Gamasutra's latest Question of the Week asked our esteemed audience of game industry professionals, educators and students for feedback on the importance of a game's play length, particularly in terms of monetary value. Specifically, inspired by a letter to Game Developer magazine by Zoe Nichols, we asked:
Q: How important is the length of a video game for you, as someone involved in the industry? Is there a particular 'hours per $ purchase price' that makes sense, or are there other sensible measures of replayability beyond simple linear mission modes? How should the game industry address this problem in the future?
An majority of our respondents chimed in with similar thoughts: mainly, that quality is more important than quantity, and that adults don't often have the time to play through epics.
On the following pages, we'll highlight a few of the more interesting responses received.
(Please note that the opinions of individual employees responding to the Question Of The Week may not represent those of their company.)
The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion
In opposition to the original letter, I own no consoles. While my personal PC is perfectly capable at running productivity apps, Photoshop, and even video editing, it can't keep up with today's shiny new games. I haven't played a commercial PC game since "Return to Castle Wolfenstein." Even then I only played it because it was a free title from work. Why don't I play games? It's not number of hours of game-play. It's the quality. I'd rather play clever games like Grow from Eyemaze or Facade than play any of today's crop of games. Pac-man. Donkey Kong. Tempest. Zaxxon. These games were all wildly different. Graphics aside, I'm hard pressed to find any qualitative difference between Quake and Doom III, despite their 6 year separation.
Who's to blame for this? I blame the industry for being too risk-averse and building customer expectations toward whiz-bang new graphics. And I blame the consumer for not demanding better. Occasionally, a new game will break through the homogenous genres: GTA3, for example. Unfortunately, many of the titles I've worked on since its release have aimed for the "open-city and sandbox feel." Even when it isn't appropriate. Where has all the innovation gone?
Carl Pinder, Treyarch
As a husband and father, homeowner, employee (lead game programmer), and game fan, as well as a person with additional non-videogame hobbies, I have to say that I prefer shorter games. Real life takes precedence over playing games, and I just don't have enough time to play games that last forever. I rarely can finish a game before the next hot game comes out. When a review talks about a game being "short", I personally add an extra point to the review score, as I know it'll be more likely that I can finish it.
I would prefer games to be shorter but have "expansions" much sooner, say six months after the initial release. This way, I can feel like I finished the game, and if I liked it, I can get more. "Expansions" don't need to be fully re-developed engines, and technology: just tweak the existing tech, add some of the features that didn't make it in time for the original, and add more content. Cost is not an issue: Rather than pay $60 for a 100 hour game, I'd gladly pay $40 for 10 hour game, and then another $30 for another 10 hours six months later. (And another $30/10 hours six months later again.) That's $100 for 30 hours of content, or more than 50% increase in price, for about 30% of the content. But I'd be more satisfied with the experience.
I believe that the game should be based on a "minimum hours to finish the game" calculated from the "Retail price in dollars = MINIMUM Hours needed to finish the game." Games that are short make the player (buyer) feel ripped off and like movies, games that are too long are usually less fun and less entertaining. In my Gamasutra article "The Pedersen Principles," I suggest this equation (The Yardstick) and use the acronym KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) to provide entertaining, intuitive gameplay.
Roger E Pedersen, PSI Software
I don't think that there is an actual hour-to-$ ratio that can truly be quantified. I think that it depends more on the actual game and how well it's crafted. I don't mind paying $70 for something that is truly engaging the entire time I'm playing it, whether it be 20 hours or 1000+ hours. Two games that were considered short that people didn't mind (that spring to my mind) are God of War and Chronicles of Riddick. Both were worth the price, but many felt they were too short. I have heard it said that if someone plays a game that they think is too short, then that means that they want more.
I would rather have a shorter game that was tight and polished than one that is 1000+ hours of bugs and crashes. One way we can help/compromise this may be with episodic content. Release the main game for a lower price, then have regular updates with new content for a lower price. It may work, but it suffers from the possible problem of charging way too much and having the same lack of polish a lot of games suffer. It all comes down to making and polishing your game to the Nth degree.
