How Much Does the Length of a Game Really Matter?

I’m finally back after a two week absence. Today, I’d like to talk about something that coincides rather well with my general lack of time as of late – short games. Every once and awhile a game will come out that is just short enough to turn heads. We’re talking about 5-6 hour-long full price games. This complaint was recently levied against both Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes and Child of Light. Those were both high quality games with a narrow focus and specific limited length, yet both were attacked mercilessly by some who wanted more (admitted Ground Zeroes was a much bigger target). What I’d like to look at today is whether the length of a game is really something that’s worth attacking. I figured I’d look at a couple of different ways of approaching games and relate how that can alter how you view the short game problem.


Let us begin be looking at an economical approach to looking at sub-standard length games. Video games are expensive new. While it’s true that there are Steam sales, PS+ and Games for Gold, the majority of new games have to be bought at full price, and many gamers aren’t particularly interested in waiting months or even years to be able to play a game they really wanted. So, games are expensive. As such, there is the expectation of a certain return from your investment.

From a strictly mathematical viewpoint, hours of entertainment are offset by price. At $59.99, if you play the game for 6 hours, you’ve essentially paid $10 per hour. For some, this is an acceptable trade, and I hear people comparing the value to movies, which are often a little more than $10 for 2 hours. It gets tricky, however, when compared directly to other, much longer video games. For example, I payed $59.99 for Xenoblade Chronicles, and I received about 150 hours of entertainment from it (unusually long game). Compared to InFamous: Second Son which only clocks in at 12 hours for the same price, you can see why people start getting upset. It’s a fundamental problem with the way we view the medium. The truth is that video games are not a single group that we often consider them to be. There’s a very good reason that we break them into genres; when you compare games across genres, things get messy. This is especially true between multiplayer games (Titanfall), single player epics (Skryim), and single player games that are highly replayable (Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze). But even within genres, game length can differ wildly, especially with matters such as replay value. A person that loathes multiplayer will get significantly less mileage out of Battlefield 4, for example.

All of that is to say that gamers enter into their purchase with a reasonable expectation that they will get a fair number of hours worth of content from the game. When a game is short or simply of a smaller length than expected, it is not unreasonable for people to get upset.

journey-game-screenshot-1-bOf course, there are different ways of looking at the whole problem. Another such way is to treat each game less of a mathematical search for hours of enjoyment, but rather to see each game as its own experience. It is definitely a more idealistic approach, but with that comes a certain amount of truth. It’s generally a good idea to step back and examine what you’ve actually got on your hands instead of having one eye on the clock and another shifting between various games of similar genre so you’ll know whether to be outraged. From this view, a short game like Journey that is not exceedingly replayable is worth ever cent you spend on it, not because of the value, but because of the experience.

From this point of view, a game is only too short if it is incomplete. This is true of the above approach as well, but it matters more here. You see, if a game is complete in its story, execution and planning, and provides a powerful, unique experience, it shouldn’t matter how long it takes to cross the finish line. A game like the aforementioned Child of Light isn’t particularly long. It is, however, a complete game that was clearly intended to be exactly as long as it was. The same is true with Ground Zeroes. It was always intended to be a single, highly repayable mission in a large and nuanced environment. As compared to other Metal Gear Solid games, it comes up woefully short. It is, however, exactly what was intended, and the polish and flow of the game works under this auspice.

What doesn’t work from this point of view are games that don’t bring anything else to the table. A short game that is exactly like something you’ve seen a thousand times over is unlikely to send off any signals to the creative side of your brain. This is true of long, uninspired games as well, but since we’re focusing on short games, we won’t talk about huge, meandering messes of generic like Kingdoms of Amalur. Mobile and browser games get hit by this harder than any other. For every success like Farmville, or Candy Crush, there are thousands of clones, often with far less content than their big brother. As such, you have an uninteresting imitation that is both short and brings nothing to the table. Even if those games are economically good time-to-dollar investment-wise, they aren’t going to interest due to a fundamental lack of content and uniqueness.

Force_UNleashed_2A game that is clearly incomplete does not get a pass ever. If there’s one thing that all gamers can agree on is that length does matter if the game is short because it was rushed, things got cut, and the game is a shambling mess of itself. A game that is both short and unpolished, tiny yet with not vision – these are games that are rightfully attacked from both perspectives I’ve listed. Economically, the game isn’t worth the cost of admission. Experiencially, the game was robbed of its fullness. It is these games, therefore, that I see as the ones that gamers should be complaining about in terms of length.

These are the unequivocal losers of the fight. Everything else can be appreciated if you take a step back and look at it from a different way. Metal Gear Ground Zeroes can be considered too short to be worth $30 from one person, while another could see it as an experience worth having. This is true of most games, and whether or not a game is too short is often based on how it has failed to grab you in the time it had. Sure, we all wish the great games would last forever, but a strong, short game can have more of an impact than the longest, and sometimes, that’s what really matters.

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer


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