I woke up today and found two pieces of good news on the internet: Rush's Moving Pictures has been delayed, perhaps for months, and Stevie Ray Vaughn's Texas Flood is on the way. I love me some white-person blues, and this will keep me happy and my housemates amused 'till they get that Creedence Clearwater Revival Track Pack up and running.
I've been reading Mitch Krpata's excellent “New Taxonomy of Gamers” series this week (which I neglected, criminally, in January) and it's got this knack for informing me about the lineaments of my essential nature: I'm a tourist with perfectionist tendencies. I prefer singing and playing Baba O'Reilly with my friends to whaling on Through the Fire and Flames on expert. When I hit Raining Blood on Guitar Hero III's career mode I decided to stop rather than dedicate irreplacable hours of my life to beating it. I played through Ninja Gaiden II on the normal difficulty setting (this is a task for the perfectionist's masochistic streak), because I really love flipping out on voracious packs of ninja dogs, but I didn't go back and try to complete it on the hardest difficulty. I try to complete games because I want to see everything they have to offer, and once that's accomplished this I move on to the next one. Krpata had a great quote from Gabe over at Penny Arcade that captured my attitude pretty well: “I don't need or want to be punished by a game for making mistakes. I play games for what Ron Gilbert calls 'new art'. I play to see the next level or cool animation. I don't play games to beat them, I play games to see them.”
Age is a big factor in this; when you're in middle school you have countless hours to sink into honing your Metroid speedruns, and because you can't afford to buy any other games that was the best way to squeeze entertainment out of your gaming habit. But once you get older you have the financial wherewithal to move onto the next new game, and non-gaming related commitments encroach on your life (read: doing your job, hopefully interacting with women). If you're lucky you have an hour or two a day to dedicate to gaming, and frittering away that hour chasing down agility orbs, or losing forty minutes of progress between save points, or watching Otacon weep piteously doesn't seem like the best way to optimize that time anymore. Your ideal is sitting down/strumming up for thirty minutes and making some progress on something and having a good time.
As Krpata argues, how you fall on the tourist/completionist/perfectionist taxonomy also has a big impact on how you feel about game length. As a tourist, I'm not always looking to squeeze 40 hours out of every game I buy. I wouldn't get to play anything else for months, because my perfectionist side doesn't like to leave things unfinished. Your completionist gamer will regard a game's 5-hour length as a deficiency, because her brain is wired into the reward-structure of the $60 retail game, but not I. For the hardcasual gamer, the limiting resource on your gaming habit is time, not money.
This is why this summer's bumper crop of top-shelf downloadable games has been so great. Braid, Geometry Wars 2, The Who's Greatest Hits, Bionic Commando Rearmed, Castle Crashers, Pixeljunk Eden: all summer, PSN and Xbox Live Arcade have housed the games most worth playing. (This includes you, Metal Gear Solid 4 and Too Human) As a hardcasual gamer, you want a game you can get something out of by playing it for less than two hours at a time. So if you can get your hands on a game that's novel and fun to play, which you can finish in 6 hours, you thank your lucky stars. I've never played the Ratchet and Clank series, though I would love them. But I don't think I would 30 hours love them. So now there's a Ratchet game I can play in 4 hours? Sign me up. So many disc-based games present innovative gameplay ideas and then proceed to dilute their impact by attempting to stretch a few good ideas into 30 hours of content (Or several sequels). We should judge games relative to how long they manage to make their basic gameplay elements arresting, and Portal and Braid show that you can craft a superior product by being compact and economical.
Come late October the gaming companies will roll out their new, horrifying enticments to the neglect of sunny days and dissertation chapters, but for now the tourist in me is grateful for the existence of a harvest of games which are lovable in 30 minute increments. Big ups to digital distribution for saving this summer from drought.