How long is the game?

Does game length matter? Is a hours per dollar metric telling anything about a game’s value? This is my personal take on game length. You’ve got to judge for yourself.

40 hours*
When I play Lumines it takes me about 20 minutes to submerge in the game and completely loose myself. After 50 minutes I can’t take it anymore. I can’t play Lumines at home. I only play it on the airplane. In fact, I only play it on long haul flights. Lumines is perfect. A round takes just as long as I can bear it. It is an in-flight entertainment system tailored to my needs. Game value: 40h/9$ (bought used copy) = 4.44**

80 hours
When I played Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots I was blown away by its attention to detail. It is a massive game with hours of cut scenes and dozens of missions. The hours flew by. I’ve personally enjoyed it more than any other story-driven game to date and invested much more time than I’d anticipated. MGS4 is cinema tailored to my needs. Game value: 80h/0$ (borrowed from friend) = ∞

1 hour
Canabalt stays in my memory as a game I only properly played in LA and on my flight back from IndieCade. In fact the experience was so tied to LA, I could never have played the game on the cold winter days that awaited me back home. It was a game I enjoyed for minutes and still it’s a game that I’ll never forget. Canabalt is a game tailored to my needs in LA. Game value: 1h/2.5$ = 0.4

10 hours
When I played Flow I handed over the controller to my girlfriend after an hour or so. Not that I wanted to quit – I was supposed to go for a beer with a colleague. When I returned 4 hours later my girlfriend was still sitting there playing Flow. I think she was in her third playthrough. About once each year she fires up Flow and enjoys it again. Flow is relaxation tailored to her needs. Game value: 10h/20$ (guessed, ’cause I don’t remember) = 0.5

0.083 hours
The first game by Jason Rohrer that I played was Passage, an experience that takes just minutes until it’s over. Every second is intense. A minute more and the game would have been less worthwhile. Passage is perfectly tailored to the needs of its story. Game value: 0.083h/0$ = ∞

50 hours
When playing Drop7 I usually only have time for one or two quick rounds. I prefer the so-called hardcore mode. Between those rounds my friends could theoretically beat me and I’d know the next time I’d open the game. Of course that never happens. But if it did I’d argue that the game does not stop while I don’t play it. It just stays in the background for the time between sessions. Drop7 is perfectly tailored for my subway rides. Game value: 50h/2$ = 25

120 hours
I admit it. I never played Fallout or Fallout 2. I tried to play the latter in an emulator but it just did not work out. Yet I adored Fallout 3 and played it through twice. I would guess that I invested about 60 hours into every playthrough. And it felt like a good investment because Fallout 3 (just like Oblivion) had the quality of a bad TV series and a better setting than most good TV shows. It replaced television for a few weeks. That was excellent. Fallout 3 is TV tailored to my needs. Game value: 120h/60$ = 2

Why would I talk this much about myself when writing about game length? Because if a game has the right length depends on two things: If the duration fits the story/gameplay and if it fits to you, the player. A well written game review can tell you whether a game is 2 hours long or 200 hours. But it will rarely tell you if the game length fits to your personal preferences – if the game has the right duration for you. And it’ll never tell you if the game fits perfectly to one of your habits. A lot of game journalists think that size matters and a game’s value can be measured in hours per dollar***. Yet there are enough examples of games where less proved to be best.

In other words:

by Martin Pichlmair

* Estimated total play time.
** I could never tell which of the above games has most value to me.
*** Which is just one aspect of the urge to rationalize gut judgements that is prevalent in games journalism.

PS: This article is part of a series about how long a game should be. Be sure to check out the other blog posts:

Ron Carmel of 2DBoy

Chris Hecker

Jonathan Blow

Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye Games

Cliff Harris of Positech Games

Matt Gilgenbach of 24 Caret Games

Noel Llopis

Martin Pichlmair of Broken Rules

Scott Macmillan of Macguffin Games

Peter Jones of Retro Affect

Lau Korsgaard

Eitan Glinert of Fire Hose Games

Chris DeLeon

Greg Wohlwend of Intuition Games

Jeffrey Rosen of Wolfire

Alex of TunaHQ

Posted on August 17, 2010
Filed under game design
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