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What makes a great "short" game? [roundtable]
Interested to hear your thoughts. Some of our favorite games can be completed in about 2-3 hours (or maybe 4-5). I personally love these "one shot" games that can be played in one to two sessions. What is it about a great short game that makes it truly great? Does the game have to move briskly? If it has a story, how is it paced any differently than a longer game? How do gameplay elements have to progress to make the game feel truly satisfying?

Some examples of shorter games that I think really do a good job of compacting a great experience into a short amount of time:

To the Moon

I guess we can talk about older games as well, but I feel many older games that can be considered "short" really only become short after we've mastered them. The original Zelda, I can beat in under 5 hours probably, but that's really only because I know that game like the back of my hand.


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Posted: 03/04/14, 19:57:11
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The same thing that makes a long game a great one: Gameplay. Or in some cases, story since short games may want to just focus on that.

Though in the case of some indie games, I guess being... artsy? Journey as an example felt perfect in length but it also had unique ideas behind it. I'm not sure if it would have functioned as well as a 20+ hour epic if you will. But as a 2-3 hour game, it felt fine. Plus the replayability it had felt great.
Posted: 03/04/14, 20:08:34
Pacing and density. In other words, no padding!

Good idea for a topic. There're quite a few games that I love returning to time and time again, and a big part of it is that they're fun from start to finish--solid gameplay, little to no filler.

Mega Man 2
Mega Man 3
Mega Man X
Super Castlevania IV
Super Metroid (pretty short when speedran)
Donkey Kong Country 2
Punch-Out!! (Wii)

The SNES was great about delivering these kind of games--production values were higher, but devs weren't yet obsessed with being collectathons (N64/PSX gen), movie-like games (GCN/XB/PS2), or cutscene-filled "epics" (last gen and current gen).
Posted: 03/04/14, 20:10:50
Is there any example of a game similar to something like Final Fantasy IV or VI or Secret of Mana or any other SNES RPGs that are significantly shorter? Or do we equate their greatness largely due to their length - that feeling of being on an EPIC journey?
Posted: 03/04/14, 20:27:15

I think that game is usually better on a long run. You have a better sense of progression of your characters whereas being limited to a 5 or less hour run... well not so much I suppose. Though The Banner Saga maybe? I don't know how long that is but I suppose it fits the indie bill at least. Any other game I can think of is Crimson Shroud and Costume Quest for RPGs, neither really comparing to something like Final Fantasy.
Posted: 03/04/14, 20:40:53
Ending. That is a major factor in making a short game great. Something like Journey or The Swapper. Two games that knew what they wanted to do, had the player spend some time reaching for it, and as soon as you reached out and touched it the game ended. You didn't spend hours on hours trying to get there, you weren't lost in the haze of information, you didn't reach a goal only for the game to blow it up and give you a new ultimate goal. The carrot was on the stick, 3-4 hours later you got it, congrats on your rabbit food.

I'd compare it to a professional athelete. Michael Jordan's career could be a great way of putting it. Starts out hyped, you see the goal, you reach the goal, suddenly you are playing Baseball, then you go back, reach your goal again, now you're spending years after your peak playing so badly people don't even talk about it to this day.

RPGs suffer from this a lot. You set out on your journey. Something has done wrong to you, your village, or somebody. So you start going after it. Then the game starts peeling away the layers of the conflict and you realize there is more to the story. Suddenly you've become powerful enough to beat your enemy! GAME SHOULD END AFTER YOU BEAT THEM!! But it doesn't (?!), because there's this new, overseer villain. One you get a few hours building up. It cheapens the original conflict greatly, provides little satisfaction, and then you just spent 60+ hours on it.
Posted: 03/04/14, 20:42:00
I'd say it's simply a matter of figuring out what the game is trying to do or say and then tailoring the pacing and game length to get it done without any unnecessary padding. Gone Home seems like an ideal example.
Posted: 03/04/14, 20:42:08
Lots of good answers already, but I'll say that being short is in and of itself a good start for a game being "great".

I want to leave a game feeling like I've had "exactly just enough of that experience". It's a feeling I get a lot from shorter games, and almost never from longer ones.
Posted: 03/04/14, 20:58:39  - Edited by 
 on: 03/04/14, 20:59:07
It's tough to pin down what makes a short game good, but here are my thoughts. I'm going to use an example of a game that is great partially because it is short, and a game that could have been better if it was shorter. Through these two examples, I feel like my thoughts on what makes a short game good have been explained.

A great short game fits well with its length. It chooses to end at that point because it has executed all of its ideas, or the mechanics would grow tiresome if it continued, or for some other appropriate reason. What's important to me is that the game feels well designed and it feels like it should end when it does, whether that be at 4 hours in or 40 hours in. Thinking of one of my favorite games, Space Channel 5 Part 2, that game is only 2 hours or even shorter, but it feels complete. I don't feel like it skimmed on content. It is a finished work that is small in size but dense in quality and fun. Such an extreme level of care was put into every song, every level, every moment. It's well rounded: nothing drags and no aspect or part feels inferior to another. It left me wanting more, but I feel like it had enough. Because of this, I've played through the entirety of that game at least 8 times in the 10 or so months that I've had it. I know that I can pick up that game any time and get through it in one sitting and have a blast.

Or maybe I just really liked Space Michael Jackson.

