Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Size Doesn’t matter

I’m not the only indie developer writing on this topic today, check out the links at the bottom of this post.

There is a bit of a trend, as I see it, an unwelcome one, for the subject of game ‘length’ to be the dominant topic in the reviews of new games. I don’t think this a good direction for the industry to move in.
As an ‘older’ gamer, I recall a time when the whole idea of game length was silly. How long is pacman? how long is space invaders? As long as you have time for, clearly. Now you may argue (and some do) that the only reason that early games worked this way was the artificial constraints caused by a lack of processing power and file storage. These days we can have games with hand-crafted, bump mapped worlds made in incredible detail, and this is clearly better and more immersive and thus games should be measured in this way.
Now I’m not vaguely going to suggest that more-detailed, more immersive worlds are not a good thing. They clearly are. What I’m against is the weighing up of a games value (both artistically and in monetary terms) by sheer length and content.

Firstly, it would be insane to judge movies or books the same way. Andrew Marrs ‘The History of Modern Britain’ weighs in at 602 pages for £8.99, whereas Malcom Gladwells ‘tipping point’ is an all-too short disappointing gameplay experience at just 259 pages for £7.99, representing far worse gameplay for your gaming cash.

Sounds totally bonkers doesn’t it?

Is Halo a better game than World of Goo? Personally, I probably enjoyed WoG better, but I haven’t finished either game, so I have no idea which is longest. Clearly, game length didn’t vaguely factor in for me. And That doesn’t put me in some minority either. A huge chunk of gamers never finish games. I’ve been gaming since pong and only ever ‘finished’ 3 games in my entire life. I got bored with Half Life (yes really) and Half Life 2, and Bioshock, and almost any game you care to mention. When I read about how some l33t haxxor ‘finished’ a game in 8 hours, I find it laughable. Imagine bragging about ‘finishing’ war and peace in 2 days. The idea is to enjoy the experience, not race to the end as fast as you can.

Even worse than paying for games where the effort is spread out over 100 hours, when i know I’ll get bored at 20, is games where, in a desperate bid to make the game sound ‘longer’, the designers introduce tedious sections where you plod back and forth between the same points to get their moneys-worth from the scenery. It’s obvious, it’s tedious, and it’s embarrassing. Please stop.

I don’t judge food purely by quantity. Anyone can produce a ton of bland rice for a trivial cost. We tend not to judge things purely by quantity, and when we do, we can at least admit we are being shallow. So lets stop doing it with games. Tell me if a game is good, tell me if a game is dull, but some meaningless statistic about how many levels, or how big the installer is, or how long it took you to ‘finish’ it is meaningless to me. Size doesn’t matter.

Other blog posts:

41 thoughts on Size Doesn’t matter

  1. Well I’m afraid I have to sort of disagree with you here. Games like pacman, space invaders, asteroids and other games of that era relied heavily on replayability. Same could go for games like peggle or bejewled. They were time wasters. Games like Mario were artificially long because you died a lot and restarted the game a lot before you reach the end.
    The only time where a proper games length doesn’t count is when it’s meant to be played over and over. Meanwhile the AAA game industry relies heavily on story-based games that are meant to play once from start to finish (like Half Life or Bioshock) which, since aren’t made to be replayable many times, will either provide you a lot less entertainment time than Pacman or Tetris (or any multiplayer game) or will have to be longer, hence the importance of longer games.
    All in all I’d like to finish with saying that the games length isn’t as important as the quality but it certainly does tell you how long you will be entertained by it.

  2. Hear hear! Length is stupidly unrelated to the quality of a game, and evaluating a game’s value based on it’s length is too reductionist!

