Everyone wants to feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. Especially now that game prices are rising and most of us have to be more selective with what we choose to buy. It’s all about getting a satisfying amount of content, so you don’t feel ripped off. I love long games and having tons of content as much as the next person. What I don’t like is padding that’s as boring as it is unnecessary and games that are made artificially longer without actually adding anything significant or particularly fun. There seems to be an expectation now that games be a certain length, depending on the genre and regardless of the ideal length for telling that particular narrative or to make the desired impact. RPGs in particular, get a lot of flak from their fans if they’re perceived as too short and the number of hours required to be seems to be rising. It seems that on average a good RPG should last at least 20 hours, which is much longer than many games of old and that number will probably keep rising. I think this call for longer games is a hindrance to games developers and ultimately results in a lot of games that would have been pretty solid, if it weren’t for the fact that it was watered down so that it would last for another few hours. Personally, I would much rather have a game that packs quality content into a few hours, rather than a longer protracted one that’s frankly weaker for its length. My point is that what I think really matters is the content and what you get out of it. I’ve seen games with just as much content as games twice as long and more disappointingly, I’ve seen the opposite as well, long games with only a few hours real content on them with a lot of padding. Of course if a narrative-heavy RPG ends in a few hours that might throw up a flag that there’s not enough there for them to sufficiently tell that story, but not necessarily. Many people finished Dishonored in 8 hours and to me that game is packed to the brim with things to do and see. That’s why I think length should just be a guideline and not a limiting factor in the development of a game. In the rest of this post, I”ll be looking at some of the methods that developers use to pad our games and consider why these techniques might detract from our gaming experience as well as hinder studios from creating the best games they can.
Many studios add repetitive features that add apparent length to games without actually adding any fun, which to me, is the whole point of playing a game in the first place. An example of this is the ‘Twenty Bear Asses‘ quest that requires you to kill hundreds of bears that for some reason, don’t all drop the asses required. This type of quest is common to MMORPGS, although not exclusively. Personally, I don’t like these types of quests (although if it’s a few here and there it’s not too bad), but it’s when games that aren’t open-ended use it to bump up gameplay time that it really annoys me. Although Borderlands 2 was excellent overall, I did feel that the overuse of these types of quests was one of its major flaws. In a similar vein, another equally frustrating feature that’s common in a lot of games is an overabundance of irrelevant and repetitive sidequests that don’t necessarily require you to fetch anything, but do ask you to go to location A to kill X number of bad guys and then go to location B to kill Y number of bad guys and so on and so forth, ad infinitum until your head explodes. These types of quests might be fun at first, but quickly lose their appeal and often end up detracting from the main mission (I’m looking at you, Mass Effect 1). Unless you’re a robot, generally doing the same thing over and over again can get a bit tedious after a while. Also, I’m sure most of you who play games regularly have probably come across the boss that isn’t difficult to beat (just repeat the formulaic moves until they’re dead), but will take forever to beat because of they have a ridiculous amount of HP that regenerates or because it requires an element of luck or something similarly irritating. Personally, I’d much rather have a technically difficult boss fight than one that’s drawn on and on, but that you know you’ll eventually beat if you stick with it long enough, wouldn’t you? For more examples, check out this handy list. To me, if it’s not fun, then it shouldn’t be there. Obviously, I’m not expecting every second of every moment of a game to be fun, but when there are tons of repetitive features in a game, I see that as a fun sinkhole that simply shouldn’t be there and they often don’t seem to have any relevance to the game beyond making it longer. I’m much more likely to lose interest in a game that is repetitive and long, than a game that’s of the same length or longer, but is packed with actual fun content.
