Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Are RPGs Too Long?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 28, 2012

I feel a little heretical asking this question, in an age when $60 mainstream games have been cut down to 12 hours (or less) of gameplay (“But we make up for it in multiplayer!”). In discussing turn-based versus action-based RPGs with a friend and fellow Frayed Knights developer Xenovore (much more of a fan of fast-paced action-RPGs), this topic came up as we listed RPGs that we grew bored with at some point and quit playing. In most of these cases, there was no rage-quit or moment of too great frustration – it was simply a case of it eventually quit drawing our interest, possibly because something new and shiny was installed on our hard drives.

Usually, it plays out like this: I start playing an RPG. I have a great time playing. I get invested in the storyline. And then, the early set-up stuff goes away and I’m playing through the mid-game. It’s slow. I’m still invested, but I’m doing a lot of make-work and grinding. I get lost figuring out what I’m doing next. I’m still playing, but it’s no longer compelling. I’m not feeling the urge to play every evening when I get home from work. Something happens and interrupts my ‘habit’ of playing. I play once or twice more, days later, trying to remember what I was doing next, and trying to pick up the thread of the story which hasn’t had much presence since the beginning of the game. And then I realize that it’s been months since I last played, and there are other games  waiting to be played…

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.

And so in theory, you can combine these two factors to make a game that can have extremely long, playable “middles,” like those big, meaty RPGs I love to talk about, right?

Maybe. Sometimes.

I’m not sure those factors are multiplicative. Or even additive. A game’s enjoyability may only last until either the story or the gameplay start feeling stale, whichever comes first. Fun narrative advancement may help fill in the lags in advancement or any place where the gameplay might start to get a little repetitive. Solid, entertaining mechanics may happily fill hours of time when I couldn’t give a fig what’s happening in the storyline (and if you’ve ever skipped past a cut-scene because you want to get back to the action, you know what I mean). But if both start getting a little tired at the same point, I’m ready for the game to be done.

If everybody reached that point at the same time, game design would be an easy job.

One of the virtues of Bethesda’s RPGs is that the player is empowered to end the main storyline pretty much whenever he wants (realistically, I guess within about ten hours of play).  Curiously enough, I tend to put more hours into those games than most other RPGs – often ending in or close to triple digits.  There’s just enough interesting subplots and advancement possibilities going on to keep me occupied for a while.

So I see five answers here. They are possibly brought down from the lofty heights of Mount Obvious, and I’m sure there are more to be found, but here are my suggestions:

#1 – Shorten the game. I do love myself some big ol’ meaty epics, so I don’t want all RPGs to do this, but just as all other media can be made or broken by the quality of the editing, so can games.  We need RPGs that can be finished in a week or two (or maybe a single caffeine-fueled weekend).

#2 – Improve the game mechanics to keep things compelling through the end. Maybe the reward structure is too regular, or too irregular.  Maybe the challenges are too repetitive, or require such similar decisions on the part of the player that they feel repetitive.

#3 – Punch up the narrative to fix the middle. Note that this may often mean changing the beginning or ending (which in game development can be pretty hard). Maybe it’s flowing at too even of a pace for too long. Things need to be changed up.  A reversal needs to happen somewhere in there. Maybe a subplot just isn’t working very well and needs to be removed or changed. Whatever. The story needs fixing.

#4 – Do what Bethesda does and allow the player to go for the end-game at the time of his choosing.

#5 – Break into pieces, as multiple games,  episodes, or expansions. Treat each of them as a stand-alone story that simply have a larger arc running between them.

Again, not rocket science. But I feel a lot of RPGs – indie and mainstream, could benefit not from being made shorter, but tighter.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 26 Comments to Read

  • Josh said,

    Answer: no

    I can’t personally remember any RPGs that started to drag for me. But if one did, I can confidently say that “make it shorter” would NOT be the way to improve it. I like your options #2, #3, and #4.

    I’ve played a few mini-RPGs lately and the majority of them leave me feeling unfulfilled. Whatever the proper art form is for these, there are few designers that have mastered it.

