Why so Focused on Game Length?

As Gamers, we have a complicated relationship with game length.

A close friend has been asking me repeatedly to play Xenoblade Chronicles. Considering that I’m a jRPG fan, my answer should be an obvious, unhesitant “yes”. Yet I’ve been putting it off consistently.

I have my reasons: Schoolwork. Other hobbies. Other games I’m trying to finish. Yet if there’s one specter I’m trying to shrug off, it’s definitely the 200-hour gameplay behemoth that Xenoblade is.


Tons of games, largely RPGs of various origins, have boasted of their ridiculously long game lengths. Curt Schilling of the defunct 38 Studios couldn’t stop crowing about how Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning could be a 200-hour experience. When I hear friends tell me to play Oblivion or Skyrim, they talk about game-length: 100-200 hours, to be precise. And the amount of time that one can sink into the online modes of FPS games like Call of Duty is immeasurable. Heck, jRPGs are considered “short” at 30-40 hours, as is the case with The Last Story and Eternal Sonata. On forums and comments, I’ve read people, for whatever reason, feel the need to say that The Last Story is a great jRPG despite taking only 25-30 hours to beat the game.

Screen Shot 2013-01-19 at 11.40.07 AM

A comment from “How Operation Rainfall Succeeded“, which I also posted on my blog at Screwattack.com

But here’s my question: Why on earth does this matter?

Yes, we want to feel like we got a lot of utility out of the $50-$60 that we spent on a game. All consumers have a right to think that a game’s price isn’t worth it given a short game length – and they’re free not to buy the game. When MadWorld came out on the Wii in 2009, I distinctly remember Zero Punctuation lambasting it as a 3-hour game that was bloated into a 5-hour game.

Yet we’re hypocrites in this way. We don’t talk about this as an economic decision, and we don’t talk about this as a game design decision either. Face it: Gamers just use game length as an arbitrary factor to deride/praise any game that they hate/love.


Let’s return to the MadWorld-Zero Punctuation example. You know what Yahtzee said about Portal? That it was amazing, and that 2-3 hours was the “perfect length” for it. In short, he used a double-standard based on whether he loved or hated the game.



Ways to Judge Game Length

There are two primary methods in which we as gamers and consumers can look at a game length – economically and experientially. The economics aspect refers to how much enjoyment a game brings us, and how long it lasts.  The experiential aspect is about whether we feel that the game was properly paced: was it too short and left us wanting, was it too long with needless filler, or did it give us the optimal experience.

So let’s dissect the two. In purely economic terms, any game that’s 12+ hours would be utility (enjoyment)-maximizing behavior on a consumer’s part.


Let’s compare games to a similar form of entertainment: movies. Movie tickets cost $8-$10 per person and are roughly 2 hours long. In other words, a game has the same cost as 6 movie tickets, so it should be 6 times as long, i.e. 12 hours, in order to give you the same “bang for the buck”.

(I’m assuming that you have a console, or a PC, in order to play games. Similarly, I’m assuming that one has access to a movie theater)


And you know something? Between the single-player experience, replayability, and multi-player, pretty much all games are economically sensible. When the Great Recession hit in late 2008, media outlets were promoting video games as an economical form of entertainment.


To put-down a game because it’s “only” 20 hours, or ‘is short for a jRPG’, is ridiculous. Yes, we can make the decision that a 200-hour game has more entertainment value than a 40-hour game, but that’s assuming you’re going to spend the equivalent of 8 full days on one game. And that’s ignoring the undeniable fact of diminishing marginal utilitythe more you play something, the less enjoyment you’re going to derive as time wears on.

Few will ever experience the full 200 hours. It’s just a selling point people state in order to support their love for a game. A friend of mine loved Oblivion and cited the 200-hour statistic in an attempt to convince me to get it. I checked his play time; 90 hours, and he’d long moved on to playing Vanquish by Platinum Games.



Experiential Reasons

There are also reasons about game design that people cite when describing games as too long, too short, or just right. Maybe there weren’t enough extra sandbox things to do. Maybe there was too much filler.

Of course, such claims are purely subjective. What might be too short to one might be too long to others.

And if we recall Japhen’s comment (image near beginning of post), he didn’t say that The Last Story was short for economic reasons. He said “even though it’s only about 20 hours long, the characters keep you interested…there’s little to no grinding.”

What’s so wrong with just embracing a game on its own merits? Why do we have this pre-conceived notion that jRPGs should be 80-hours long, and great Western RPGs should be 100-200 hours long?


There’s no clear rebuttal to a subjective opinion, because it’s exactly that. It’s almost like religion; you can’t argue with faith. You either have it and believe, or you don’t.

I’m going to postulate something: All Games are Unique

And this: One Size Doesn’t Fit All

And this: Game Length is a design decision

And, we end up with this rule: Because decisions about game design will be different for each game, no game length is perfect for all games. Thus, the length of each game should be variable.


People are free to love Oblivion, or Skyrim, or Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (though I’ll never stop making fun of Curt Schilling), or any 80-hour jRPG they like.  Similarly, when we love games like Portal, discussion about game length almost never even comes up.

But can we appreciate games for the enjoyment they bring, and not because they’re so long that we’ll never bother to 100% them?



One response to “Why so Focused on Game Length?

  1. That’s exactly right. The best stories are simply done when they’re done, not when they’ve reached some arbitrary milestone. Stretching it out too long to fill in the hours leads to a lot of ridiculous plot and ill-conceived or boring gameplay. Compressing games tends to make things feel unconnected and not quite fully thought out. Just like wizards, good endings arrive precisely when they mean to.

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