Someone I used to work with used the “fives” metaphor for MMOs, though I’ve also heard it as “eights”. Basically, you need an answer to the question of “what is the player doing in five seconds?” “five minutes?” “five hours?” “five days?” “five weeks?” “five months?”. I think MMOs do some of these better than others. Five seconds is a combat moment, it’s that cool combo you pull off, that timely stun, that charged-up finisher. We’re pretty good at those in the hotbar space, but we’re still figuring them out in the more action-driven spaces. Five minutes is a quest step, or a few fights. It’s you scoping out a mob camp and figuring out how to take it on, or putting together something you’re crafting. Five hours is a level or two, or a zone, or collecting materials for an epic crafting pursuit. Each of these are like wheels, things that may turn multiple times in each five-[whatever] increment, enough to see the entire arc of gameplay in that block a few times.
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It starts to get a bit blurry after that. As more MMOs have come out, we’ve seen the levelling pace speed up. World of Warcraft has a lot to do with this. One of the things that WoW gave us was lots of people at max level, one of the first MMOs to really allow this. At WoW’s release, it took mere months to get to level 60; now it takes a few days. It’s set a breakneck levelling pace that other games have to at least appear to match, or feel painfully slow and dull by comparison. Now, five weeks is a max-level character, if it even takes that long. Five days for the most dedicated. I don’t think we even answer the “five months” question anymore; I can’t think of a game that gives me projects that take five months to accomplish anymore.
Other games do this as well. Very few talk about “weeks” or “months”; most non-MMO games don’t even pretend that people play them that long. 30 hours is a long time; 10-12 is more common. I put about 20-30 hours into Infamous: Second Son, and someone who worked on the game said that was a surprisingly long time. Very few games go past that 10-12 hour mark. I think it’s something of a sweet spot. As the average gamer age goes up further, games that absorb huge amounts of time are less popular. It might take the average player weeks to get through a 10-15 hour game, whereas earlier in their lives that represented a small chunk of a weekend, and they might have even gone to hang out with friends that same day.
Still, games keep an eye on those time blocks, and what you’re doing in them. Depending on who you talk to, they’re often referred to as “core gameplay loops”, which cover everything from a single button combo (sometimes called “moment-to-moment” gameplay) to an entire guild working together to build a city. If you have a game that feels weirdly unsatisfying, or that you like to play in short bursts but no longer than that, it’s usually because longer core gameplay loops aren’t supported. You’re hooked for five seconds, and five minutes, but maybe not five hours, and certainly not longer than that.
A few games that make me think of this concept: EvE Online has absolutely captivating five-day, five-week, and five month loops, but it can feel a bit aimless in five hours and I find the five-minute and five-second gameplay loops boring and unengaging. Guild Wars 2 has a pretty compelling five-second loop and a very solid five-minute loop, but starts to fall apart for me at the five-hour and five-day loops, before picking up again at the weeks/months level, when you’re talking about forging legendary items and the other various long-term progression paths.
I say all of this and keep coming back to that five hour play loop. It feels like a lot of games fall apart here, where the thing you’re doing in that span of time feels a little underwhelming. In a lot of MMOs, that’s about the timeframe in which you’re going back to town to sell and repair a few times, maybe find and equip some upgrades. In a fighting game, that’s about the loop for a campaign playthrough. It’s a Chapter in Call of Duty, or a handful of quests in Borderlands. There’s not often a lot to think about in that loop, just keep spinning the smaller loops as you work towards the bigger ones.
I remember a game that had a cycle at that scale. Star Wars Galaxies would ask you to go back to town and hang out at cantinas, get patched up by doctors, and otherwise rest over long periods of time out in the field. It wasn’t the most robust of systems, but it was about as well-integrated as a lot of the other systems in the game and gave shape to larger play sessions. Fallout, on Hardcore mode, will ask you to eat and find water to drink. It’s a kind of sustenance that you need to do a bit of work for, a sense of long-term planning that ties the very short term and the very long term goals together and is visible, unlike the usual “whoops, my gear is broken, time to talk to a repair guy” concept.
It’s a little thing that adds a bit of depth and forethought to the game, or can in theory do so. We don’t see a lot of it anymore, and I think it has a lot to do with our shift away from games as worlds and more towards games as narrative experiences. Minecraft certainly has loops from five seconds to five days, for example, whereas I don’t think most MMOs do anymore; they’ve compressed things down into “dailies” that don’t really offer a longer-term core loop, or try to turn the same series of quests into a single loop that you do each day, with a reward once you’ve done them enough times. There’s no planning taking place there, just logging in and doing.
The whole thing is an exercise I do a lot when playing games. I take a close look at what I’m doing at each of the “fives” and see which ones are strong and which aren’t. It’s yet another angle to consider and analyze games from. Food for thought.