Liam Hislop, Full Sail
Game length is obviously very important. I still spend a fair amount of time playing a wide variety of games, even now that I'm much busier. That said, I'll be honest when I say I RARELY even finish games. The last few games I can remember finishing in the past 2-3 years were maybe Half-Life 2, its Episode 1 content, and Sid Meier's Pirates!. Games that are 6-10 hours have a very important place along with the 60-100 hour experiences. I'm more likely to finish HL2: Episode 1-style games where the content is engaging for 2-3 hours. I get a kick out of the huge, expansive titles like Oblivion or San Andreas, but there's not a chance I'm going to finish it. Games often drag out and once the novelty of the mechanics is gone, it's usually just variations of things you've already seen.
I don't think the length of the game is as important as the experience. If a tight, well produced and truly fun game only takes 6 hours to play, so be it. That seems to be acceptable to many people and like the 90 minute popcorn-fest summer film, that's what it takes to succeed, right? The acceptance of the market?
This industry needs to get over these over-simplifications. The film industry doesn't get in a public debate over the difference between a 3 hour epic and a 90 minute comedy. Tickets to both films cost the same. The bottom line is that consumers vote with their wallets. We should continue to monitor what folks buy and what they don't. As a gamer myself, I prefer the shorter experiences as I simply do not have time to play 40 hour games all the way through. At some point the cost to value ratio diminishes and I decide not to play at all.
A good example is comic books. Years ago they were less than a dollar for approximately twenty pages. Depending on the creative team involved a comic could be read in somewhere between 5 and 25 minutes. Fast forward to today when most comics still match in page count/reading time but cost around $3. I bailed a few years ago when the price jumped over $2. The cost was greater than what I was willing to spend for that entertainment. $70 feels like too much, but then again I really, really love Gears of War.
Since both the skillset and amount of free time the player has is unknown, it's difficult to quantify the amount of entertainment a game should contain. Two hours of fun, or thirty hours of boredom, tediousness, and frustration? The question is too vague and broad to nail it down to dollars and cents per hour. Some cheap casual games can give you endless hours of enjoyment, whereas a high budget $70 game can be played through in 6 hours, with little incentive to play through it again. Once people wake up and realize they don't spend $60 on a DVD or a book, we're in trouble.
J Kelly, Sea Cow Games
It's a fine balancing act. Making a game very long limits its audience or simply wastes development effort, since only hardcore gamers will put in the time to complete very long games like Oblivion or Zelda. On the other hand, a game's critical reception is hurt if it is too short. Many good recent games, such as Gears Of War and Dead Rising, take an effective tangential approach to addressing this issue - they provide a game which is quick to 'complete', but they encourage replay by adding secondary objectives that you won't fulfill first time through. This seems like a good model to follow, as it allows developers to focus on a reasonably sized core experience, while adding value by layering lots of hidden goodies and unlockables on top of it, and by structuring the core experience such that replay is rewarding (e.g. through Gears Of War's finely honed difficulty settings). While it may only be catching on recently, this idea isn't new - StarFox 64 is an excellent example of a game from the past that did this really well.
Iestyn Bleasdale-Shepherd, Electronic Arts - Tiburon
Gears of War
I would say as a gamer on the more casual side (30+ years) the game length is fine around 20-25 hours. If you are having fun while playing. I never have time to finish anything longer. It makes me more satisfied to have played through the game in 20-25 game hours than never even reach half way.
Joachim Carlsson, Massive Entertainment
I've got a 16-month-old son with another on the way, so two things I don't have much of are time and money. What I want is a choice of short, mid-price, high-quality games. I'll avoid high-price games where I'll never see 50% of the content I've paid for, and won't finish it. Half-Life 2: Episode 1, God of War, Fable, and the recent Prince of Persia games were a good length. I'm actively turned off games advertised as very long. Final Fantasies, WoW, Baldur's Gate, Oblivion... all games I'd like to play, but I won't, because when I start a game I want to finish it - which by my definition means getting to the end credits (except racing games, where I'm happy to play it til I've had enough - which makes them a draw for me). I don't need to collect every figurine, grind every edge, find all the hidden magic badgers. If I don't think I'll be able to do that, and these days that means the game should be 10-20 quality hours, I probably won't buy it.
I'll make an exception in rare cases - I'll find the 60 hours for Wii Zelda one way or another! Worth noting that handheld games are a slightly different matter. I play them on my daily commute, but at an hour a day I don't want to be playing one game for more than a few weeks. And they're cheaper, so a good game (Zelda: Minish Cap right now, Mario Kart DS... in fact just about anything on DS) is a great value proposition. Finally, if I've grabbed an hour while my son is asleep and want to play a game, I want to make progress - I don't want to play the same difficult ten-minute stretch six times. I feel like it's a waste of time. I'll always look for an Easy setting. Oh, how I miss having whole weekends free to play games... although, having a wife and kid isn't a bad alternative!
