Measuring Stick

Does length matter? After you are done snickering from making the obvious jokes, the question remains: does the length of a computer game matter?

I ask this because often times I see it brought up in reviews. Time after time reviewers would bash a game for being “too short” or “too long” or lacking “replay value” whatever that means. I saw rants go on and on about criminally short campaigns in first person shooters. Saw reviews where people praised the “value per dollar” of sandbox games and companies boasting about all manner of activities their games have which will keep players occupied for the average length needed to gestate a human fetus.

With all these examples, the answer seems obvious. People wouldn’t keep bringing it up if it didn’t matter. Yet I am a still left wondering if this is truly as important a factor as people make it out to be. Or is it something we, as gamers, have been conditioned to accept.

The problem starts with defining adequate game length. Both the film and music industry have it down pat thanks to a variety of factors; from human psychology, financial compromises and technical limitations in the early days of the mediums. All of these helped to shape the consensus that movies are about two hours long and songs are approximately three minutes long. Though its true that there are outliers and exceptions, but for the mainstream these truths still hold up.

Computer games don’t really have that benefit. There is no industry standard because the industry itself is quite young. Add to it the fact that both it and the technology upon which it relies constantly advance in leaps and bounds (though not so much the last few years) and there really is no reason, at least from the industry’s perspective, to create a game length standard.

Of course, there is a bigger issue which stops the industry from creating a standard and that is the way games are consumed. Unlike movies, books and music which are pretty much passively consumed (if you are going to argue books require effort to read and turn pages I will shove the entire works of Larry Niven up your…) games require player engagement. Okay, good games that are not walking simulators require player engagement. Players have to actively further the story and plot along.

This means that different genres have different mechanics and ways to tell their stories which impact length directly. One example are role playing games or RPGs for short. Though the genre itself is quite broad and has a huge variety of styles, still most of the games that fall under that category will take quite a long time to finish. A single game may take upwards of 30 – 40 hours not counting replay as many of them offer diverging story paths and multiple endings. Often times the player in such games will have a wealth of side quests and grinding to help them level up before confronting the final boss, all of which require a large investment of time.

Its opposite is the first person shooter. Most first person shooters will have short campaigns that can be finished in one or two sittings (looking at you, Call of Duty) while focusing mostly on the online experience where player progression in multiplayer matches takes most of the play time. The actual campaigns will often be filled with cliches, be terribly scripted and filled with loud explosions that will make Michael Bay orgasm (of course, there are outliers like Doom [2016] and Wolfenstein: The New Order).

Between the two there is a huge time gulf that can hardly be bridged, and this is without talking about simulators, grand strategy games, card games and so forth. Truly, genres in gaming differ so wildly that there can be no set standard made. And yet, people keep complaining about games being either too short (often times in relation to first person shooters) or too long (your average sandbox game) or lacking replay value (again, what the heck does replay value mean!?). Why?

The answer is quite complicated and comprised of several factors. First is the idea of the prudent consumer who buys games for the amount of entertainment they offer. It is part of the reason why the AAA game industry had mostly transitioned to making sandbox games since they offer a lot of side activities and empty, boring treks that remind me of the mundanity of my own personal life, interspersed with some flashes of actual action. After all, games are expensive (to buy, not so much to make considering profit margins) and a “prudent” consumer would want the best bang for their buck. Of course this means they often buy mediocre experiences as open world sandboxes offer terrible story pacing with constant distractions and immersion breaking moments. Subsisting on such a diet can really warp one’s views and taste in games.

Another factor is lack of satisfaction. The reality is that a good story paired with good gameplay will deliver a satisfactory experience. That experience, whether long or short, will be both memorable and worthwhile regardless of the length of time played. I bring this up because games like Spec Ops: The Line and Max Payne are some of my favorite and even though neither one takes more than 10 hours to complete, I found myself enjoying every moment of playing (in the case of Spec Ops: The Line its not really enjoyment per se but whatever) and felt they were worth every penny I paid. To contrast, Just Cause 2, a game I picked at a sale for peanuts, felt like a slug. While I enjoyed it at the start, as the game progressed and the size of the island and pace of the story became apparent to me, I just quit. I felt that even the few bucks I paid for it were a waste of cash and that game gave me around 20 hours of gameplay and I wasn’t even a quarter through.

The last factor I can identify is expectations. Players expect a certain experience in return for investing a certain amount of money. The bar for a 15$ game in terms of entertainment and length is much different than one sold at what is considered full price (60$, but considering AAA landscape that is merely an entry fee). If the experience is short, no one will begrudge it since it cost only a quarter of what a “real” or “full” game does. We adjust our expectations based on pricing and the people (studio basically) behind it and so form our opinions accordingly. Thus if a 15$ game is only a couple of hours long, we don’t see it as an issue while if a 60$ title in a major franchise is only four hours long we see it as a betrayal and a bad investment.

Taken together, its not hard to see why we insist on length as a measuring stick. It enables us to filter out possible duds and give us some illusion of a smart or prudent purchase. The reality though, is that by insisting on game length we’ve helped create a AAA industry that homogenizes experiences to create samey, sprawling monstrosities that demand a huge investment of time and artificially lengthen gameplay with grind, as I highlighted before. Thus, length has been more detrimental to gaming on a whole. Which is why we need to retire it.

A game’s length shouldn’t be totally ignored. It should still factor into reviews, but done so in a more intelligent way. It should be discussed in regards to pacing and story progression, rather as a general statistics. If the story feels rushed and incomplete its okay to say its too short. If the story feels like it keeps stalling and spinning its wheels, it should be treated as “too long”. However in both cases its given proper context which is the important part. Lastly, replay value should be ditched entirely.

I’ve already shown throughout the article that I don’t understand the concept of replay value. As a consumer of popular culture I’ve re-read books that I liked (god knows how many times I’ve re-read Dune). I re-watch TV series I liked, not to mention movies. I listen constantly to certain songs depending on mood. The same goes for games. Whether linear or open world, I replay games because I like them and the stories they presented, not because I am compelled to reach 100% completion. If I didn’t like it the first time, whether or not I could replay it means nothing because I won’t regardless.

Length should not be an important statistic used to inform game purchases but a properly contextualized factor in judging the quality of the game. It should be put alongside pacing, game flow and other components of a story experience. It should not be looked at like a supermarket bargain. If the media and consumers start treating it like this, we may all get better games. Now if you’ll excuse me, I want to have another playthrough of Max Payne.

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