The length of a video game has become a metric that is used to judge an experience very often. As the industry and the medium have grown, as technology and the art that goes hand-in-hand with it has progressed, and as much wider audiences have become engaged in the act of playing video games, they’ve continue to become bigger and longer- which is great, of course. Who would say no to more of a good thing, right? But the market’s obsession with game length has come at something of a cost- where the length of a game has almost become the most important thing players consider, to the exclusion of almost everything else.
The days of shorter, mid-budget games that delivered a dozen hours of great gameplay are little more than a memory at this point. Now, everything must be dense, massive, preferably open world. And if a game isn’t at least 20-30 hours long, it’s in trouble. Which seems ridiculous- it would seem that the thing that a game should be judged on first and foremost is its quality. That seems sort of obvious, right? That its quality should be its defining factor, and its length an ancillary consideration, even though right now, the opposite of that seems true.
But then again, it’s not like it’s hard to understand why the market has shifted that way. Games are a costly hobby, whether you’re buying hardware or buying the games themselves or purchasing subscriptions that let you play online or purchasing season passes or expansions or what have you- and it’s getting costlier by the day, disappointingly enough. So of course consumers are going to be more discerning about what they spend money on- and if one game is providing 60 hours of content, and another caps out at a dozen hours or so, of course people are going to lean in the former’s favour. It’s more value for money. Add to that the fact that there is just so much competing for everyone’s attention these days, that something that promises dozens of hours of engagement just seems inherently more compelling than something that’s significantly briefer.
Clearly, a game’s length is a crucial consideration. As much as I’d like to be idealistic and say that the only thing that should matter is how good it is, the reality is entirely different. Sadly, it doesn’t matter if a game is an absolute masterpiece- if it’s, say, just five hours long, even I’m going to wait for a deep discount before purchasing it. So the question, with all of that in mind, is this- which of the two factors is the more important one? Should purchases of games be decided more on the basis of how good they are, or how much content they have on offer? And that’s something that we really do need to think about, because those two things don’t always necessarily go hand-in-hand.
For instance, just because a game is relatively shorter doesn’t mean it’s going to be any less good than some of the best experiences out there. A Plague Tale: Innocence is a linear, 10-hour game, but I would absolutely recommend that everyone goes out and plays it. It’s an excellent game that deserves your attention. We recently got Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart, which is about 10-15 hours long, but it’s also perhaps the best game of 2021 so far. Does its $70 price tag make it a hard sell? Absolutely it does. But the game’s quality makes an incredible case for itself as well. Meanwhile, it’s also worth considering that the genre a game belongs to can also determine what runtime counts as “satisfactory” for that game. A horror game, for instance, that lasts 10 hours, is the perfect length (though as Resident Evil 3 teaches us, even a horror game can be too short). At the same time, if you’re playing an RPG and roll the credits on it in the same time? Yeah, that’s not ideal.
Conversely, it’s also true that padded out runtimes can hurt even the best of games. The likes of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey are perfect examples of that. Both are behemoths that can last you a hundred hours, and both are great games in their own right, but both also do overstay their welcome. They’re bloated and more than a little long in the tooth, and their obsession with being bigger and wider often comes at the cost of quality and handcrafted attention to detail. Even unabashed masterpiece like Hollow Knight and God of War suffer from pacing issues here and there owing to how long they are. And on top of all that, there’s the fact that as games have gotten longer, their completion rates have dropped way down, to the extent that the vast majority of people never finish the games they start. For single player story-driven games, that’s far from ideal.
So again, in an ideal world, a game’s quality would be the metric it would be judged on primarily, and anything on top of that would be a nice bonus to have. But since we’re not in an ideal world, what’s the solution? Are medium-length games just a thing of the past that the industry has outgrown? Is this just the new standard that we’ve come to accept? Well, not necessarily. Obviously, the thing that leads to a game being judged for its length is its price- that’s become clearer than ever in the wake of so many games now costing $70, with people wondering whether they’re worth their price of entry. That would, in turn, mean that if there were better, friendlier pricing models out there, audiences would have the freedom to judge games on their actual merits rather than being forced to consider if a purchase is going to give them enough bang for their buck. The fact that games like Ori and the Will of the Wisps or Inside or Journey don’t get criticized for being “short” tells you that if a game is cheaper, a shorter runtime is going to be easier to swallow, and as such, the actual quality of the experience easier to assess.
Thankfully, such a pricing model does exist even for AAA games. We know it as Xbox Game Pass. Because if you’re paying like $10 a month to have access to its entire library, you’re going to be much more willing to give a chance to games that you would never have bought for full-price. It’s been made clear in the last couple of years that shorter games, experimental games, indie games, and essentially all the games that would ordinarily be deemed as “risky” purchases are flourishing when they’re put on Game Pass.
But Game Pass isn’t an industry-wide standard, of course. Nintendo and PlayStation are sticking with their traditional models for the foreseeable future, it would seem, and multiplatform games or games available exclusively on those two platforms are going to have to keep giving consideration to how much content they have. What we need, then, is for developers to strike a balance between length and quality. And speaking of Nintendo and PlayStation, that is something that their first parties seem to be doing on a regular basis. The Last of Us Part 2 or Luigi’s Mansion 3 or Marvel’s Spider-Man aren’t extremely long games, but you don’t often see them being criticized for being too short, because they do strike that balance.
Hopefully, we can get to a point where rather than sticking to rigid pricing models, publishers can start being flexible with how much they sell their games for. As much as I love Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart, it’s easy to understand why people balk at its price. As much as I love the remake of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, I do think it’s ridiculous that it’s being sold for $60. Flexible pricing models that take factors such as a game’s length or even its development budget into account would not only be more consumer-friendly, they would also cut out all the noise surrounding discussions of price and, free of all those distractions, let the games be judged on their merits or demerits. Who knows if that will ever happen- people still keep going out in droves and spending money on the Rift Aparts and Link’s Awakenings of the world, so publishers aren’t really being given any reason to change their policies.
But who knows, maybe the success of Game Pass will make them rethink things.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.