Ben Board, IR Gurus Interactive
Obviously there is no magic number to dictate play time. All that's important is whether or not the game has fully explored its game mechanics and world. Replayability is a different creature, and relies on deep design goals. Not all games need replayability; if a game lacks mechanics geared toward competition or cooperative play, multiplayer mode should be cut. Game critics are particularly harsh on play time, and hold most games responsible for hours and hours of content. In reality, each game is different and should only be held accountable for enough hours to run the course of its mechanics. If you're playing a game to fill time, you should probably just read a book.
John Rose, Codemasters Ltd.
This is a difficult question as different players will answer it different ways. I, as a thirty-ish gamer with plenty of disposable income, will rarely ever complain that a game is too short. I enjoy a nice 12-20 hour gaming experience. I rarely will ever play a game more than 20 hours before moving onto the next game. It takes an outstanding game to keep me playing for longer (e.g. Oblivion, Okami, competitive games) So I am a gamer that quickly consumes numerous games and actually prefers a "short game." Twelve hours is a good measure for me. I think they survival horror genre has made this an accepted time for me. Many of the Silent Hill, RE series, etc. are around this time. Anything less that 12 hours I find to be too short. That being said, Gears of War was too short. It was an outstanding game though and after I beat it, I immediately starting playing the game through at a harder difficulty.
Brad Merritt, Cartoon Network
One of the more interesting approaches to addressing the play-length vs. quality issue is to realize that a big portion of the cost involved in making a high-quality game is the technology and effort to get started. Creating a fully realized, boxed play-experience with a new engine and a high amount of polish is a tremendous effort which almost always results in either lower quality then what could be possible or shorter playtime. To capitalize on the investment we've recently seen companies adopting the episode formats prevalent in Half-Life episodes and Telltale Games' Sam & Max. This makes it possible to keep using the same production methods and technology in multiple releases, at high quality, with short play-times and without "cheating" the consumer.
I would imagine that the financial plan for something like Sam & Max doesn't necessarily count on recouping the investment for the engine and initial production on the first episode, but rather spread the budget out over a number of them. The consumer gets a well-crafted, price-worthy experience from the get-go and is confident that all-in-all the playtime will add up to something akin to the open-ended games such as Oblivion. As a bonus this model forces the developer to not rely on hype but rather on quality to sell their game, as the consumer can make an informed choice as to whether he/she wants to buy the next episode, based on how good the previous one was.
Fredrik Thylander, Digital Illusions
Personally, I do not understand how people with real jobs and lives would prefer 30-40 hour single player games. Given the degree of innovation and inspiration of the titles released nowadays, 10-15 hours of gameplay should be enough to spend with almost any game. As a consumer, I quite dislike the 60-dollar minimum price point. I would strongly prefer to try out the game mechanics for a smaller amount of money and pay more if I like the experience. This model works well in the casual space and in a more bothersome way with the aftermarket of used console games. I hope that with the new-gen consoles and downloadable content, consumers will start demanding to pay for a game as they play it.
Mart Lume, Simon Fraser University
It really only takes a couple hours to beat Super Mario Bros, but we all played it way more than that. If a new game came out that delivered the greatest gameplay ever imaginable, yet it was one second long, I'd buy it, and if it delivered on that one second, I'd be happy.
Tony Dormanesh, Collision Studios
There's a lot more involved in a game's value proposition than just the number of hours of gameplay it provides: consider factors such as richness of content (Gears of War), conceptual novelty (Beyond Good and Evil), or a creative (as opposed to destructive) approach to gameplay (The Sims). The idea of "hours per $ purchase price" is fundamentally silly to me because there are equally-worthwhile games at both ends of the play-time spectrum. Unlike film, our industry need not adhere to an accepted "standard length"... it's one of the very celebrations of gaming that you can have as much fun in 10 minutes as you can in 10 hours. Wario Ware, anyone?
