« | Home | »

How long should games be?

posted on February 21st, 2007 by matt

Early in the history of video games, one thing all games had in common was their length – they were all pretty short. Most games could be beaten in only a few hours. In contrast, games that we play today can exceed 80 hours. But do we always need our games to pass the coveted 40-hour mark? We weren’t having a bad time with them back then, so why fix something that may not have been broken?

Some developers will advertise the fact that their game takes 100 hours to complete, printing it as a bullet right on the back of the box. Remember when Nintendo was talking about Twilight Princess? 70+ hours was their estimated length of gameplay. But is this a good thing? The first Zelda could probably be beaten in a few hours, even without going all speed-runny on it. Does the time difference make one better than the other?

I don’t think so. There is this big misconception in the industry that longer games are better, and that no one should focus on shorter games. A few bigwigs in the industry have even cited a problem with episodic content, stating it can only bring around five hours to the table in terms of gameplay time. Can someone tell me how this is a problem?

I won’t lie, though. When I was a kid, I would be all over the longer games. If a game didn’t last at least 10 hours, I’d turn a blind eye to it. When you are only getting one game a year, you better pick the right one or you are screwed.

But now that the average gamer is in the 20-30 year-old range, where the hell do developers think we are getting the time to put in 70+ hours on one game? People tell me the amount of hours they put in Oblivion (which seems to be around 50 hours), but I’d be willing to bet that more than 50% of that game’s player-base put in only five. With work, commuting, sleeping, hanging out with friends, and getting yelled at by your significant other because you forgot to close the refrigerator door (who remembers that anyway?), the average video gamer has a very limited amount of time to put towards gaming.

You hear it all the time on forums – “Man, I have so many games that I still need to finish. Half my gaming library is filled with titles I only played half-way through.” So what’s the point of making a game long? You’d think with the apparent problem of people never finishing a game (which is a fact), developers would just go the easy route and make shorter games. Hey, they cut corners everywhere else with their games. Why not add this to their formula of fucking them up?

Old games could be short because they were also impossible.

I’ll concede the fact that, with story-driven games, you do need a good amount of time to establish characters and create a somewhat complex plot. If Metal Gear Solid were only two hours long, the player would not become emotionally involved with the cast. When discussing games in plot heavy genres, then yes, often longer does mean better.

The issue then becomes whether or not the gameplay can actually remain fresh and interesting for that long. Some of the Silent Hill games were pushing the limit when they were trying to go over the 20-hour mark, especially Silent Hill 4: The Room. The gameplay just could not keep up with the complex storyline, and it hurt the game’s overall appeal.

And don’t even get me started on JRPG’s. Half those games should never go past 20 hours. The stories are great, but the battle systems are spread out so thin in terms of variety that the game just becomes tedious and annoying. Even the great Final Fantasy series has this problem.

Some are better than others, but developers better be damn sure that their battle system is complex enough to last for 50+ hours. If not, they are just being rude. I mean, do I really need to fight the same guy I fought 18 hours ago, only with a better spell? Is that really improving my experience with the game?

One contentious issue that frequently comes up while discussing game length is the idea of worth, especially in monetary terms. The average price for a new game in this generation is $60. When we pay such exorbitant prices for our game, we hope it’s a little more than two hours long. If not, we feel cheated. That’s probably why developers try to hit the arbitrary 40-hour mark with their games.

Again, this is just stupid. The majority of games on the market do not have the legs to span that amount of time. Developers basically just create a good enough gameplay system, and pack in way more levels than is right for that kind of gameplay. Halo easily fits this bill, as some parts of the levels really should have been cut out. The game was good enough to get past this fact, but it was still wrong of Bungie to include such drawn out levels. It added nothing, other than to say their game can last for such and such amount of time.

This actually brings us into the topic of the current problem of games prices. It seems that the majority of developers merely bullshit their way into justifying the high price of their games. EA’s Need for Speed franchise is a good example. The game blatantly tells you that you have to finish more than 100 races to complete the game. When I saw that for the first time, I nearly fainted. You expect me to do the same types of races over and over again for countless hours, just so you can say your game is worth $60? The gameplay is good, but not that good. Eventually, I’m going to get bored and stop playing.

Let me give you one example of a game that is well worth its price, even though it lasts less than 10 hours. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. You could probably beat the game in seven hours, which you can probably tell, is far less than 40. But the experience you get from SotN is simply amazing. It deserves all the accolades it gets. The pacing, the atmosphere, everything in that game is amazing. We may want it to last longer, but then it would cease to be what it is. Adding a significant amount of time to it would just thin out the experience, and it would not be as good.

A 12 hour RPG? Sounds good to me.

I would include Trace Memory for the DS in this class as well. It ended at the perfect time. It left me wanting more, but I don’t imagine added length would have made it any better. Think George Costanza. Hit that high note, and say goodnight.

