“What makes a good RPG?”. The answer to this seemingly simple question will vary wildly from person to person. For some, its all about the dialogue options. For others, its about statistical balance and min-maxing. For me, the hallmarks of a good RPG are immersion and strong storytelling. I am willing to take compromises to the core RPG experience if the story and characters are likeable. Take Skyrim for example, which makes up for some lack of depth in spades through brilliant design, characters, story and lore. However, if there is one thing I think RPGs can do away with the most, it’s length.
Since the dawn of the genre, RPGs have historically been rather long experiences. Whether we are talking about multi-session campaigns of tabletop RPGs at our friends’ houses, or early NES takes on the genre complete with 8-bit bleeps and bloops, they have never had a reputation of being short. However, as technology advanced and production budgets rose, we started to see a new take on the genre: the “Weekend RPG”. As the name implies, these games, oftentimes limited by budget, schedule and/or scope, focused less on providing hundreds of hours of entertainment, and more on providing 13-20 hours of rock-solid roleplaying. What these games lacked in size, they made up for in replayability, with a branching story and deep narrative choices. Fable, in many regards, is the quintessential Weekend RPG, as the main story can be beaten in around 12 hours, but the many sidequests and the deep morality system encouraged multiple playthroughs.
This admittedly loosely-defined subgenre of games continued through the 2000s and early 2010s with titles such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 1 and 2, Mass Effect, Jade Empire, Fable 2 and 3 and Alpha Protocol. However, as disk sizes expanded and gaming went from a profitable niche to a juggernaut industry, the demand, capabilities and budget for Triple-A RPGs increased substantially. No longer beholden to many of the aforementioned limitations, games became longer again. According to HowLongToBeat.com, Dragon Age: Origins clocked in at 40 hours, The Witcher 3 at 51, Persona 5 at 97. The games were becoming longer, and as such, shorter games were looked upon as providing less value, which meant many of these Weekend RPGs were stretched out to longer lengths with padding and fetch quests. One needs only to look at Fallout 4‘s approach to “infinite quests” to see how absurd the situation has gotten.
However, much like that transitional era before, Weekend RPGs may have their time in the sun again. The seeds have already been sown for a comeback, with The Outer Worlds, which has a campaign clocking in around 15 hours, having recently smashed industry expectations, focusing on providing players a good time instead of a long one. However, perhaps the most important reason why the Weekend RPG should be made is a question of budget.
In an interview recently, Shawn Layden, the former head of PlayStation, made a comment that set the internet alight: longer games are no longer becoming financially feasible. His argument was that game development budgets have skyrocketed over the past generation, and are only going to get bigger in the next. Even games such as The Last of Us have doubled in length in their sequels. This requires many additional years of work and millions more dollars to the budget, yet games cost the same. It leaves developers in a precarious position wherein they either charge more or focus on monetizing it heavier. Solutions like Xbox Game Pass have thankfully hit the market, but the major risk is still there on the developer side.
The consumer side of this argument is just as important as well. In one of our more recent episodes of TheXboxHub Official Podcast (which, if you haven’t been listening to, I wholeheartedly recommend), three of my peers discussed the issue of game length at… great length (heh). Many of the points they raised, such as the prevalence of bloat in many modern day Triple-A titles, as well as a lack of time to play all of these games, rang particularly true. Back in the days of elementary/high school, I had a ton of spare time to play games to my heart’s content. Nowadays, as a student of one of Canada’s more work-intensive universities, I find myself having to make time to play more games. It has only been in large part due to pacing my courses throughout the year (including summer classes), tying my work intrinsically to the gaming community, and the recent stay-at-home orders that I have been able to play games as much as I have over the past 7 months.
What I just laid out is an argument for why games in general should get shorter, but why exactly should the Weekend RPG come back? Well, to put it simply, RPGs are the ultimate form of escapism. Being able to place yourself in the shoes of another individual can be liberating, exciting, even self-identifiable. If we continue to make these transformative experiences bigger and bigger, we run the risk of locking off a huge market of gamers. While I know some reading this might scoff at this assertion (trust me, high school me would have been right alongside you), it is important to realize that we can have our cake and eat it too.
While RPGs can and should get shorter, that doesn’t mean that they have to completely lose their length. Firstly, as mentioned before, many Weekend RPGs lend themselves well to multiple play sessions, meaning that you should be able to get your money’s worth if you buy at full price. Secondly, and this is a big one – side quests open the door to a number of additional hours in content. For those who simply want to complete the main story, they may be able to do so in 15-20 hours, but for those who want to explore and see the world at their own pace, that number might be closer to 50 or 60 hours. When you take into account a $70 price tag, that’s a little over a dollar per hour of entertainment.
So, should games get smaller? Should the Weekend RPG make a resurgence? That depends entirely on the individual. As mentioned at the start, RPGs mean many different things to many different people. It is my humble belief that they should, and that gamers should expect shorter, more polished experiences in the future, but I may be off-base. Feel free to share your thoughts below, on social media, or even in light conversation with your peers, because I think there is a lot to talk about. Cheers friends!