Josh Sutphin, Incognito
Beyond Good & Evil
I often don't buy games I'd love to play because reviews mention they're 70+ hours. I don't have time for that kind of commitment, and I don't like buying games I know I can't finish. That said, it really depends on the genre. I can play an RPG for 40+ hours, but I don't want an FPS to be 40 hours. There is a point where I wouldn't want to spend $50 for 6 hours of mediocre entertainment, but rarely have I been disappointed with a game because it was too short. It's almost always because it wasn't compelling, or it was buggy, or had poor game mechanics, etc. What I really want is a fun and memorable experience that keeps me engaged and thrilled all the way through, regardless of raw length. I finished Shadow of the Colossus in three sittings, and it was one of the most memorable games of the year.
On the other hand, I can think of more than a few games that would have been a better experience with a few hours trimmed off (thinking "when is this going to end" is not particularly fun). What makes the most sense design-wise is where more game content is available to the players that want it, but not mandatory for those that just want to get through the mian game. Skies of Arcadia did a fantastic job with this by providing optional side missions, seamlessly integrated into the main quest. God of War had extra levels for hardcore players. Resident Evil 4 had bonus missions and game modes. But all of these were completely satisfying for an average player who wants to just play through once.
Vince Dickinson, EA-Tiburon
It's depends on the genre for the most part. A shooter is typically around 8-10 hours while an RPG can quite literally be a game that never ends. In the end it comes down to what the developer feels is appropriate length for the fun and design concepts (both new and old) that the player will enjoy. Something like Okami is a massive, long adventure that takes a long time to finish just due to sheer length, not necessarily challenge--they could probably taken out 1-2 areas and had little impact on the game experience. Whereas something like Resident Evil 4 has excellent length for both gameplay variety and story development. An hours per purchase price for a console game would backfire, as essentially that's a mini micro-transaction game, level by level. Who would honestly have bought every game function of Lumines? Or a Halo that charged per multiplayer mode? That is not the right route to pursue.
The best methods of replayability are unlockable content and mini-games. Resident Evil 4 executes this well with the Mercenaries mini-game, which is both fun to play and unlocks weapons for the main game. Ratchet and Clank also succeeds in this regard, as there are hosts of skill points and challenges to play that keep the "fun factor" high. We should pay more attention to game length, as God of War could easily been another two hours and no one would've complained; and I have friends who are still upset that Halo 2 was too short. You can get around this a bit by using downloadable content to "finish" or refresh the game (Hurricane Packs) as well, so I expect that trend to be explored more as time passes on.
Many consumer packaged products (like coffee) have two ways to increase price. Method one, raise the price for the same amount of goods (content) in package. Method two, keep price the same but lower the amount of goods in package. For instance, coffee used to come in 16oz canisters, then 14oz, then 12oz, then 11.5oz but have kept the price stable on a canister of coffee for years. It is a 'backdoor' way of effectively increasing the price.
Many many products do this as raising prices is much more noticeable to the consumer. Game prices have remained very stable for years. Consumers expect to pay around $49.99 for a game. But, game creation cost have really gone up to support the advanced graphics. So, instead of raising traditional prices, companies are cutting content. I'd suggest you get used to eight hours of gameplay!
Kevin Albright, Koios Works LLC
I often find it odd when people complain that a game should have been longer. I understand the argument for value for money but quite frankly I would much rather a short but enjoyable experience than a long and tedious one. To me more important than game length is game density. F.E.A.R was a fantastic game with one exciting set piece after another. Even though it only took about eight hours to complete I enjoyed it so much that I played the game again, and will most likely play it again some time in the future. On the other hand, games like Baldur's Gate verge on frustration with their repetitive hack and slash mentality. You might be getting more hours of gameplay but quite frankly that's time I could be spending playing more exciting games or tending to the other aspects of my life. It's also odd that people won't apply the same logic to a game like World Of Warcraft. That's great value at fifteen dollars a month for anywhere up to fifty hours of gameplay or more (depending on your addiction). That's less than forty cents an hour and still people claim it is too expensive. I guess some times you just can't win.
Ian Uniacke, IR Gurus
I think game length is directly proportional to fun-factor. If you have a long game, but it's long because you have to back-track a lot, or go long distances, or try and retry sections, this doesn't make it fun, and I would want the game to be shorter (like 10-hrs or less). Inversely, having a fun game with a lot of variety should have a much longer play-time (even 40 hrs can be ok). In today's modern gaming lifestyle, many of us are now adults who have steady jobs, and not that much time. We want games that are short, so that we can catch up with our backlog of games (I still have PS1 games I haven't played!). Money isn't really an object, as dropping $50 a month on a game is fairly reasonable entertainment. It's also important to have a quick pickup-and-play, put-down-and-work aspect as well. Handheld games that have quick-saves that are short are highly attractive.