  • jwmeep said,

    Most of the RPGs I drop, and don’t come back to are generally due to mechanics, not the length of the game. Dragon Age Origins is great example. Compelling enough story, but combat made the game a chore. Despite wanting to play the other origins, I gave up since I just couldn’t handle all that repetitive, tedious, combat. In addition minigames, obtuse puzzles, and pointless back tracking also can be a cause for me not finishing an RPG.

    Definitely agree on tighter systems, rather than shorter length.

  • Califer said,

    I like how they did it in Dragon Quest IX. The main story wasn’t too long, but after you beat it there’s still a lot to do to get your moneys worth if you’re still interested. Pokemon does the same thing.

  • Albert1 said,

    In my opinion is not the length of the game itself, it’s rather the fact that at some point of the game (1/3, 1/4) designers too often think that players want huge variations in environments/characters and basically force you to “relocate” to another realm/shard/take your pick. This is true not only for RPGs. Examples of this phenomenon are Diablo II, Vampire TMR – the latter, as you wrote, offered two great cities (Prague, Vienna) and then forced the player to visit two so-so ones (London, New-York). It would have been better if developers just made Prague and Vienna double their sizes, with more quest, etc.
    Diablo II is even more paradigmatic: it seems that you can’t play an hack’n’slash just in its more natural setting i.e. fantasy middleage, no, you have to waste you time in boring egyptian tombs and, why not, even mayan temples!

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    I can see where the argument is coming from – my Icewind Dale playthrough bogged down somewhere and I’m just lacking the drive to continue. Would making it shorter help? Well, it might mean that I would have actually finished it and gotten that sense of achievement, but to many people’s eyes that would affect the value-for-money equation. Not that it matters in the case of an ancient cheap GOG game, but the usual argument against being able to shortcut a lot of the stupidly drawn-out dungeons in Dragon Age is to ensure that everyone gets a long playtime full of Stuff.

    Breaking it up into pieces and making sure that the Feeling Of Achievement comes very often might help keep momentum going, but it’s also very easy for people to start dropping off and later episode don’t sell as much and eventually you get sick of producing them and….

    As for big variations in environment/characters, many people DO want some change so they don’t feel like they’re staring at the same stuff forever. And not everyone agrees on which change is best, so throwing in several different flavors helps cover the chances of everyone finding SOMETHING they like?

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    A younger me would have said “no!” and wanted every game to be as long as possible.

    These days though, I have so many games to play that I’d rather play something that’s shorter and more compelling than an RPG that is padded out with meaningless/dull combat.

    In fact, I’d suggest that the combat is the big sticking point for me. I have New Vegas sitting on my HDD after putting a good 20+ hours into it, but I can’t bring myself to play it because I’m sick of the combat (which is also why I haven’t installed Skyrim yet).

    On the other hand, I’ve been playing Mount & Blade for what seems like an eternity, and it’s still taking up a lot of my game time (I started with M&B, moved to Warband, dabbled in With Fire and Sword and Prophesy of Pendor (warband mod), now back to Warband with Floris mod pack).

    If combat is a big part of a game (and in RPGs it often is), then the combat has to be interesting otherwise I will begin to think of it as a chore, something to get through before the next interesting content.

  • Bluddy said,

    This was one of the reasons behind the making of Planescape Torment. They wanted to make an RPG short enough that anyone could get to see the ending. They also happened to have created one of the most compelling RPGs ever.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I’d be interested to see the ages and responsibilities of the people replying. I think it makes a big difference. Like Andy_Panthro, a younger me would have been appalled at the suggestion of shortening an RPG. An older me begs for it.

    Chrono Trigger is still one of my favorite RPGs, and I replay it nearly every year, in large part because it is so short. It has a large number of endings and high re-playability to make up for it.

    As an adult, I can’t stand for RPGs to drag on and on. My favorite games are now those that are very short with high replay potential. My increasing dislike of the Final Fantasy series coincides almost perfectly with my growing lack of time as an adult. Final Fantasy 13 caused me to rage quit after it gave me another tutorial some 25-30 hours into the game and I realized the end was nowhere in sight.

