I’m a busy guy.
I find that the weeks where I spend more time writing about games than I do playing them aren’t so rare as it seems, mostly because I don’t play that many games these days. Finishing Bulletstorm (and fuck Bulletstorm, by the way) was a relative achievement for me; I still have Alan Wake and now Fallout: New Vegas sitting on top of my Xbox 360. I’m basically done with playing Starcraft 2 (until the next expansion comes out or I get sick and have to take a week or two away from the gym), I only get a few hours of Marvel vs. Capcom 3 in here and there, and nothing else really fits into the schedule other than a round or two of Final Fight on the iPod Touch on the bus home. Maybe I’ll get some better gaming in once something comes out for the 3DS that’s, well, worth playing.
I don’t think that it’s because I don’t have the time. I do think it’s because I don’t have the contiguous time blocks required to really settle into an Alan Wake or a Fallout.
In my Real Job with a tech magazine, I’ve been watching people design the print features and sections I work on. These people have been arranging the sections in the print segments to “maximize points of entry”, or something–the idea being that if people see three smaller pieces on one page, they’re more likely to be interested in one of those three items (and thus continue reading) than they would be if they saw one story taking up that whole page. Fascinating, this whole pre-Internet written communication thing.
By now, I’m accustomed to the beginning phase of any video game requiring at least a solid hour or two before I’m comfortable with the mechanics and invested in the story. Even Bulletstorm, with its extraordinarily simple mechanics and worthless plot, made me sit down and play it for a good three hours in the first session. Not because I was riveted, mind you, but just because I wanted to give it a shot. Between the intro cutscenes, tutorial sequences, and a few easy early levels, it takes some time to sink your teeth into a game. There just aren’t that many points of entry. If I played Bulletstorm in 20-minute segments during a day, I wouldn’t feel any kind of momentum, which the game needs. If you ever feel like you’re not moving forward in Bulletstorm, you’re not having fun.
The problem is that I don’t often set aside 3 hours for playing video games, and when I do, it’s three hours that I want to spend getting better at Marvel vs. Capcom 3 or Starcraft 2. I have no problem squeezing Marvel in–if I can get a few games in before BJJ practice, that’s great, if I can get in a few solid hours of practice at a buddy’s house over the weekend, even better! Starcraft 2 is a little trickier because the games can get so damn long and need to be interruption-free, which is one of the main reasons why I ended up cutting out of my regular rotation.
That is to say, competitive games make me feel like I’m devoting my time towards the pursuit of something greater in addition to the immediate feeling of enjoying the game, regardless of how much time I’m actually spending playing the game. Narrative-driven games generally don’t. It’s not because I find your average single-player experience to be somehow less worthy or compelling (despite the fact that I play almost exclusively competitive games these days, I still won’t shut up about Metal Gear Solid or Earthbound), because whenever I manage to finish a single-player game I generally enjoy it (or at least, find it worthwhile–the notable exception being Bulletstorm). Rather, I think it’s because most single-player console games demand to be played for hours at a time, and if you’re not doing that, you’re playing them wrong.
I’m not a huge fan of most mobile or social games for the same reason that lots of “gamers” aren’t–they’re just not compelling enough games to make me want to play them on the regular. I don’t think I’m getting an interesting, thought-provoking game experience out of them, nor am I developing skills which I value, so I tend to stay away from them.
I will say, however, that I played a decent amount of Nintendo DS games simply because they were full-fledged compelling game experiences with multiple points of entry–which is to say, that I could enjoy the game in many different ways depending on the time I was willing to spend in any given session–and they still managed to deliver a thoughtful narrative. I played Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 1+2 on the toilet. Didn’t particularly enjoy either of them, but I kept playing because they were the kind of game that I could pick up and play for 15 minutes at a time. The World Ends With You was great because I could do some story-advancing missions when I had the uninterrupted time to play, or I could just grind some badges and XP if I had a few minutes here and there. That’s what I mean by “multiple points of entry”.