Daniel Lam, Digital Eclipse
Game length is very important for me. I think that most story-based action games should not last more than 8 hours, shorter is better. I feel just OK with 6 hour lasting games - they don't take too much of my life and don't contain unnecessary bulk "just to make it longer." Publishers actually force the developers to make longer games, and games suffer from this. The shorter is the game the more time you can spend on polishing within the same budget, the more condensed and cinematic is the narrative. Max Payne, The Chronicles of Riddick, Indigo Prophecy, Gears of War; I doubt that making any of those games longer would make it better. But I know lots of games that would be much better if they were shorter. Let Doom 3 be an example. You can add value to your product by lots of other aspects such as good multiplayer, replayability, simply a desire to experience it one more time - like great books or movies or albums do. But killing the game by adding several hours of water to meet publisher expectations can not be forgiven.
Taras Korol, Crytek
Sometimes, the nature of the game lends itself to replayability...like Guitar Hero, or Karaoke Revolution, which can almost always be broken out when you have friends and family over for a good time. Or in a game like Tony Hawk's Project 8, where the large streaming world has a ton of nooks and cranny's for you to discover and hone your skills on. I'll admit that I'm not much of an RPG player since the qualities above don't really apply (except for MMOs and the multiplayer deal). In RPGs, the only quality I look for is epic ... ness. After playing through the game, I should have laughed, cried, felt stressed, been happy for it to feel like I've gotten my money's worth.
Personally, when I check the game boxes on the shelf and see "more than 60 hours of epic adventure!" I quickly put back the box where I took it and check the next in line. Lengthy games often come to a sucky end as it is hard to develop good content for 60 hours of gameplay. Even the magnificent Resident Evil 4 for Gamecube came to a bad, repetitive end where I found myself praying for it to stop. I would gladly pay less for a shorter game, get on with it and spend the extra money on another different experience.
Kevin Trepanier, Gameloft Montréal
I still cherish the memories of my life as a hardcore gamer, playing until the first rays of sunlight and beyond, unlocking everything the game had to unlock and if the game failed to keep me up until the morning, it wasn't worth its money. But surprising things happen when you grow up and reach adulthood: all of a sudden real life takes so much your time that long hardcore sessions are out of the question. Besides taking a lot of time to complete, these 20+ hour beasts require too much learning and devotion right from beginning to learn how to actually play them, so it's not hard to just forget the whole thing and leave your 60$ purchase gathering dust. Surprisingly, the games industry has already addressed the problem of people having less and less time at their hands. The rise of casual games has been noticeable in recent years to an extend that even a mammoth company like Nintendo has changed its philosophy in favor for this market, and looking at the DS sales data, I don't think they have regretted their decision for one second.
The problem with game length is that there are two types of people who need to be considered: gamers who can spend upwards of 50 to 100 hours on a single game in a couple of weeks, and gamers who might only be able to squeeze in a couple of hours a week. Unfortunately, these two camps seem to be polar opposites. I am sure that others will argue many good points about increasing the length of games, so I will try to briefly acknowledge the other side of the coin. I have heard game designers try to label the latter group as "casual" gamers, but this is shortsighted. Sure, casual gamers may only play a couple hours a week or for shorter periods of time. What about those people who simply do not have time to play? How about the full time parent who can only muster an hour or two after the kids are asleep, or the 70-hour a week worker who barely has the energy to pick up a controller after work? These people may still want to play the latest epic game, but it might just take them a little longer to finish.
The question naturally then becomes: "Can a game be too long?" Finishing a game should provide the player with a sense of accomplishment. Should gamers who cannot invest 10 hours a day be prevented from enjoying this? Should a game's length suffer just to appease a 1-2 hour gamer? How about a mix of both by providing a natural sense of progression through logical separations in the game, such as levels or distinct areas of play. I have been on both sides of this problem. There have been games that I could continue playing for months after conclusion. There have also been games that have been painful to get through. It can be very stressful to plan a schedule around playing a game for a couple of hours a day for a week, but have to play a few extra days to finish the game. While it is true that no one is forcing me to finish a game, it is difficult to just abandon a game after committing so much time to it. While a game should never drag on for several extra hours just to fill out the game play length, it should be long enough to make players fulfilled, but craving more. Of course, there is no simple equation for this as each game, and each player, is different.
Chris Covington, PouncingKitten Games