Saturday, February 27, 2010

Does length equal value?

I hear and read the comments all the time: "great campaign, but too short;" "hundreds of hours to complete;" "padded with repetitive tasks;" "not long tnough to warrant a $60 purchase..." It seems people equate hours of gameplay with a dollar amount as if there were a mathematical formula to determine a game's monetary value. But when the dollar to hour ratio is different for everyone, how do you determine the ideal game length?

About 10 years ago, when gamers spent fifty to sixty dollars on a game, they were generally looking at between 5-10 hours of single player gameplay. A triple-A title like The Legend of Zelda or Metal Gear Solid might offer an additional 5-10 hours. The notable exceptions to the rule, RPGs, might cap out at around 40-50 hours. Back then there were also fewer studios releasing fewer games on fewer major systems, so there was potentially more time for gaming. You rarely heard the complaint that games were not long enough for their price.

Flash forward to today...

Games still cost $50-60, but now there are a lot more of them, and a lot more options in the types of games. Most games today average out at around ten hours, give or take a few, and a triple-A titles could easily consume twenty hours of your spare time, or more. An RPG might be finished in 60 hours if you're lucky. Some games, in particular games by developers BioWare and Bethesda, boast over one hundred hours of open world gameplay.

By my estimate, total potential gameplay hours have quintupled in the past decade, while the price of new games has remained mostly the same. Why then do I constantly hear the complaint that certain games are not long enough to warrant a full price purchase? Furthermore, how does a longer game equate to a better game? Certainly quantity does not necessarily equal quality. What constitutes a good value in gaming?

What it comes down to for me is overall enjoyment and replayability. What good is a fifty hour game if most of it is the same old thing for thirty of them? If there's nothing left to do after I'm finished other than replay from the start, the campaign had better be short and memorable. One hundred hours of gameplay? If it doesn't have a non-linear or branching story, I'm not interested, because I'll probably forget what's happened before I'm halfway through it anyway.

What a game is worth should not be broken down into a numerical equation based solely on gameplay hours. It should be based on personal preference and quality of production. I mean, which would you rather spend your hard-earned money on: five hours of gold, or fifty hours of "meh?"

If you do insist on looking at it mathematically, try this formula:

To buy a brand new movie on DVD costs close to $20. The average movie runtime is about two hours. That's $10 for each hour of passive entertainment. Apply that ratio to video games, and that new game you just paid $60 for is a pretty fair deal at "only" six hours, especially when you consider that's an interactive medium which can be experienced at any pace, a nearly infinite number of ways.

(I will admit, my biggest complaint with Ghostbusters was that it was too short. That had nothing to do with its monetary value, but rather that I simply did not want the game to end. The positive side is its brevity makes it easy to play through repeatedly, for example, whenever I get around to watching the movies again.)

Let's try to get away from judging a game's value by its length, and instead by our overall enjoyment of it, and how enthusiastic we'd be to play it through again. After all, New Super Mario Bros. Wii may only take about 5-6 hours to beat, but that hasn't stopped me from getting more than $50 worth of fun out of it.


  1. You say that older games were shorter... well, my favorites from the 90s (if that's what you were referring to) was Age of Empires, Descent II, and a couple racing games. To unlock every track and car in the racing games, you of course had to spend twenty hours of races. Current racing games can be even longer. So no worries there. Age takes maybe ten hours... per campaign, and there are four campaigns plus a fifth in the expansion (in addition to more civilizations). Descent was maybe an average of fifteen minutes for earlier levels and half an hour for later ones. 26 levels, I believe.

    There are a lot of good older games that are long, and frankly they're my favorites. Not because of length; actually, I prefer multiplayer on Age over single player. But there were a lot of good older games. Nowadays, my favorite games take ten hours for shooters like Halo, less for ODST, and even an RPG like Mass Effect is 25 hours on a full play-through (longer on higher difficulties because of dying lots... but that doesn't count).

    I think the bigger thing is how a game feels. If it has a good three-act structure, it'll feel right. Batman: Arkham Asylum took a friend 10 and a half hours to play through, and it felt right because of how well the plot was structured. On the flip side, Too Human was Too Short at ten hours because the third act was horribly abbreviated and didn't give me a good sense of closure. It's all about how a game feels, not the hours themselves.

  2. I agree with boter on this one. I play the pokemon games at a much slower rate than most people recommend because i enjoy the stories, battling, experimenting with different scenarios in the game (like, What happens if Slowpoke use Whirlpool on Ponyta, or Pidgeot used Twister on Dragonite). Because of this, io don't get to the elite four untill at least 1230 Hours of play, and that's for a $30-$40 game.

  3. note: that's supposte to be 120 Hours, not 1,230 Hours.