    As a teen, I had all the time in the world, so the more a game could fill of it, the better, especially since money was tight enough I could only reasonably afford a new game every few months or so. But as an adult, the situation is reversed – I don’t have a lot of time, but I do have a lot of cash. So if I beat a game in 10 hours, I can go out and buy another one. I don’t need a game to throw new and novel things at meet as I progress, because I can progress to a whole other new and novel GAME.

    I don’t have a set “perfect length” an RPG should be – I just know it shouldn’t waste my time. Giving me tons of optional stuff to do is great, but if I’m just looking for story resolution, the game shouldn’t take forty forevers and a dozen plot twists to get there – all broken up by insane amounts of grinding combat.

    Hence forth I’m calling all random combat in an RPG – “Abrupt Story Padding” or ASPs. Which is fitting, since they poison otherwise good games.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    “Abrupt Story Padding?” – Heh, I wrote an article about that a long time ago (defending random combat encounters, actually). I should look for it and see if it’s worthy of dusting off. Or see if my own opinion has changed much since then…

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Is that article on the blog somewhere, because I’d like to read it. If for nothing else maybe to change my own mind or make experiencing them more palatable. My younger self certainly thought random combat encounters were just peachy.

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    … speaking of game padding, the more I have to drive THIS DAMNED TRAIN the more I want to phone up the game designers and yell at them. 🙂

    (Still not done with Zelda. Still too sick to play much. Very sick of train.)

  • Barry B said,

    I admit to having a cynical reaction whenever I hear a Game Industry game designer diss lengthy RPGs, or read the marketing materials that praise it for cutting out all the dreary, boring padding. I can’t help but think that it means less development time, less resources spent, a quicker turnaround in the market. Just coincidentally, of course.

    I found that the lengthy Ultima V, VI, and VII games only built cleverly, without losing power, and I invested dozens of hours in each. This also applied to Planescape: Torment, and the Baldur’s Gate titles (though as much to Throne of Baal). As you note, the problem is slack construction, not length. I really enjoyed the innovative mechanics and great AI in the Magic Candle series, but the games frankly wore as they moved along, since nothing really changed: the same mechanics, the same NPCs, the same challenges. They never grew.

    So I suppose for a second rate developer who has no interest in figuring out how to “grow an RPG,” shorter games are the way to go, but I prefer the better grade of developer who figures out how to worm a game into your head, and make it gradually come alive over the course of the many hours you play it.

  • Joel said,

    I think a game also needs to make combat fun, if that is what you spend the majority of your time doing. Some games have boring or tedious combat mechanics and eventually the rest of the game can’t do enough to hold your interest.

  • Teixeira said,

    Laxius Force is very long and it’s a good thing. We need games like this if we don’t want all the games to feel the same.

  • Albert1 said,

    On random combat encounters.
    I happen to tolerate, sometimes enjoy them, when they are restricted to the true levels of the game.
    When they take place in those part of the game world that act as a HUB between the levels, and this HUB is quite large, they feel like a mosquitoes swarm!
    In Final Fantasy 8 you couldn’t go from city x to dungeon y without endless RCE – in a word: boring!

  • Modran said,

    I know that repetitive fights (and RCE as Albert put it) are just a big showstopper for me. I’ll play and suddenly, my level/power will be such that most fights are just “lost time”: I know I’m going to win, but there’s all these animations for the start and the finish which are always the same (JRPGS) and take as much or more time than the fight itself, or I’ll fight them all the same way (Fallout 3, or even Might & magic) and it will be over in less than 10s with my finger on the exact same button.
    At that point, the story is what keeps me going, and if there’s too much fighting padding (is that even a proper description) between 2 events, I’ll just stop loading the game and find something else to do.

    NB: Recently lost our beloved Chloe in a trap-gone-wild accident and tried to get back to town with my party at halfhealth and no stamina. Ran from fights (which made me backtrack), lost Benjamin, had Arianna and Dirk with less than 10 HP each when I decided “screw this, stop hoarding those potions and live instead of loading”. I made it to town in rags, but boy was it an intense experience I’m not about to forget in quite a while!

