Ideal Game Length: A Modern Fallacy

By Josh Snyder

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Journey’s short length has made the game a tough sell for some, despite near universal critical acclaim.

Standardized game design was a topic I gave little thought to when I first started playing video games some twenty-plus years ago. For most of my gaming life, my approach to a game was simple – is it fun? If yes, play more. If no, discard and move on. Of course, I eventually began noticing trends among the games I played. I still have fond memories of Body Harvest, which makes sense given that my favorite games tend to have open-world level designs. And I also took note when a developer tried something new. This was especially apparent when Nintendo made the transition from two-dimensional game design to three-dimensional. Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time gave me the same Mario and Zelda formula I was familiar with, but by necessity they did things differently. In those games lay the foundation of what I could consider standardized game design – elements that must be present in all successful games. And it’s a subject I’ve written about at great length, from semiotics to canon to difficulty.

Naturally, not every element of game design can be standardized. There is no one, specific, agreed-upon art design, no universally accepted soundtrack. Level design should follow some basic, core mechanics, but there are so many elements left up to the developer that each game can and should have its own unique look and tone. There are plenty of elements to a game that cannot, and should not, be standard.

With that in mind, let’s think about a heated topic amongst gamers – length of playtime. This is a measure of how long the average gamer will take to complete a video game (completing in this instance meaning to see the ending of the story, not to achieve a 100 percent completion rate). As the price of games has increased, gamers have demanded that the length of games also increases to compensate. Depending on the genre, there are “suggested” playtimes that a game should hit in order to be successful. Forum posts such as this Gamespot thread offer an interesting look into the mentality of the average gamer – the initial poster suggests that a standard length for a role-playing game (RPG) be no less that 40 hours, and many comments chime in to disagree, saying that 40 hours is too short and not worth a $60 price tag. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that gamers associate higher quality to games with greater length, which has led to games such as the critically acclaimed Journey to receive lower scores from fans because of its short length.

The argument for longer games even extends into other hot-button topics. In both our essay and podcast on the subject of used games, increasing game length was a suggested method developers could use to limit the amount of copies of their game being traded-in or sold second-hand. So it would seem that developers are being told from every group that, across the board, games should be longer.

But the reality is that, even amongst one specific genre, game length cannot and should not be standardized, and there is evidence to support the notion that longer games are actually hurting the industry.

Gamers Want Longer Games…

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Due to the rising cost of video games, hybrid-genre titles like Endless Ocean tend to be overlooked by many.

Although the total revenue of the video game industry is increasing due to a higher customer base, the cost of games increased at the start of the seventh generation. Why did the cost increase? The short answer is due to a rising cost in development. However, this has created a vicious cycle – as game development costs have increased, gamers have demanded more bang for their buck, demanding bigger games, both in terms of scope and longevity.

This, of course, raises development costs. The ramifications for this are wide spread – publishers are less willing to take risks, and therefore only established properties see major releases. And genres become much more fragmented because gamers themselves are less willing to take risks. If a gamer enjoys adventure titles, they’re more likely to buy a game that is solely an adventure game instead of taking a financial risk on a game that combines adventure elements with other genres, such as simulation games.

A perfect example is Endless Ocean: Blue World, a 2010 Wii title developed by Arika and published by Nintendo. The game was a blend of adventure and simulation, with a ridiculous amount of coral reefs to explore (adventure) and over 1,000 fish to catalog (simulation). Although the game was a hit with critics, it sold poorly because it did not appeal to any one fan base – fans of simulation games didn’t appreciate the adventure elements, and vice-versa. The same can be said for Double Fine Productions’s Brutal Legend, a cross between adventure and real-time strategy (RTS) games.

Gamers have spoken with their wallets, and due to the high cost of entry, only games that provide tailored experiences are successful, and it helps if those games also happen to be lengthy. Gamers want a product that has the biggest impact on their time spent on entertainment while also having the lowest impact on their finances. So it stands that a $60 RPG that lasts for 60 plus hours is better than a $60 adventure/RTS that lasts for 10 hours. Short games, no matter how expertly crafted and entertaining they may be, are often criticized for being short, as if that in itself is a detriment. Both Dishonored and Spec Ops: The Line are great games that can’t seem to shake the fact that each can be completed in an afternoon.

…But They’re Wrong

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Would Spec Ops be any better if it were a 16 hour long game opposed to eight? Chances are it wouldn’t.