    However sometimes I do like genuinely long RPGs, if only because they have the ability to suck me in. But, I don’t play them very often…

  3. im going to disagree here as well. if i dont think i can get at least 50 quality hours out of a game, i wont buy it. not for more than $5 or so, anyway. period.

    that doesnt mean the game itself has to be 50 hours long… only that i can get at least 50 hours OUT of it. GSB would be a fine example, its got the whole “endlessly replayable” aspect to it. “borderlands” is another… ive logged (according to steam) 277 hours with it. countless hundreds with “crimsonland” and “nation red”… 80 hours in battlefield BC2… just cause 2, god, i dont even want to KNOW the hours ive poured into that game.

    then there are games like batman:AA… great game. truly. fantastic game. WAY too goddamn short. i got it free as a pack-in with my video card… id have never paid more than $5 for that game. not in a hundred years. id have waited until i could find it in a bargain bin at walmart, or until a steam sale came along. and id have LOVED the game when i finally played it. all 9 hours of it. but i ASSURE you if i had paid $50+ for the game, and was done with it in 9 hours, i would NOT have loved it like i did playing it for free. id have been *extremely* disappointed at wasting my money, when i could have gotten so much more gaming of equal quality for my $50 if i had made a smarter purchase.

    see, i dont have unlimited money. $50 is a good chunk of change for me. i want to get a LOT of gaming out of my $50, because that expenditure has to last me for a good while. and yes, id rather have 100 hours of mediocre quality gaming than 10 hours of stellar gaming (and 90 hours twiddling my thumbs because ive got nothing to play until i can afford another game) for my money.

    sorry if you think thats lunacy, but thats the way it is.

  4. That does mean you value your time at $0.10 an hour. So a trip to the movies shouldn’t cost you more than $0.20…

  5. I think with games their length is important because you’re paying for entertainment. You want to know how much entertainment you’ll get. Hummer’s are fun for many however now that fuel prices have gone up customers probably wish they’d bought a more fuel efficient vehicle. You don’t buy a car reminiscent of a luxury cruise-liner if it only gets 5 miles to a gallon so why would you get a game if it only gets 2 hours to the 5 dollar bill? at some point you could go broke.

    My personal magic number is more around 30-40 cents an hour. I guess I could pay more (I think my max is like $1/hour) if I REALLY like the game. I’m a student and a little cheap besides so to get the full $1 I want a lot. :P (I love the Wii for instance because the quality is good and it adds unique gameplay).

    Just my 2 cents/1.5 minutes

  6. movies and games are apples and oranges. or more like, apples and loquats. theyre both fruits. thats about as much as you can say for the two of them. to try to say, “well theyre FRUIT! and if you buy FRUIT, well, youd better make sure you stick to the same price per ounce for them if you want to maintain any form of logical internal self consistancy!” which is patently absurd.

    what you would have me believe is that the length of a game doesnt matter. dont say that isnt the case, your blog title says it right there. and im here to tell you it DOES matter.

    would you really have me believe that a game that offers 300 hours of quality (if not STELLAR) gameplay for $50 isnt a better value (or, not to put to fine a point on it, a better way to spend my money) than a game that only offers 9 hours of gameplay of ANY, even AMAZING, quality? seriously? youd make the argument that the $50 a quarter i have to dole out for games should go to the 9 hour game? if so, i think thats an utterly ludicrous assertion, one that ignores one of the fundamental considerations of gaming as a hobby, the financial one.

    but even when you eliminate the financial consideration i dont think your assertion that “size doesnt matter” holds up. if someone were to *give* me *both* games for free (the stellar short game, and the merely good long game) then i dont doubt for a moment that i would play the stellar game first. yet even when the cost to play is *zero* if someone were to say they were going to give me only ONE of the games (say, as a birthday gift or something) i would STILL chose the long-but-merely-good game over the short-and-stellar game, every single time… because after all, we arent talking about 300 hours of a game so bad its like being mule-kicked in the nads every minute of those 300 hours. we’re talking good, solid if only workmanlike, gameplay… for a good long time. thats a whole lot of fun, even if it isnt OMFG AWESOME fun.

    gamers read reviews to try to make an informed purchasing decision about how best to spend their gaming dollars… and any review that didnt take length and replayability into consideration would be a review that ignored a component that figures highly in the minds of the typical gamer. which, by my estimation, would make for a pretty sorry review.

    bottom line, like it or not, is size DOES matter. theres no two ways about it. perhaps it genuinely doesnt matter to you… if thats the case, then i assure you, you are in the minority of gamers (and not representative of the target market for games and reviewers by extension)…

  7. Length is a factor, but whether longer is better or not depends on context. If you’re a student with limited money and an infinite amount of free time, then you’ll want something long, and you won’t mind the backtracking that much. However, in my situation, I tend to think shorter is better. With more disposable income and much less free time than in my youth, I’d much rather deal with several shorter, more intense games than huge marathons. I often disqualify games from my buying list because of time consideration. I mean, when I start a game like Persona 3 it locks me out of other games for months and months. So I prefer short and sweet.

