I’m too old to have time for “slow burn” games
There are so many games out there in the world that I want to like but just don’t have the time for. Zero Time Dilemma, Doki Doki Literature Club, and Nier: Automata just to name a few. I would describe these games and others like them as “slow burn” games. They are built around a narrative design philosophy that involve slow starts that lead to big payoffs many hours in. While this design philosophy has been very successful with a certain demographic of gamers, they can be unintentionally alienating to another segment of the market: the time-pressed older gamer.
The time-pressed older gamer is in their 30s or older, with a large amount of external responsibilities. A day job, a spouse or other life partner, children, extended family, chores, errands, money management, and other hobbies all vie for this gamer’s time. Some of these responsibilities are compatible with gaming but most are not. You can play Hearthstone on your commute to work or on the toilet, but you can’t rig up your PS4 at your office desk without raising some eyebrows.
This is a demographic that is growing. According to the 2017 ESA Essential Facts Report, the average gamer is 35 years old. This makes a lot of sense, when you consider the fact that this is the generation that spent their entire childhoods inside of the NES revolution that brought video games back from the brink and into many households. Even in our time-crunched adulthoods, we made sure to take our favorite hobby with us. But this market segment isn’t getting any younger, nor is their time getting more abundant. Combine this fact with America’s increasingly gig-oriented economy, folks are working more irregularly, for less money, on weirder schedules than ever before. Games are also competing with streaming movies and television, reading, podcasts, and social media. Why should someone sit through a game’s slow start when, in the same amount of time, they could engage with the satisfying narrative arcs of multiple feature-length films?
This is, by no means, an underserved demographic. One might argue that the entire world of “endless content” games like Overwatch and the MOBA genre; as well as instanced shooters like the Call of Duty series, are meant to serve up bite-sized chunks of entertainment that can fit in the tiniest free time niches. But slow burn games are incompatible with this sort of lifestyle.
Slow burn games require a multi-hour time investment before reaching the “good stuff.” Fans of the Nier: Automata have remarked that the game really takes off after your first playthrough, which requires roughly four hours of your time. It’s hard to commit to a four hour slog in order to reach the meat of a game. What if the payoff doesn’t feel sufficient? Now you’ve lost four hours (which may be the sum total of your allotted gaming time for the week) that you could’ve given to another game that guaranteed a return on your time investment.
Flawed games are similarly off the table. Some folks claim that there’s some good stuff inside of the kludge that was Mass Effect: Andromeda, but the first few hours gave me the impression that it wasn’t worth sorting through the rough to find the diamond - not when Overwatch was beckoning.
First impressions matter. The first hour of a game will determine whether I finish it, and more critically, recommend it to other gamers. Slow burn games risk losing the attention of a large segment of the gaming market - a segment that’s only getting bigger, older, and more pressed for time.
I think it’s also worth mentioning that part of the reason why the Switch is a runaway hit is its incredible collection of exclusive titles, none of which follow the slow burn blueprint. Furthermore, these games are designed to be digested in small portable chunks, which can feed into larger narratives when necessary like Breath of the Wild.
That being said, if a developer or publisher feels like the slow burn is the best and only way to tell the story they want to tell, then I still think they should go for it. One of the beautiful things about the video games in 2018 is that it can be many things to many people. But if they want to get ahold of my particular market segment, I would encourage them to find a way to put a bit of the best stuff up front, to hook us hard and early, and widen your game’s potential appeal.