  • JTippetts said,

    Me, I’m all about the random combat encounters. But then, I’ve never been one to truly enjoy narrative in a game. As long as the combat is interesting, I can happily spend hours out in the field trying new things, thinking up innovative new ways to slaughter mobs, etc… Dragon Warrior for the NES was my first JRPG and my most vivid memories of it are of gleefully wandering around in circles for hours hoping for a gold golem encounter so I could try to take it down and make some bank before it would flee, even if I really had nothing to spend my money on.

    In fact, one of the chief reasons I quit playing diablo 3 was that they stubbornly insisted on forcing so much narrative down my throat, what with all the cutscenes and whatnot. Just gets old and boring. Narrative, for me, should stay unassuming and quiet unless I seek it out. Or, at the least, it shouldn’t get in my way. If I have to press a button to cancel an in-game cutscene, I’ve just broken immersion and the odds of me quitting the game have just increased astronomically.

    My utmost favorite games have always been roguelikes, for this very reason. Narrative is virtually non-existent. It’s weird, considering that I read so many novels (usually about 1 a week). Maybe it’s just that I want to get narrative from a book and gameplay from a game, and rarely should the twain ever meet.

    The best way to keep me hooked is just to keep me balanced on that razor edge of survival, as in Modran’s post. I’m breathlessly waiting to see if I die a horrible death, not idly waiting to see if so and so is going to betray such and such. When I go crawling into town leaking blood from a thousand wounds, potions depleted and party members screaming in pain and fear, I know I’ve just had an awesome play session and I’m going to come back to it the next day.

  • laclongquan said,

    There’s no such thing as “too long middle game”. There’s only “not enough development time”, “oops”, and “badly paced design”.

  • Eric said,

    Great article as usual, Jay. I have a few thoughts on the matter, but first, for your solutions:

    #1 – Shorten the game. The big problem with most RPGs is that they are purposely bloated with filler. This isn’t always in the middle, but it often is… and it’s been a problem since some of the earliest RPGs. Usually it’s fetch quests, boring dungeon crawls that offer nothing new to the gameplay, etc. Every time I go back to replay Baldur’s Gate for example, I make it past the first dungeon or so and then realise that I’ve got dozens of hours of wandering around and killing generic bandits remaining, and that the “good” stuff only comes in the endgame. I have only beaten the game once because of this.

    #2 – Improve the game mechanics to keep things compelling through the end. Kinda, but not necessary depending on the game. I think most RPGs have enough depth, the problem is pacing – either they give you everything early on or wait to the ending to give you some shiny new mechanic that you use for 30 minutes. Gradually increasing difficulty and encounter design quality, i.e. making more with the rules already available, is preferable and usually all that’s needed.

    #3 – Punch up the narrative to fix the middle. This usually goes hand in hand with poor pacing of gameplay. Neverwinter Nights 2 has the best turn-around of any RPG I’ve played – after an awful, boring, repetitive first act the game suddenly kicks into overdrive with its trial sequence and role-playing qualities like non-combat solutions come to the forefront. Act 2 is the reason I finished the original campaign. However, most RPGs these days have pretty good pacing – I’ve never put one down because I was bored by the narrative, it was always something else.

    #4 – Do what Bethesda does and allow the player to go for the end-game at the time of his choosing. I really like this – as a completionist it’s great to be able to engage in tons of content, but I also like to know that I can finish the game relatively quickly at any time if I know what I’m doing. What I like to see more of is side content interacting with the main content – so while you can rush the story, you might get better endings or more options in solving future quests by completing the optional stuff. Bethesda could really learn from this – i.e. maybe finishing Skyrim’s civil war could make the final battle against the Forces of Evil(TM) easier, that kind of thing.

    #5 – Break into pieces, as multiple games, episodes, or expansions. Episodic gaming is one of those things that’s never really manifest as anything substantial. It’s a great idea in concept but honestly I’ve never seen it work. Content can’t be produced fast enough to keep players engaged most of the time, and the desire to improve tech usually leads devs to scrap the episodic nature and just develop full-on sequels instead.