Then I think of El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, a beat 'em up game that I like, but I feel is too long. This is a good example of a game that should have been short, but wasn't. It took about 9 or 10 hours for me to beat, but it really should've taken only 5 or 6. The reason it lasted so long is because the levels last twice as long as they should without any change to justify it. You fight the same enemies in every level over and over again. While the levels are very fun and beautiful at first, by the time I'm 2/3 the way through one, I just want it to end already. I think I would have enjoyed that game a lot more if it was shorter. I would actually get more playtime out of that game if it was short, because I would replay it more. I don't want to replay the game as it is because I don't want to deal with how the levels feel monotonous after a while. If the levels were shorter, I could easily see myself replaying it 2 or 3 times in the near future.

Basically, making a game short gives you the opportunity to make it a better, more solid experience that people will want to come back to.

To use an analogy, I'd rather fight with a sharp dagger than a dull sword. While the dull sword is bigger, it's not going to be as effective as the dagger. Okay, maybe that isn't a very good analogy.
Posted: 03/04/14, 20:58:51  - Edited by 
 on: 03/04/14, 21:04:27
That's a great point Gui. Being short in and of itself can be a boon to many games. I recently played through Shank - a game I initially wrote off as being just a "shock value" game. But I spent a couple hours with it and started liking the gameplay. An hour and a half in, and I was into it. And just shortly after, it was over. The ending felt within reach, I beat it, and was overall pretty happy with the game. If the game was any longer, I likely could've just been burnt out on it.
Posted: 03/04/14, 21:07:15
I know I beat this drum a lot, but I think the variable pricing models introduced with digital distribution has been a key to the success of shorter games.

Some ideas are simply not viable in $60, 15-30+ hour form. When all you could buy were game carts and cd/dvds at $50-$60, there are standards and expectations for production values and game lengths. Digital distribution has totally disrupted this model and allowed developers to bring us more humble, intimate experiences at a fraction of the cost.

The idea of Papers, Please or The Stanley Parable as boxed, $60 releases is simply a non-starter. These tiny ideas would have been laughed right out of the pitch meeting and never seen the light of day without DD. But as $10 experiences they're just right and accepted by most. And a wonderful side effect is that devs can be more experimental and adventurous at these lower production margins. They're not locked into "safe" productions that have to sell millions to break even.

Sounds like a win/win to me.
Posted: 03/04/14, 21:27:36
Pretty much what others have said, it needs to be all about good gameplay so that it's replayable. I don't think any game like that is my favourite game though, but there are some good ones. It's mostly older games that are the good ones though, since many modern games are weighed down by useless fluff. Not really a fan of story games and I especially don't like "artsy" games.
Posted: 03/04/14, 21:59:50
Posted: 03/04/14, 22:06:58
Mop it up said:
Pretty much what others have said, it needs to be all about good gameplay so that it's replayable.

Yep, replayability is the key I feel. Something I can go back to again and again whether it be because it's just plain fun, different paths/goals to achieve, or better yet, both.

And they don't have to be darling Indie hits. Two of my favourite all-time games fall into the category I described- Starfox 64, and Metroid Zero Mission. Both can be 'beaten' in under an hour, but you can go through them again and again.
Posted: 03/04/14, 22:48:49  - Edited by 
 on: 03/04/14, 22:49:28
Posted: 03/04/14, 23:21:11
What about in regards to story? If a short game like this puts emphasis on story...does the story have to be SO good to the point where you'll want to play it over and over? This is a reason I've played Chrono Trigger so many times. I just love the twists and turns that happen.

In a short game, do you really have to get knocked out by the story in order for it to be effective, since maybe there just isn't enough time for certain other elements of the game to really progress?

One game that did this really well IMO was Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Say what you want about the game's tone, but I felt that both the story and the gameplay progressed beautifully together. The things the game had you doing became more and more complex as the game went on, and similarly, the story also started ramping up. I suppose that maybe in a short game like this, if you have any kind of elements that require brain usage (puzzle solving), it's important that things progress at a good clip and that you never find yourself doing the same thing for too long.
Posted: 03/05/14, 21:08:20
@PogueSquadron I have never replayed a game just to see the story. If I want a good story to unfold in about two hours, I'll watch a movie.
Posted: 03/05/14, 21:37:19

I would say story is less of a factor. But I define short game at around 5 hours or below, not something like Chrono Trigger (though I know it can be beaten quickly).

Journey has no story. It's about getting from Point A to Point B and that's it. Still an incredible "game". Flower is probably a short game, but that doesn't interest me at all after 10 minutes of playing it.

The Swapper was more about questions than anything else. I really enjoyed that one as well.
Posted: 03/05/14, 21:53:22
Short is fine as long as I still feel fulfilled by the end of it. Games like Brothers, Gone Home, To The Moon, and others are great experiences that, in their short running time, achieved everything they set out to do. Stretching any of those games out wouldn't have made them better.

I almost always prefer a shorter game, if it is compelling throughout, to a game that is padded for length. For example, games like Skyward Sword are padded to the extreme, to the point where it stops being enjoyable for long stretches. And it really didn't have to be that way -- they could have cut large portions of it and ended up with a stronger overall package. A Link Between Worlds is a prime example of addition by subtraction.
Posted: 03/06/14, 04:04:36
Replayable is nice, although if it is cheap enough I'm cool with something relatively short and no replay.
Posted: 03/06/14, 04:56:22
A short game, something like Little Inferno, for example, needs to be shrouded in mystery, atmosphere, and tip-top art direction. It should be the art-film project of game directors with a unique vision that might be un-sustainable over a 50 hour stretch. With a 5-8 hour experience, hit us with your best whacked-out concept!
Posted: 03/06/14, 06:36:14
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