  8. The thing is, ALL game develoeprs will tell you that the VAST VAST majority of people who buy a game do not finish it. Many don’t get a quarter of the way through.
    We have the data :D
    So do we put 50% of the games effrot into pleasing 10% of the customers? I suspect that’s a bad move.

    If you finish every game you play, or even the majority of them, you are in very limited company.

  9. I thought this was right on the money.

    There is nothing wrong with disagreeing, but it’s so hard to take you guys seriously when you say Batman: Arkham Asylum is only worth $5, or that the “magic number” is 30-40 cents an hour.

  10. many many games dont even make sense in the context of “finished” as you point out in your blog. this is as true today as it was then. how do you “finish” bejewelled or plants vs zombies? or, if you sneer at “casual” games, how do you “finish” just cause 2 or diablo or oblivion or a battlefield game? yes, in each case, there is a storyline of sorts, a bit of structure in the game with a clearly-defined start and end… but in many cases (and in almost all of the games id consider truly exceptional) that bit of bounded structure is only a minor component of the game, often only incidental to the gameplay itself. and in the cases where the gameplay is strongly tied to the bounded structure, replayability is a valid consideration. all the games ive considered to be good values (at full price) worth my gaming dollar have been games where either “finishing” makes no sense, or are games where “finished” doesnt equal “over”…

    in fact, even as you protest against the very idea of “length” being a valid consideration, i think you understand this concept very well (possibly only at an intuitive or unconscious level)… look at your own catalog of games. they ALL exhibit this quality of “bounded yet unbound” gameplay experience. when do you “finish” kudos? or democracy? or GSB? when are those games “done” for the gamer? arguably, never. this is what makes them such good values, and i think why they do well (for indie games)… whether you intended to do so or not, you have created games that would be judged very well by their “length” in any reasonable review.

    finally, i would make the point that as a developer that lives or dies by their sales numbers, it is irrelevant how many buyers ACTUALLY finish the games they purchase… what matters is how many buyers make a factor like perceived “length” a significant part of their PURCHASING BEHAVIOR. you arent aiming to please the 10% of people who actually finish… youre looking to entice the proportion of BUYERS considering giving you their money, *regardless* of their PLAYING behavior post-purchase.

    perhaps someday when you are independently wealthy, you can afford to ignore “shallow” considerations like “length” on the part of your customer-base, and produce 4-hour artistic masterpieces without regard for their ability to put food on your table or solar panels on your roof… i submit that today would not be that day.

  11. Oh absolutely, I agree that from a biz POV, you need to take account of what people think they want, in terms of game length, as opposed to the amount of content they actually will consume.
    We are just venting as game devs, that this effectively means compromising the game design to add content that will mostly go un-played by the majority.

    TBH, this whole debate doesn’t affect me much, because as you say, I make more freeform sandbox games anyway. I really sympathise with people making RPG games though, where they massively held to an arbitrary minimum game ‘length’.

  12. you know, ive given this more thought, and i think the problem is that “length” is important to me when considering a game, not as an end in itself, but because it is usually an indicator of the KIND of game being considered…

    there are two kinds of games: narrative, and non-narrative. bejewelled, pac man, et al fall into the non-narrative category, so ill ignore these because i think “length” only makes sense in the context of narrative games. i do assert that games like GSB, democracy, et al DO fall into the narrative category even though they dont have defined storylines… and its the WHY of that assertion that makes the difference when we start talking about “length” as a consideration when evaluating a game.

    i think the class of narrative games fall (mostly) neatly into two sub-classes: game-driven narrative, and player-driven narrative… and that “short” and “long” game-length also map respectively to these two categories on an almost one-to-one basis. the difference between a game like batman:AA and JC2 are that on the one hand youve got a game that IS the narrative, the player is driven by the game through the narrative, and on the other hand you have a game where the player drives the game through the narrative. in B:AA, the narrative is provided by the game. in JC2, it is provided by the player. same for GSB: even though i dont really do it consciously, i do feel theres a “story” there when i play… a kind of mental and emotional narrative where *my* powerful space flotilla throws itself valiantly against its enemy, and hopefully triumphs. or in democracy, where *my* nation prospers or fails under *my* leadership and guidance. the games dont provide a narrative, they provide the framework for ME to form a narrative.