Another consequence of this focus on making games of a certain length is that many studios will fill up the required time with the illusion of content, such as using the same locations or level designs over and over again with minor changes here and there, like making the floor blue instead of red (again, Mass Effect 1 is a perfect example). Also, there’s the old backtracking tactic where, to advance in the game you constantly have to go over old ground (literally) and fight enemies you’ve fought before. This is even worse than the previous tactic in my opinion, because it literally doesn’t add anything original. It just seems like a lazy way of extending the time you’re in-game, without adding any real content. Deliberately long uninteresting winding corridors that get you from Point A to Point B that would probably take you about two minutes to get to if you were walking in a straight line also bother me for similar reasons. Obviously all games do this to an extent, but some games, like Borderlands 2 take this to the extreme and seem to have deliberately confusing pathways or long open spaces that you have to traverse every time you want to complete even the smallest, most insignificant sidequest. Other features, such as long unskippable cutscenes that count as part of the overall length and a lack of checkpoints that usually result in you having to redo whole chunks of levels all add to the amount of time you spend in a game, but don’t really add anything original or useful to the game. It’s games with these kinds of elements that could most likely be condensed into few hours without really losing anything. Developers have to balance finance and quality and because there is this common expectation on both sides that a game has to be a certain number of hours long, they often resort to cheaper methods of bumping up playtime rather than spending all that money on developing original content for every minute of the game. Personally, I’d much rather my favourite developers spend the time and money on developing a game where all of its component parts are solid, as opposed to sitting around trying to come up with ways to make the experience last as long as they can.
By forcing a game to be longer than it might otherwise have been, there’s also the problem of pacing and immersion. To me, the question of length should be about how long it takes for the game to make its point or to tell its narrative or unravel its mysteries. Once it’s done all of those things the game should end. As I mentioned before, I felt that BioShock Infinite lagged in the middle in terms of pacing and it’s a fairly common complaint of an otherwise excellent game. It seems that I’m not the only one who would have enjoyed a little less lingering in the narrative and in slightly less drawn-out levels in places, in other words, if it had just got on with it at times. How many games have you played where the main character & co. rather unrealistically dither about for ages, before actually getting on with the oh-so-important quest that they’re supposed to be on? Trying to extend the game beyond its natural timespan is just asking for problems in my opinion.
This leads onto the wider point that if studios feel they have to pad their games that creates an artificial restriction on creativity. This issue of length is not something other artistic mediums have to deal with, at least not to this extent. Imagine if every painting had to be the size of a two-story high mural or if every book had to be 300 pages long. Sure, there are standards in every creative industry, but those are guidelines and people don’t follow them if that would damage their work. There are short movies and short stories and poems that are pages and pages long. Similarly, some games are best short and sweet, while others are epic in scope from conception. Developers shouldn’t be limited by the industry standard or simply because some people complain about it. They should be able to make games however long they feel it should be.
Most importantly, focusing on the length of a game also ignores the fact that there’s value to a video game beyond the number of hours you’ve logged or even how much content there is. There’s also how much enjoyment you get out of a game and that’s not as easily measurable. By attempting to ‘get your money’s worth’ in terms of hours spent on a game it devalues our actual gaming experience and reduces it to numerical quantification, which goes against the point of this type of entertainment. It’s about enjoyment. Of course, it’s natural to want to get a proper amount of content for what you paid, but as long as it’s not ridiculously sub-par and you really enjoyed yourself while you were playing it, what does it matter how long the game was? Thirty Flights of Loving was exceptionally short and wasn’t exactly jam-packed with content (there’s only so much you could jam into 15 minutes anyway), but the experience was meaningful and entertaining enough that I felt it was worth the $5 I spent on it.
I think games should be judged on their merit and if it’s a good game, it’s a good game, regardless of its length. Of course for the price that games are now, you want the content that you paid for, but often, the value of a game goes far beyond what can be expressed in numbers or code. Games are an experience and you pay to gain some enjoyment out of that experience. Length might be indicative of a sufficiently strong experience, but it’s only one factor (and possibly an irrelevant one) as to whether the game is actually good and whether you feel you got your money’s worth of enjoyment. I feel that to fixate on it or to complain about it solely on the basis of a games being short does injustice to the game and forces developers to put out sub-par games that simply tick the boxes. After all, it’s not like we’re really getting our money’s worth with a lot of the games that are being pumped out right now anyway that promise MORE GUNS and MORE QUESTS and MORE LOOT. Sure, they might be longer, but does it really mean that they’re better?
That’s just some of my thoughts on the subject. What do you guys think? Is the length of a game important to you?