Today we are going to play pretend. We will pretend to be in the process of developing a game with the goal of being worth a particular price tag. Since we are ambitious, we want to be just like the AAAs and charge a hefty $60 for our game. But we are also familiar with the hours-to-dollars assessment people use to judge if the game provided enough entertainment to be worth the pricetag. If we use the price of a new DVD as a measuring stick we can guess that our players will want their entertainment on a 10:1 ratio ($20 = 2 hours of entertainment), so for our $60 price we’ll need to provide six hours of game time. That can be a lofty task for a single player game, so today’s article will be delving into the wonderful world of design mechanics/strategies to extend game time (for better or for worse).
Strategy 1: More Content
Hah! Making more game may be the best for consumers, but it is also probably the most time consuming, and we need to get this thing out sooner than later. And note that expansion packs that you have to pay for don’t count (especially when they cost as much as the original game, Guild Wars!)
Strategy 2: Enhanced Difficulty
This one is actually a mixed bag. People constantly complain about how games today are too easy when compared to arcade classics and 8-bit/16-bit staples. They remember pouring hours and hours into Mario, Mega Man, and Battletoads. This is actually kind of remarkable since these titles can be completed in less than two hours with the proper skills and memory. Most early games were actually quite short and the difficulty was used to extend game time (as well as hoard quarters). But this strategy comes with the cost of acting as a deterrent. Not all players enjoy losing over and over, and will either put the game down early due to frustration or not pick it up at all because of its reputation.
Strategy 3: Duplicate Levels/Backtracking
Repeating a level is a big time saver since all of the artistic assets are already complete. Then you can either keep the same level setup or try shuffling some stuff around, but players will likely not be happy with you. A more accepted approach is to revisit a previous challenge which you might not have had all the best tools for before (such as in Mega Man 2 you are required to fight each of the eight Robot Masters before you can face Dr. Wily). These sorts of duplications make players feel empowered, but they also don’t waste as much of their time add as much to the gaming experience.
Similar to duplicate levels is a strategy which can only really be done in open-world games like Elder Scrolls, Metroid, and Castlevania, and that strategy is backtracking. Having your player travel across the entire map in order to get a key to open something back where they came from can eat up a lot of time. But this can also bore players or get frustrating if you the path involve a lot of difficult skill tasks. To mediate player frustration fast-travel between checkpoints began to be common, but it also dropped the amount of time added to games via backtracking by quite a bit.
Strategy 4: Grinding/Farming
Instead of adding more to the game you can also slow the player down. You can either put gates which require a large amount of resource in order to be opened, or boss fights which require a certain power level to be defeated. For the first you can just add collectibles to the game, but for the second you need to incorporate the common roleplaying game (RPG) mechanic of gaining power over time (usually by leveling up). Focusing in on RPG mechanics instead of collectibles, this can actually make a game much easier as players don’t have to develop skills, but can instead just invest time into better stats to allow them to beat the game. Depending on how difficult of gates/bosses you create and how quickly you allow players to accrue power this can add hours upon hours upon hours to your game (just imagine how quickly you could beat Pokemon if you didn’t have to level-up before challenging each of the eight gyms).
Doubling back to collectibles you can be nefarious and make the collecting process even worse than “find X amount of Y” or “defeat X amount of Z to obtain Y” by yoking the collectible to a variable reward schedule. That’s jargon-speak for, “Make it so the player isn’t guaranteed to obtain a collectible by accomplishing a task by making the collectible only having a random chance of showing up when the player accomplishes a specific task.” This is pretty much what World of Warcraft and other massively multiplayer online RPGs do to keep you playing and paying.
Strategy 5: Multiplayer
Huzzah! What better way to give your game the longest shelf-life possible than to let your players create their own novel experiences by facing the most unpredictable opponent of all: each other. Unfortunately tacked-on multiplayer is almost always awful, so this honestly has the potential to do just about nothing at all to extend your game’s shelf-life (like the terrible multiplayer in Gundam: Crossfire).
Strategy 6: Cinematics
This one may seem odd. Since when has the presentation of story been considered padding? Well, the truth is that while you’re watching a cinematic you are not playing the game. Certain cinematics are more expensive than just adding more game, but some are also far cheaper and easier. My favorite example is the unskippable text crawl that you have to button mash your way through (because everyone loves the owl in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time). So here you really need to be careful. The easiest form of cinematic/narrative exposition just annoys players while the higher quality forms of cinematics/narrative expositions actually operate as rewards which motivate players to continue playing the game (see: most Japanese RPGs, especially Final Fantasy).
Strategy 7: Extra Goals
You can also add extraneous goals to your game. This is most commonly done via achievements, but it can also be done by adding a save+ option upon game complete. Save+ is when you are allowed to start a game over, but with all of the powers and resources you accumulated by the time you completed it. Sometimes this doesn’t add any challenge as you can just breeze through all of the old challenges, but in other instances save+ is also accompanied by enhanced difficulty and/or extra game modes (such as Time Attack in Shadow of the Colossus). These extra goals are great for getting completionist players to devote many extra hours to your game. Just be sure to reward the player in some way by either giving them an achievement or a picture of Samus in a bikini… (please just give them an achievement instead) This method also doesn’t work if your players don’t care about getting a gold star for 100% completion.
It is also always valid to combine these strategies for potentially synergistic effects for expanding game time. You may have also noticed that some of these strategies are actually things which players can enjoy, even if they aren’t something which is necessary to the game. Just be careful that the methods you choose don’t annoy your players too much, and be sure that the methods you use match up with the kind of game you are presenting as well as what demographic you wish to market your game to (for example: don’t market the delayed gratification of farming to an instant gratification crowd). In truth I would prefer for you to not pad your game out artificially, but in the end you gotta do what you gotta do.