    RPS says it better than i do when speaking of battlefield BC2:

    “There’s an emergent narrative that slowly builds in each match that is almost the sole reason for continued play. Sure, there’s a ranking system and unlocks, but this is where the real meat of the game lies. It’s the time you and your squad huddled behind the burning wreckage of a tank, gunning down enemies as they run in to take you out. It’s the time you managed to get past the enemy defences unnoticed, and stabbed and shot your way through a group of snipers nesting in the upper levels of a half-built house. Or it’s the time you found an enemy sniper in a building across the street, and then when you went over to deal with him, found him gone, and in the building you just vacated. You head over, a frantic pistol duel ensues, and while he reloads you stab him in the throat. Man, that was satisfying.”

    there are games where the player tells their own story, and there are games that tell a story to the player. player-narrative games are virtually ALWAYS “long” games, and game-narrative games are virtually ALWAYS “short” games. and upon consideration, i dont think im really judging value based on “length” of the experience, but upon the “character” of the experience…

    i think i just dont LIKE game-driven narratives in the same way i do player-driven narratives, and i tend to associate “length” with player-driven narrative games at an unconscious level. thats why its an important consideration for me.

  13. Cliffski,

    You’ve only finished three games in your life? I think you should hand in your gamer card!

  14. Sorry cliffski, I disagree. Even if you can create the perfect game, if it has a two-hour length and you try to make me pay full-price for it, I’d be really pissed off. Almost everyone loves Portal, it’s very short but noone complains because it was basically free (bundled with Ep2 and TF2). If Portal was a 50$ game, many people would be really really angry.

  15. I have a comment on a specific statement you made: “The idea is to enjoy the experience, not race to the end as fast as you can.”

    For some people, the race to the end IS the experience. They enjoy the challenge of trying to beat the game as fast as they possibly can. In fact, that can offer replay incentive to games that would otherwise only be interesting to play once. It’s also a way to rebel. Instead of playing the game the way the developer intended, like everybody else, they play the games the way THEY want to play it.

    Not that any of that has anything to do with how long games should be. Games should be as long as they need to be. Some games should be long, because that’s the type of game they are. Some shouldn’t. You mentioned Halo and World of Goo. I’ve beaten both. I enjoyed both, and for different reasons. However, the solo portion of Halo is only one aspect of the game. For many people, it’s a minor aspect.

  16. Erm, sorry for the double-post, I accidentally pressed the submit button before I had finished. (My browser is a little goofed up right now.)

    Same goes for the Super Smash Bothers games. In particular, I spent many many hours playing Super Smash Brothers: Melee. If you consider the story part of the game, it was shorter and less enjoyable than World of Goo. But I spent much more time playing multiplayer against my brother, sister, and friends than I will ever spend playing World of Goo. (In fact, SSB:M was my main motivation for getting the Game Cube.)

    Length is only one metric for measuring a game, just as handling is only one metric for measuring a car. Others have to be considered as well, and sometimes not all metrics are relevant.

  17. The subject is too complex and involves a huge amount of variables. This sounds like a corporate effort to create an equation that will define whether any game is good or not. It will just not work. People and their tastes are way more complex than this. Now…for that sector of humanity that can/are willing to be defined by simple equations you have that thing called consoles.

  18. Length is obviously important, but what game devs shouldn’t do is add in “artificial length”, let a game find a natural length (if it has one), one of the best games I’ve played recently was Heavy Rain, a very enjoyable and engrossing 8 hours. Now at the end I was thinking it had been a longer play, but not if doing so simply diluted the gameplay.

    It’s the same with films, I don’t mind if a film is 90 minutes or 3 hours, as long as it’s length is artistically justified.

