Is it fair to charge £40 for a product that’s only a small fraction of the ‘complete game experience’?
A couple days ago, Game Informer revealed that the main storyline in the highly anticipated Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes can be completed in 2-5 hours. This, coupled with the fact that the PS4 and Xbox One versions of the game are set to sell at £30 for the digital version and £40 for the boxed one, has created some fallout. Community reactions have ranged from cancelled pre-orders, to vehement defences of Metal Gear Solid as transcending typical game boundaries and being more of an ‘interactive movie’, and therefore – somehow – representing better value.
But what’s one person’s interactive movie is another person’s ‘paid demo’ of Ground Zeroes. It has already caused some controversy for being presented as a kind of pricey prologue to the main, full-length game, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, set to come out at a later date. But let’s take a step away from the bickering hoi polloi of this debate and look at the wider issue, which is the question of game length, and its significance in shaping said game’s quality and value.
My expectations of a AAA game’s length are dictated by three main factors: price, production values and genre.
Konami’s pricing of Ground Zeroes suggests that they were not entirely unaware of the tenuous value for money Ground Zeroes offered. By pricing it £10 below the usual RRP of a new, heavily hyped game (while interestingly making digital versions cheaper than boxed ones, a logical move that has not been common practice on the console scene), Konami are essentially putting their hands up and saying ‘We know you’re not going to get as much out of this as you would a full-priced product.’
When it comes to production values, a look at some of the gameplay footage for Ground Zeroes shows it to be a stunner. Evolving on the relatively linear style of its predecessors, Ground Zeroes throws Snake into a stunning semi-open world, in which you can approach your objectives in whatever way you please. The graphics are wonderful, and the addition of vehicles and wide-open areas seem to fit comfortably with the traditional stealth gameplay we’ve come to expect and love from the series.
However, one can’t help but feel that GZ exists as a kind of teaser for the full game to come later. The two games are running on the same engine, and Konami have already said that both are required for “the complete Metal Gear Solid V experience.” So, quite literally, we need to buy two games to get the complete experience of one. Furthermore, Kojima said that Phantom Pain is “hundreds of times larger” and features multiple open worlds to Ground Zeroes’ single one. While Kojima’s statement was obviously hyperbole, it nonetheless suggests that what we’re seeing in Ground Zeroes is a tiny, pricey fraction of MGS V. Suddenly, the production values of Ground Zeroes in and of itself don’t look that impressive when it appears that it could have been a flashback sequence cut out of the main game.
Finally, we come to genre as a variable in our expectations of game length. One of the arguments for Ground Zeroes potentially quick completion time is that it’s an open-world game, with plenty of side-missions, Easter eggs and other supplementary goodies that fill out the experience. Taking these things into account, the game can take you upwards of five hours to complete (I’m sure that the final cutscene in Metal Gear Solid 4 took about that long). This length still falls about ten times short of games like Saint’s Row 4, Grand Theft Auto, and Red Dead Redemption. So big is the value gap here that it seems fairer to compare Ground Zeroes to DLC content such as Undead Nightmare for Red Dead Redemption, and the Lost and the Damned and Ballad of Gay Tony expansions for GTA IV, all of which offered eight-plus hours of added gameplay.
Time-wise, the only AAA single-player game that comes close to Ground Zeroes’ completion time is QTE drama Heavy Rain, which nonetheless clocked in at around seven hours. Heavy Rain also has the advantage that its ‘interactive drama’ style lends itself well to shorter playtime. The roaring success of The Walking Dead series attests to the fact that people are satiated relatively quickly with story-driven, script-focused games. Metal Gear Solid has always been a more conventional balance of story and gameplay, and as such should adhere to a length that fans expect from such games, especially given the series’ history.
Rather than comparing Ground Zeroes to fellow mainstream titles, Kojima Productions designer Jordan Amaro prefers to compare it to indie titles. Speaking in defence of the game’s length with GameSpot, he said:
“Are Journey and Dear Esther long? [Voltaire's 18th-century writing Candide] is like a hundred pages at most. Yet they are masterpieces of video game and literature. This smearing will not stain and affect what we’re aiming to achieve with MGS, the game industry in Japan, or video games as a whole.”
Let’s just brush aside the extraneous reference to Voltaire – unless you want to go ahead with listing every single short masterpiece released in every medium ever to hammer home the fact that ‘short stuff can be good’. Each medium should be considered by its own rules. The games that Amaro cited, Journey and Dear Esther, are both independent titles made by small teams, which can be purchased together for less than the price of Ground Zeroes. Furthermore, the expectations for Journey and Dear Esther are not so much in a different league to GZ, but playing by different rules of scrutiny.
The indie scene is still finding its identity, and what represents ‘good value’ varies from games that are emotionally touching, to simple-yet-addictive gameplay, to compelling storylines. Gone Home, for instance, could easily be completed in two hours but was still celebrated as a profound piece of storytelling, and no less valuable than the equally commended indie RPG, The Banner Saga, which takes about twelve hours to complete. Indie developers lack the resources to effectively emulate AAA games, resulting in a creative scene that’s constantly expanding the medium, and providing us with interesting alternative experiences to the mainstream.
On the AAA scene however, there are norms that have been established over the years. With the big franchise releases for which we pay big money, we expect to be taken on a roller coaster journey, a gestalt comprised of impressive graphics, design, gameplay and storytelling, and a reasonable amount of time to absorb it all. While Ground Zeroes looks impressive, it’s been declared by its own designer as a “prologue” and “tutorial” to Metal Gear Solid V, a kind of warmup to the main ride that we’ll see in The Phantom Pain.
Admittedly, the ‘norms’ of gaming are shifting rapidly, as the rise of DLC, microtransactions, and ‘Premium’ access to games means that it’s not unusual to pay £70-£80 a year to keep up with a franchise such as Assassin’s Creed, Battlefield, or Call of Duty. What’s being done with Metal Gear Solid V seems like a tangential way of achieving the same results (the total RRP of both parts of MGS V is likely to be £70-£80), and perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that one of gaming’s most beloved franchises is cashing in on its longstanding veteran fanbase.
Hideo Kojima has hitherto been seen as something of a demi-god in gaming, but this move shows that he’s human after all. The costs for a gamer to follow a mainstream franchise have changed a lot since Metal Gear Solid 4 and, unfortunately for us, Konami have adapted to the times.