There are a few indie developers doing a blog about what they feel about the subject of game length today. This is something that has been annoying me recently, because I have been trying to play so-called “AAA” games and feeling frustrated that they offer me little of interest. Then I’ve been seeing a lot of very small micro games on the lower “indie” end of the market. These games typically are 2D platformers or schmups (shoot em up’s to us non-cool kids). But there’s a huge gulf between the two styles of gameplay, which really irks me because I dont want either of those, I want something in the middle.

Luckily, there are a few exceptions and those tend to be the type of game I enjoy. They offer lots of depth and gameplay, without the focus on heaping hours and hours of “content” which typically devolves into doing the same thing a few hundred times, or wading through a sea of cutscenes in order to get to the final boss battle.

You can understand how both of these things come about. In the AAA market there is an aversity to risk because of the huge sums of money involved in developing and marketing a game. Frankly I’d be scared out of my skin to invest 40+ million into a game that wasnt a completely “sure thing”. Which means essentially you have to copy a mechanic that is already proven, usually backed by creating a “franchise”, which means creating some “character” to try and get the market interested. In reality what this generally does is mean that you amalgamate as many proven mechanics as you can, throw in the occasional new item and then iterate on your production values until it feels AAA quality. This of course, means you spend huge sums of money on art, content and cutscenes.

On the lower end, you have the platformers. There are so many of them that if you visit any of the “in crowd” indie forums and keep an eye out, you’ll probably find a few a week. Theyre like the current indie fashion item. Usually these have no art budget at all, so they are then called “retro”, or they have an artist on board, so theyre a bit more artsy. Usually they have some whizz-bang mechanic like stopping time, or rewinding time, or inverting time or inverting reality or some such. I applaud their innovation as much as I deride their narrow-mindedness. The trouble is, that its all very fashionable and clique-y and I dislike the whole notion of “celebrity” enough that it leaves a bad taste for me.

So we have high-art high-fashion indie, we have low-art big-budget AAA. But what of the middle ground? Well, there thankfully there definitely *is* a middle ground, although its not particularly innundated with examples right now. Games like Overgrowth, Frozen Synapse, Subversion (or whatever introversion end up calling it), Spy Party and Gratuitous space battles all spring to mind. All of them occupy a middle ground that is not AAA but is definitely not the “indie scene” type of indie game either. There are also examples from the mod community like the recent Alien Swarm. Games which have high production values for a smaller set of content. Games that don’t live and die by “length” rather than depth. Games that don’t need hours and hours of costly cutscenes. They also tend to be games that will offer true value to gamers because the experience will be about gameplay and not about external market sentiments about “length” or “production values”.

The most interesting part about this, is that these were the kind of games people used to create. If you’ve been around the game dev scene long enough, you’ll have spotted the trend towards making more and more of a song and dance around content and the cinematic experience. But is that a healthy way to look at things? Certainly I’ve not got enough time on my hands to not be an active participant in my own gameplay experience. I want to play the game, not watch it. There was a time when AAA games used to have this balance, they often tried to do the cinematic thing even then, but the rendering capabilities were such that cutscenes were generally very short and usually only a snippet to setup an atmosphere. I’ll use syndicate as an example here. It had cutscenes to introduce the dark nature of the game and to set the agent upgrade concept in context. Hell, there even used to be some quite good “cutscenes” that I quite enjoyed, like the one from the original XCom. But cutscenes were there to create atmosphere, to set the stage for the game as succinctly as possible. I think a big part of it was that playing fullscreen video was simply not possible and as such they tended to not try and create huge cinematic masterpeices. Of course fast forward to the present day and we get games which are overwhelmingly just cinematics.

So, I guess I am advocating a middle ground of indie games. Somewhere that crosses the divide between huge budget AAA retail-oriented games and the micro games of the indie “scene”. Those are the type of games I want to play. Those are the types of games where complexity and depth are accepted and not shunned (another recent trend amongst AAA games). Those are the types of games that many an old time gamer like me will enjoy.

The question is, are the middle ground games viable? I sure hope so because thats what I’m currently working on.

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