ImRage: How Long Does A Game Need To Be?
A friend once asked me: “How long should a game be?” I answered him quite simply: “As long as it needs to be?” The main question that was on his mind as we delved into this was whether a game should rather be longer, and keep you busy for a while, or shorter and perhaps be replayable. I’m of the opinion that there’s a lot more to say on this topic than my cryptic answer so in this week’s column I’m going to be discussing game length and where it can go right or wrong in the development process.
So before we discuss a good way to do things, let’s first look at a bad way to do them. Well, a game can either be too short or too long. If a game is too short, let’s say 4-6 hours in length as opposed to the usual 6-8, then we might feel cheated. It’s fine to pay R50 to watch a two-hour movie but paying R500 for a 4 hour game is just not a good deal. Sure a game can be replayed/resold/traded but on the whole it’s a far more expensive hobby and short games don’t justify the large outlay. But then if a game is too longer, like say 10-20, we might get bored before the end. But let’s be clear here, a game can be 50 hours and entertaining all the way through or it can be 20 hours and excruciatingly painful to complete. So the problem of being too long is a little bit different. And that brings me to my next point.
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A game should only really be called ‘too long’ if it contains segments that are boring. A game like Mass Effect takes between 20-50 hours to complete but since it’s usually captivating all the way through, you don’t really feel the length in a negative way. On the contrary, you might find that you want more of it. Assassin’s Creed 3 on the other hand might be a case of too long. It’s nice to say that a game will ‘keep you busy’ for close to 50 hours and you’ll get your money’s worth but when most of those missions are frustrating tutorials or grind-fests is it really that great that the game is longer?
This naturally brings us to the issue of quality and there’s a simple thought exercise that’s worth trying here: Is it better for a game to be short but awesome or long but average? Think about it for a second before continuing. Now let me give you two examples. Short but awesome is Portal. Long but average is Final Fantasy 12. Which one would you prefer to buy assuming both were R400-500? It might be a more difficult question for some of you to answer than others, especially if money is tight, but even you might buy FF12, I’d imagine that the majority would admit that Portal is a far superior game (Thankfully, it isn’t R400). And is Portal too short? Actually not really, the length is just right.
So maybe rather than whether or not the length of a game is high or low, what should be more important is the quality of the experience. Sure too short is still bad (nobody wants to buy a 5 minute game). But above a certain length of around 6 hours, a game could be deemed ‘long enough’ and ‘value for money’. But beyond that? More important is quality. And when it comes to quality, shorter is better than longer. You’re far more likely to enjoy a game if, when it ends, you hunger for more of it than if halfway through the game you get bored and can’t wait to be done with it. As William Shakespeare once said: “Brevity is the soul of wit” (Brevity meaning ‘brief-ness’) and I don’t think Uncle Bill was too far off the mark.
The perfect length game is the one in which every moment is necessary and adds to the overall experience. There are no dull bits because every part is only there on merit. Perfect examples of this are the God of War and Uncharted series in which every level is one that you want to play and any boring moments that would have been in the game have been edited out. An awful example of this is sadly one of my favourite games, Metal Gear Solid 4. Does anyone remember the numerous cut-scenes of Snake walking really slowly and looking at stuff? No they don’t! Because everyone was bored during this and wanted to skip them (but couldn’t because there might be 5 seconds of story in 5 minutes of irrelevance). MGS4 could have vastly improved if the unnecessary parts were edited out, leaving a slimmer but much more solid package (in its current state, it’s probably overweight).
And this should all weight to the statement: “A game should only be as long as it needs to be. Not shorter, not longer”. Too short and you can miss out on design space, but that can be forgiven if the game is good enough. Too long and you risk boring the audience. But how long is too short or too long? Simply put, as long as a segment is awesome, it deserves to be in the game; if it’s not then it doesn’t. And if taking out all the mediocre parts of the game would only leave you with only 2 hours of cool, then the game probably wasn’t worth buying in the first place.
On the topic of replay-ability, my friend also asked if games should perhaps be designed to be shorter but more replayable. My response is that replay extras, like New Game+, challenge modes or unlocks are nice little bonuses that can add to the life of a game, but the primary focus should be on the quality. The best kind of books, movies and songs are the ones you read, watch or listen to over and over again. Any regular fan or serious academic will agree with you on that. While some stories do lose their intrigue after you know what happens in them, if a game is really that good then, when it’s over, you’ll miss it and in the future, you’ll want to play it again… no matter how long or short it is…
(Like Knights of the Old Republic. I’ve played I and II like 5 times each.)
See you in two weeks time…