I think the best thing for developers to do is to create games that only last as long as their gameplay can. If the game you want to make can only last for five hours, make it last for five hours. Don’t add in anything to up the length of time. You’d be fooling yourself in thinking that it makes a better game. If you can make a game compelling and worthy enough to last 80+ hours, then go right ahead. Just know that the majority of players will never see the end of it.

Then, to come up with a price, convert the game’s overall enjoyment into monetary terms. SotN can easily hit the $50 mark that it had when it was first released. It’s simple economics, people.

Now, I know some of you will point out that there is a growing appeal for “casual” gaming, largely stemming from the DS, but to create a specific genre or category for them is just fueling the fire of the situation. Many developers only create these kinds of games for the “non-gamer” crowd, the over-40, female players that only have time to play Bejeweled. It is true that they do fill up that market segment pretty well, but it is not an absolute certainty. I find myself playing those kinds of games all the time, and I’m as hardcore as they come. They’re just more convenient to pop in and play for two minutes. Why should they only be marketed to the supposed “casual” players?

If we can take the success of the DS as a base, we can see that the ability to play in short bursts is beneficial to everyone. It’s not just adults or kids playing the DS right now. It’s everyone. Games like Brain Age are still topping the charts, and that is probably one of the shortest games ever made. Marketing and classifying those types of games as “casual” clearly misses the point of where gaming should go with issue of a player’s time investment. It’s not just casual players playing short games. Publishers need to start realizing this or nothing will change.

I guess what I’m really suggesting is to, at some point, fuse the two methodologies together: have the same genres we have now, but know that there are enough people in the world that can only invest a small amount of time into gaming to say it isn’t always a smart move to only make games that last for 40 hours. Not every game has to be like that, mind you. We should still have that variety, but I think the focus should move away from what we currently have in place.

One thing that I do want people to understand is that, even though developers try to bloat their games in terms of game time, we should at least spend some time with their games. There are a lot of good games out there, but they are frequently obscured by the bureaucratic traps like a publisher wanting to hit that 40-hour mark, or the $60 one. If you don’t have the time to finish a game or the money to buy one, rent it. I know I will never finish Okami, but the four hours I spent with the game were some of the best hours I’ve ever had with a game. And there are many just like that.

4 Comments

  1. Christian said on February 22, 2007:

    Game length issues have changed dramatically as gaming has evolved.  There’s no way I can say it was better back then or now, but I will say this; a good game can have a fairly/very short playthrough but a lot of replayability.  Fighting games, shmups, games like Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden, all games that can be beaten in a day or two or just one sitting, but all games that beg to be played again and again.  The reason is that these are all games that beckon you to hone your skills and refine your technique, so that you can play better, uncover more secrets, etc.  The other option is to be like Max Payne 2; make a short game only worth playing once or twice, but in which those one or two experiences are stunning.  Like Matt said, if you make a single play through lsat longer than the gameplay can handle, you’re in trouble.  

  2. pat said on February 22, 2007:

    this is something i have given some thought to.  i would rather not pay $50 for a game, but thats more because i’m cheap than that i’m concerned about its value.  to me, the value of the game has more to do with the quality of the game than the length.  i would much rather love a game for 12 hours than like one for 40.  i beat okami, but it took months.  sotc, on the other hand, is something i can completely get behind.  manageable length, great experience.  worth $50 every time.  (time for a gratuitous mention of shenmue) when it comes to certain games, shenmue for example, i would be willing to pay exorbitant amounts for mere glimpses of gameplay (is anyone at sega listening to me? probably not).

  3. DeeMer said on February 22, 2007:

    I like games that are short enough to encourage multiple playthroughs and rewards mastery.  Something that’s easy to play once or twice a year that you can continually improve or play differently each time.  Something like Super Metroid or Metal Gear Solid or a short, punchy RPG.

  4. Max said on February 23, 2007:

    I think modern games are way too long and frankly, I can’t remember the last game I played past the 20-25 hour mark that didn’t feel totally watered down and repetetive by that point.  Even if I HAD the time, I wouldn’t continue playing most games past that point because they would most certainly begin to bore me.  The reason this is true is because the vast majority of long games out there are not organically lengthy – they are relatively short games that are simply padded with extra levels, extra story loops, extra enemies, etc.  What I disagree with, however, is that this is a misconception among game developers.  I think this is completely pre-meditated, but the fact of the matter is, the game development industry has become so bloated that they need to do something to justify higher prices to support their humongous development and operating costs.  So how do you create more "value" without inurring even more cost?  Easy, you copy the same level designs, slap some quick cosmetic changes onto them and now you have a longer game with more levels, yet it cost you barely anything.  Good enought to justify raising the price though!  So games end up like watered down drinks – huge, but unsatisfying.

Leave a Reply