I remember the exact moment when I decided that bragging about how many discs your game was on was a pile of crap. It was when I paid money for Legend of Dragoon.
There’s no way around the fact that Legend of Dragoon is a bad game, and at its best moments it’s just Final Fantasy by way of Power Rangers, a line I am reluctant to write because it sounds potentially awesome and I don’t want Legend of Dragoon to sound awesome. But that isn’t the point; the point is that I remember playing the game, looking at the back of the box, and thinking, “Did I just buy this because it was an RPG with four discs?”
My defense would come down to the fact that I was seventeen and dumb as hell. Still, though, it makes you think about how duration is a selling point for games, not just for crap games that Sony desperately wants people to buy but for all sorts of games. Hours of gameplay. Number of levels. Number of classes, companions, combination attacks, areas, and so forth. And that’s kind of nonsense.
To be totally fair, this is not unique to games. The back of the extended edition of The Hobbit: Part One of an Unnecessary Three Because The Lord of the Rings Movies Made Lots of Money (generally referred to as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) boasts about offering hours of extra content. But slap in two hours of video wherein Peter Jackson throws rocks at geese while calling them smug feathered sons of dicks, and there you go, hours of bonus content. Which I would probably watch, come to think of it, but it still wouldn’t make it remotely relevant to the actual film.
Games are more guilty of it, though. Explore hundreds of locations. Recruit dozens of companions. 40+ hours of playtime. Steam and Origin both track how many hours you’ve played a given game as if it was a meaningful statistic, when you could easily rack up hours of play just by loading the game and then going on vacation for a week while leaving your computer on.
At a certain point in gaming history, some of these were pretty meaningful. When most games gave you one character to play as, the idea that a game would have two or three playable choices would be pretty novel. That time passed pretty early on, though, and now advertising the number of characters in in your fighting game as a selling point is kind of silly. Mortal Kombat 3‘s various incarnations picked up loads of characters, after all, but it barely mattered because most of those characters looked almost identical, played almost identical, or both at the same time. A large roster is worse than useless if it doesn’t add anything to the game.
Ditto for stages. Ditto for enemies. Ditto for everything, really. Making a 40-hour game isn’t difficult if you make the pace slow and plodding enough. Here’s a design document for one: you start outside of the villain’s castle and have to grind slimes outside to reach the level that lets you kill him. Figuring each battle takes a minute, it takes 2,400 battles to reach the required level. Hours of gameplay! Mind-numbing, constant, terrible gameplay!
I’m pretty sure the people who are getting paid to market these games know this is crap, too. The problem is that it’s hard to measure what, exactly, makes one game stand out, and it’s really hard to advertise about it on the back of a box.
Look, I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t write extensively on the differences between King of Fighters and Street Fighter as franchises, but that is because I have spent far too much of my life thinking about video games. I greatly prefer Saints Row to Grand Theft Auto, but there’s plenty to talk about when it comes to the question of why and what one franchise does that the other doesn’t, even as the two franchises go in completely separate directions. Except none of that fulfills the following objectives:
- Telling people why they should buy this game.
- Doing so in less than a paragraph.
What does fit in there are numbers and technically accurate claims. The choice of which numbers you put on there tells you a lot about the game, too. If a game advertised seven recruitable companions, multiple planets to explore, hours of gameplay, and an involved leveling system, you’d probably think it was a straight RPG. You’d expect a shooter if a game advertised more than forty weapons, huge firefights in a cover-based engine, squad-based gameplay giving you tactical control, and online multiplayer co-op play.
This despite the fact that both of those descriptions apply to Mass Effect 3.
And let’s face it, the metrics at least sound good. Sure, I just came up with an idea for the most tedious forty hours of gameplay you would ever experience a few paragraphs up, but I know from experience that when I look back on the time I spend playing games the tedious bits sort of get edited out. I remember the fun times I had with a game and mentally do the math of having forty really fun hours, despite the more likely reality of ten really fun hours along with a mix of moderate fun, mindless fun indistinguishable from tedium, and controller-breaking rage. Suikoden games advertise 108 characters who can join your party, and you have to know that that’ll consist of 12 usable characters and 96 piles of crap you use to fill out a list, but still.
Hell, why does every new Pokémon sequel toss on another group of critters? It’s not because the designers have so many new ideas; they started running out of ideas in the first batch of 150. (Mr. Mime and Porygon exist, that’s the proof.) It’s because you have to catch them all. Don’t ask why, just start catching them.
That’s where we are, then. We’re stuck using shitty metrics because we don’t have any better ones. We know that things like the number of discs a game has or the number of hours it takes to kill the final boss isn’t indicative of much beyond how long it takes to be done with it, leaving aside mods that can extend the life of a game extensively, but we still use all of these things because the metric everyone really wants to member isn’t numeric in the least. You can’t put a number on fun. It’s like some demented variant on blind men describing an elephant, except we all know we’re missing something and just can’t find a good way to solve that problem.
Legend of Dragoon is still shit, though.