  19. I’m going to disagree with you there as well. Not unconditionally, of course, games like Deus Ex 2 or Daikatana can be as long as they like, it’s not going to matter because it’s not a good game, I’m not going to desire MORE of the same.

    If it’s a good game, then time will (to me) seem to pass quicker, and I’ll desire more of the same. I can still sit down and fire up COD2 and play through it in 30-odd hours (spread over a few days of course) and [i]still[/i] desire more, but COD:WaW or MW2 does [i]not[/i] make me want to go back for more.

    Having said that, I’m not sure I would’ve wanted Mass Effect to be a 100 hour slog, so there’s a sweet spot to how long games should be, and I’m getting a bit annoyed with how this “sweet spot” is apparently rapidly closing in on 5 hours pr game. That’s barely enough to whet my appetite, and is one of the 3 major reasons why I’ve more or less stopped buying games the last two years.

    I blame the console generation with its ADD.

  20. I use game length as a very important metric. I don’t enjoy competitive multiplayer. My main genre of choice is the JRPG. I am buying a game to be entertained, and I am spending a certain amount of dollars doing it. If I go to the movies to the full enjoyment, it’s going to cost me roughly $10 for 2 hours of entertainment, which is $5 an hour. I consider that to be a real expensive luxury.

    I don’t only go based on the length of a single play through, but the total amount of time spent playing the game, but because of the games I tend to enjoy, the single play through is all I’m likely to do.

    One of my most disappointing purchases was .hack. I spent a good $50-$60 buying the first one when it was still new, and I only got around 10 hours of gameplay out of it. At $5 an hour, I could have gone to the movies and got the same amount of entertainment. Another example is when I bought FF XII. I purchased the collectors edition with the strategy guide costing me $100, but I managed to get a whopping 200 hours on the first play through. At 50 cents an hour, it’s about as cheap as I’m going to get.

    My best purchase would have to be Civilization 4. There’s no counter as to how many hours I have gotten out of it, but I’m sure it would be in the thousands.

    Fallout 3 I was very disappointed with. For the price of the game, it was only offering about 20 hours of gameplay on the main campaign. You’d have to spend a lot of time exploring and doing side quests, but my first playthrough, so much of that felt completely pointless because of the level cap. When I played it again, I had to set myself the goal of collecting as many books as I could to max out my stats. I ended the campaign with the (new) level cap of 30, and ended up blowing through the expansions really quickly since I was maxed out. It had the length, but not organised in a fun way.

    For a game with high replay value (such as New Game+, branching storylines, or randomised gameplay), having a campaign length of 20 hours is perfectly acceptable. For these games, they will reach the 60-100 hour mark from multiple play throughs. For games that depend primarily on multiplayer action (such as most FPSs), 20 hours on a campaign is also perfectly acceptable, though I’m not likely to be one of their customers, but that’s fine since I’m not their target market. For a single player with no new replay value (which is a lot of the games that I happen to like), a length of 20 hours is not acceptable. I’m not happy unless I can get 40 hours minimum. If it takes 60 hours, I consider it a great game. The absolute best ones can reach 100 hours. Quite often, these games are so good that I replay them several times, accumulating hundreds of hours of gameplay.

    No matter how good the game is, if I’m finished in only 20 hours, I’m not going to spend more than $10-$15 on it. Positech games are not only cheaper than the $60 big budget games, they’re also designed for the high replay value. Who cares if a single battle of GSB only lasts 20 minutes, you’re going to spend hours on a single fight doing it over and over until you have it done at the highest difficulty.

    In summary, time-spent-playing relative to the cost of the game is the number 1 factor in buying a game. If it’s not fun at all, time-spent-playing is going to be really really low. If it’s a lot of fun with high replay value, it’s going to be high. It’s good for reviewers to mentions the length of the single player campaign because it is one of the largest factors in the time-spent-playing metric for a lot of people, like myself. When I read a review, I look for that information, but I also look for information on replay value, as well as how likely I am to want to play the game for the entire length. If a game has a 200 campaign but is so boring that I’ll quit after 5, I don’t want to buy it.

Comments are currently closed.