    I think it’s also worth mentioning a few more things:

    1) We’re adults now, at least many of the people into hardcore RPGs. We have less time to spend/waste on huge games and less patience for many of the time-sinks those old games had. I know I have almost zero tolerance for grinding anymore – going back to play a lot of classic games, I know I’ll never finish them because as good as many of them were, they were still hopelessly bloated.

    2) We have more selection than ever before. Games take longer to make, but there are more of them coming out every day. As gamers we have shorter attention spans and less time to spend with single games because we tend to jump on the next big thing – if it comes out before the previous game’s done, there’s a good chance that game will be abandoned.

    3) Whereas in the past you’d have to sit around and figure stuff out for yourself, these days with the Internet giving us instant access to perfect strategies to win with, walkthroughs and other guides, etc. we can “master” game mechanics much more quickly… without having to work them out ourselves. I think that this saps the magic and intrigue of a new RPG very quickly because, if you play optimally, there’s no reason toe ver go back. That’s actually why I loved playing Frayed Knights so much – there were no real guides out there to tell me how I “should” be playing, and I had to make choices that felt appropriate *for me* instead of what some random forum poster said somewhere. We can kind of blame this lack of restraint on ourselves, but I think newer gamers especially may never develop the patience or attention spans to appreciate games “for real.”

  • Ragnar said,

    As suggested by others, it is usually a case of poor pacing and poor game mechanics.

    I do however think that there is a place for a short (5-10 hours), but incredibly non-linear game, that plays out differently depending on what character you play and what choices you make during the game.

  • Opinion: Are RPGs too long? @ IndieRPGs.com said,

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

  • MalcolmM said,

    Most modern RPGs are too long for me. I use to be willing to play games that lasted a long time – I put in well over 100 hours into completing Wizardry 7. But even when I was willing to do this, it annoyed me that the games lasted so long – there was so much repetitive gameplay.
    I am currently playing Legend of Grimrock, and I am enjoying it a lot. I’m starting level 8. I’m a slow, methodical player that tries to find all the secrets, so I have probably put 20 hours into the game already. This is a reasonable length to me, anything significantly longer would probably cause me to stop playing.

  • BryanB said,

    I go through the EXACT same stages of gameplay. For me its not about length but design. There’s not enough sense of discovery in most games, and sense of true reward. Skyrim comes close but overdoes it–I now have about a million quests and got bogged down. Diablo 3 takes the opposite approach–constant reward–which quickly feels like no reward.

    The world should be a joy to discover.

    The characters should be interesting and interactive

    The loot should be sparse. When I find a kick-butt sword I wanna yell.

    It should be challenging. Not just in the beginning but throughout.

  • McTeddy said,

    Most of your points remind me of the way Solotorobo for was implemented. I don’t have time for lengthy RPGs and I don’t have patience for wasted time. Solotorobo was the first RPG that held my attention for a full playthrough.

    There were a few things they did right:
    – I never NEEDED to grind for money or XP
    – It was built into short chapters, and two separate story arcs… giving me a chance to pick up and play anytime for as long as I had.
    – You could re-watch any cutscenes to catch up if it’s been a while.
    – Clear guidance for the story path… and zero forced filler. The story always felt pushed forward when I completed a story quest… Their filler was just a fun choice I could make.
    – Characters instead of story… I rarely cared what I was doing as much as who I was doing it for. The game reuses characters and makes it a joy to spend time with them.
    -Finally, Every few chapters they add new minigames or mechanics. Even after you beat the game, you are still unlocking new ways to spend your time and customize your bot.

    This game was one of the best games I’d ever played, Unlike any RPG I’d played before… It didn’t have its low times. Even after 40 hours… I was still having fun.
    Sure, it was more casual than most RPGs I play… but it worked.

  • AU_Armageddon said,

    Emperor Joseph II: My dear young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.

    Mozart: Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?

  • Mndrew said,

    I remember it taking me almost 2 years of regular gameplay to beat Ultima 4 on my C=64 back in the day. This is not a new phenomena.