Linking length to value is only seeing half of the picture, and evidence supports that, not only are there too many games made for any one person to play, but that even at supposed shorter lengths, gamers do not finish most of the games they purchase.

The first mistake gamers make when arguing for longer games is to assume that all content is created equally. If Spec Ops: The Line is only eight hours long but entertaining, then it would be a great game if it doubled its length, right? But that’s assuming that the core mechanics can hold up over 16 hours, when the reality is that they would become repetitive and cumbersome at that length. One could argue that the developers should try to insert some new gameplay mechanics that support an extended length of time, but then developers run into the problem mentioned above, where gamers look more for tailored experiences as opposed to hybrid ones.

But let’s say that a developer is able to take their eight hour game and incorporate gameplay elements that allow them to stretch their story out over 16 hours without becoming repetitive. Does bigger always mean better? What additional value is the gamer getting from taking 16 hours to complete a game instead of the initial eight? Instead of defining value based on length, wouldn’t it be easier to judge a game’s value by the level of entertainment it offered? In an article for Cinema Blend, author Steve West tackles this notion of length equalling value:

“If you look at game length one simple fact becomes clear, it really doesn’t matter. Movie critics don’t get up in arms about a film’s length when reviewing movies. Perhaps you’ll get some commentary on length if the movie numbs your ass after 3 hours, but that’s the extent of it. The reason is that the quality of a film is judged on the content itself, not how long it takes to get to you. To me, there’s more being made about game length than needs to be.”

West ends his essay by asking gamers to link financial value to quality of entertainment, instead of quantity of entertainment:

“Instead of looking at how much you’re paying per hour of gaming, maybe a look at how much fun you had is a better approach. I had an amazingly great lunch at a little pub in London a few years ago, and it was cheap and easy. A Guinness and roast beef sandwich for just a few dollars was well worth the time and money. But I’ve also spent an inordinate amount of money at restaurants in NYC where my satisfaction for the food and atmosphere was equal to that pub. If the quality of the game is high, then it will not matter if you finish in 6 hours or 37.”

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Okami is proof that not all games should be short, and that, when utilized properly, an increased playtime can be beneficial.

And he’s right – length ultimately doesn’t matter. Games should be judged based on how they use their time, not on the total amount of time. Short games that encourage multiple play-throughs, such as Dead Rising 2 and Ico, actually benefit from being short. With Dead Rising 2, gamers are more likely to experiment with different play styles even though there is an ever-present countdown to the end of the game. Why is that? Since the game is so short, if players make a mistake, they know they can easily restart the story sooner rather than later. And with Ico, the first play-through is spent focusing on solving the puzzles, but a second play-through allows gamers to take in the world, appreciate the level design and enjoy the subtleties of the story.

But this isn’t a plea to make only short games – long games can be just as economic and efficient with their time. Games like Okami benefit from an extended length – it allowed developer Clover Studio to flesh out the story and give each act its own unique look and feel, establishing itself as sort of a modern-day epic. If it were half the length, it would have been rushed and would have run the risk of being completely forgettable.

An Unsustainable Business Model

Question – What do the following games all have in common? In no particular order: God of War: Origins Collection, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriot, The Sly Collection, Far Cry 3, Lego Indiana Jones 2: The Adventure Continues, L.A. Noire, Tomb Raider, Dark Souls, Bully: Scholarship Edition, Sleeping Dogs, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, de Blob, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Pikmin 2, Trauma Center: New Blood and Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure?

Answer – They are all games that I own that, for one reason or another, I have either never played or completed.

There is evidence to suggest that I am not alone – gamers rarely play all of the games they buy. According to study published on Kotaku, the average gamer owns 18 unplayed games. If you break apart the collections I mentioned above, and exclude the parts of those collections I have played, I come in just below average – 17 unplayed or unfinished games. This doesn’t include the games I have played that have released DLC I have yet to experience. Add in those games, and the number jumps up to 25.

Recently, two independent developers have written essays blasting the impact Steam sales have on their games, and the industry in general. Jason Rohrer, developer of the upcoming Castle Doctrine, argues that gamers are now being conditioned to wait for a sale before buying a game, in order to avoid the risk of purchasing a game at full price that doesn’t provide enough content to justify that cost. This leads, as expected, to my own problem – gamers buy a bunch of games at once, and many go unplayed.

