Hitman: Absolution director Tore Blystad is sad. Not because there are thousands of people upset with for making a game about a bald guy gruesomely murdering a gang of busty Catholic dominatrixes (though that certainly isn’t helping.) No, Blystad is upset that he and his team have spent so much time making a game—a complete story with a beginning, middle, and ending—and the vast majority of players won’t ever see it through to the conclusion.
“20 percent of the players will see the last level of the game,” Blystad told the UK’s Official PlayStation Magazine, “It’s horrible to know. It makes the people working on it really really sad. I guess people can’t commit to taking all those hours to finish one product, they get tired of it. It’s not just for this game, it’s for any game.”
That figure comes from analyzing player metrics. “We are using metrics more now than we did, for good and bad. The general player will probably never finish the game, which is very sad. Or they might only play through it once, but the game is built for the people who want to go back through every single level and get all the stuff out of it. It’s built to last, rather than be a one-off experience.”
To the IO Interactive team, the secret to building an alluring enough carrot to draw players to the end of the game is in that re-playability. The game needs to be varied enough to warrant multiple visits. “A battle we have is that we want to put all this stuff in, but we also know that because the game is up to the player there’s a lot of people that will never ever see it,” said Blystad, “In the user tests we have they actually tell us that… they want to find these things, which makes us very happy, because it takes a lot of time and effort to get these thing in.”
Game makers like IO Interactive are in a very tight spot when it comes to game length. 15 years ago, it was expected that a game would last in excess of 20 hours or more, and a common criticism of early Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games was their common length of 6 to 7 hours. People regularly don’t finish games, yet they sink hundreds of hours into open world games like Grand Theft Auto or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Alternatively, hours upon hours are sunk into simple, repetitive games like FarmVille. Why then don’t people finish narrative games? Why only 20 percent of players according to IO’s data?
One possibility: Game stories aren’t good enough. People don’t plum to the end because the end doesn’t matter. Another possibility: The traditional structure of game narrative doesn’t suit the way people play, either in long freeform sessions or quick bursts.
This is one of the thorniest issues facing big-budget game makers right now. Why spend the money and creative energy in making things that most people will never see?