation is in order.

Look, I know that “peace on earth and goodwill toward men” is a bit of a tall order, so screw it. I want something simpler that’ll still make the world a better place. All I want from you is a little subliminal messaging. When you’re delivering toys to the children of game designers, just sneak up to the designer’s bedroom and whisper these words into his or her ears:

Length Is Not A Feature
Length used to be so difficult to quantify. Sure, a perfect run through Contra takes fifteen minutes, but that ignores the three weeks of hard play required to reach that state of grace. These days, however, between linear game design and careful difficulty tuning, it’s possible to nail down just about exactly how long most games will last.

At what point exactly did game length start popping up on the back of the box? Was it Final Fantasy VII? They were awfully proud of their forty hours of gameplay, and after that, everybody seemed to think that games had to be forty hours long. Not that marketers did anything to dissuade gamers of this notion, and designers kept pumping out longer and longer games. It’s a vicious cycle, and games have just gotten longer and longer since then.

Of course, this length doesn’t manifest itself through enrichment of game content, especially in RPGs and adventure games; there it’s mostly just bloat. Have a 39 hour game? Just make your characters walk 3% slower–that makes 40 hours. Need more padding? Increase the random encounter rates by a few percent. Have a well-designed game world to explore? Stretch out the distances between landmarks until it feels like a depopulated wasteland. Of course, the more times you can make a player backtrack across the empty wastes on fetch quests, the better. Oh, and the ability to run faster or instantly warp from place to place should be restricted as much as possible (I’m looking at you, MMORPGs).

Could you imagine if games didn’t have to be 40 hours long? Strip out all the padding and .hack could have been a fast-paced RPG with an interesting premise and episodic gaming could have gotten a three-year head start. World of Warcraft might not need 40 minute play sessions to get anything done. There’s a beautiful world out there where games don’t just drag on and on and on, and you can lead us there.

Let Us Pick Up And Play Our Games
You can split games into two categories. The first contains games where gameplay is its own reward (Guitar Hero, Mr. Driller, Bejeweled, etc). The second contains games where you play for the promise of other rewards (Dragon Warrior, Zelda, Kingdom Hearts, etc). This request is mostly about the first category.

When you make a game like that, the gameplay experience is usually simple and pure at first glance. You rely on the player’s willingness to play your game long enough to discover the depth that makes the simple gameplay conceit so compelling. Of course, there are ways to lead the horse to water, and you can add a mission mode or a timer to put constraints on the gameplay so players are led along by artificial accomplishments as they discover the joy of play. Of course, to make these accomplishments meaningful, you need some kind of reward, and often that reward is new gameplay. Perhaps a new level becomes available, or a higher difficulty mode, and that’s fine.

What you should never do, however, is make the game’s “pick up and play” mode an unlockable. Mr. Driller DS does this. The gameplay mode where you just sit down to drill until you run out of luck, air, and lives unlocks after six mission mode stages where the difficulty of the last two borders on the ridiculous. Guitar Hero does it too. Song lists unlock in quick play mode as they are successfully completed in the game’s mission mode. So, if you can’t finish “Bark at the Moon” in Hard mode, you’ll never see the songs that are unlocked in expert mode.

When you deny the content to players like that, all you do is accelerate your game’s trip back to the resale market or the dusty closet shelf. There are ways to fix the problem (cheat codes, time-unlockable content, etc), but whatever it takes, let us play the games we buy.

Please Stop Punishing Us For Having Lives
Remember that cut scene in Final Fantasy VII that lasted forty minutes? Even if you don’t, perhaps you can think of something similar–a ridiculously long stretch of time between save points. Ever have to leave twenty minutes into it? Options get pretty thin at this point, you can skip out and miss twenty minutes of content, or you can shut off the system and sit through the same 20 minutes you just watched at a later time. It’s a lousy choice that nobody should have to make.

Of course, things have come a long way since the old days of PS1 memory cards and save points, and this problem isn’t quite so pronounced any more. High capacity hard drives in modern consoles makes saving fast and save points are no longer a technological requirement to save space. So why is it that we cant just save any time in any game we play? Can you save your progress in most puzzle games? No. Can you save outside the integrated checkpoint system in Halo 3? No.

If you’re worried that gamers will save themselves into a corner (that is, save the game at a moment when failure is guaranteed) or you’re worried that omnipotent saving will compromise the game’s difficulty curve, then use temporary saves–saved games that are deleted when they are loaded. That way you can still limit your QA team’s headaches to those checkpoints, but gamers won’t have to incur a startup cost every time they pick up your game.

Cut us some slack. Sometimes we have to stop gaming, and it’d be nice if we could do it on our own terms, not yours.

So yeah, all I really want for Christmas is for game designers to stop being pricks. Santa, if you can arrange that for me, you don’t even need to bring me any video games for Christmas. If they’re designed like this, I’ll shell out my own money.

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