Developer Cliff Harris takes an even more hard-line stance against the way gamers are currently purchasing games. He opened a recent post on his blog with the following:

“You hear the comment quite often ‘I’m not buying anything till I clear my backlog’ and ‘I bought that game then realized I already owned it’ and ‘I bought the first one but didn’t play it, might pick this up…’

This is nuts. Gamers are being played, played like a fucking piano, every time you see the word SALE. This is a big psychology trick that is being used to siphon money from gamers, and it’s a bad thing, and if we can (and I think we probably can’t) we should stop it.”

Both developers may be arguing different points about Steam sales, and the way gamers purchase games in general, but there is one common theme – each sees that we are buying more games than we can possibly play.

Remind me again – why do video games need to be longer?

It should be apparent that the problem with video games isn’t that they’re short, but that there’s simply too many to play and not enough time. And I hate to be the one to break this to you, but that’s true of everything. I could easily write 2,000 plus words on just the amount of places to dine out in Chicago that I haven’t had the chance to experience yet. And don’t get me started on my Netflix queue, which is in a constant state of growth. Gamers may demand longer games, and may demand that each genre game have a standard, minimum length, but the facts do not lie – we don’t finish all of our games, and it’s actually hurting the industry. Game length is the least of our concerns.

Hitting the Right Length

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Max Payne 3 would have greatly benefited from a reduced length.

I have a love/hate relationship with Max Payne 3.

On one hand, the game oozes style, an amalgam of noir, Scarface-esque cocaine-fueled rampage and excess, MTV style quick and chaotic edits, and Quentin Tarantino violence. And the gameplay, third-person action, is fluid, with fun gunplay that transitions into acrobatic shootouts and fist fights flawlessly.

Unfortunately, the 14-level game is about four levels too long. As much fun as the game was, there were times where yet another wave of enemies would descend upon me, and I would have to fight off the urge to toss the controller aside. Max Payne 3 ended up more as a chore than as entertainment.

With Max Payne 3, it felt that a few of those levels were kept in the final product to prevent the game from being completed within the industry-dreaded 10 hour length. Which, in essence, makes them filler levels, and filler can be just as damaging to a game as bugs or shoddy level design.

If this argument about game length seems complex and full of caveats, the good news is that, much like Steve West said in his piece back in 2007, length ultimately does not matter. It cannot be standardized. But what is important is that a game be as long as it needs to be.

Fortunately, developers have many tools at their disposal to help reduce the amount of filler content, or to get a game to the length it needs to be in order to offer the maximum amount of enjoyment. Never underestimate the power of cutscenes – these segments can provide a wealth of background information to the player, or can sum up a story-transition succinctly that would otherwise be a chore to play in the traditional sense. The opening to the original BioShock is essentially an interactive cutscene, but it conveys so much information about the world of Rapture while setting the game’s tone that, if accomplished through traditional gameplay, would have extended the length of the game and disrupted the pacing of the story. Of course, cutscenes either need that interactive element, or need to be short affairs – if a game’s cutscenes start approaching Xenosaga’s length, then it will slow the pacing down.

Speaking of pacing, developers should employ traditional story structure to ensure a focused, compelling plot that engages gamers. There are numerous, varying methods as to what, exactly, makes for a great story, but they all share some common elements – three acts, a clear, defined moment of crisis, a challenge to overcome, and a resolution. If developers focus on hitting these key points, the pacing of their game will fall in line with the pacing of novels and TV shows, which gamers are already accustomed to.

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Alan Wake’s utilization of DLC is a perfect example for other developers to follow.

Finally, developers should take full advantage of post-release DLC. If there is an idea for a level that sounds great but cannot be implemented before launch, shelve it and refine the idea for DLC. Alan Wake is perhaps the best example of this – the two episodes released after the launch of the game added to the story and enhanced the canon. If those DLCs were part of the original release, there’s a good chance that the game would have felt rushed and been full of glitches and bugs, simply because more content would need to be developed in the same production period.

Always Leave Them Wanting More

There’s nothing wrong with a RPG that can be completed in 20 hours, or a FPS that takes six hours to finish. What matters more is how developers take advantage of that time. There is no single, unified length for any genre, and to increase the duration of a game simply for the sake of length increases the chances of more filler, and the chances that gamers will never finish the game to begin with.

With so many games going unplayed, collecting dust, gamers owe it themselves to readjust their criteria for value. Clearly, gamers have more than enough content to experience – increasing the length of those experiences will only perpetuate the cycle of rising development costs.

It’s not easy to change the minds of any group, or to start a culture shift in a medium that, for better and for worse, clings to tradition. But one way to start is to ignore the criticism, ignore the backlash. After all, bigger isn’t always better.