Cumin-Cured Creekstone Hanger Steak with Green Chile Redeye Gravy, Spicy California Avocado Sope and Queso Creama.

Of Course Game Length Matters

There’s been a lot of discussion on gaming sites lately about game length, and whether it matters.  The catalyst for this conversation was the recent release of the PS4 exclusive The Order: 1886.  If you haven’t been following the story, The Order is a Victorian England-set, most-gorgeous-game-ever-candidate third-person shooter that was hotly anticipated until days before its release, when a video appeared on YouTube purporting to show a complete playthrough of the game clocking in at around five hours, about half of which was devoted to cutscenes.  The developers responded that at normal difficulty and played at a normal pace, whatever that is, the game would take eight to ten hours.  Most reviews I’ve seen put the game at about six or seven hours.  Let’s charitably call it seven.

(One caveat: I have not played The Order: 1886, nor will I likely ever play it, as I do not have a PS4.  The game has gotten generally mediocre reviews, but I can’t attest to its quality or lack thereof, other than to say that the graphics are undeniably gorgeous.  So for this post I will be treating it as a roughly seven-hour game of indeterminate quality.)

The Order 1886 is an undeniably gorgeous game.
The Order 1886 is an undeniably gorgeous game.

That the game – which is single-player only and costs the standard $60 – might only take five hours to complete predictably drew ire from more or less everyone in the world.  And this ire, in turn, provoked a number of think pieces about game length and its importance.  It seems like every gaming website and blog has had an article or panel discussion asking, “Does game length matter?”

While there is no clear consensus, the popular opinion seems to be that length does not, in fact, matter.  What matters is quality, not quantity.  Gamespot ran a poll of its editors that featured a variety of opinions; some expressed reluctance to spend $60 on a five-hour game while others made the quality-over-quantity argument, saying things like, “I’d rather have two amazing hours in a game that leave me wanting more [than] 100 forgettable ones,” and, “If a game is bad, boring, or broken, then 30 hours worth [sic] of that game has less worth than a phenomenal game that clocks in at a third of the length.”  IGN ran an editorial titled “Longer Games Aren’t Necessarily Better,” whose argument is basically encapsulated in its title, and unanimously defended the game’s length (before its release) on one of their podcasts, portraying people who complain about The Order’s length essentially as unsophisticated whiners.

For their part, developer Ready at Dawn have vigorously defended The Order’s length with the quality-over-quantity argument.  Dana Jan, the game’s director, rhetorically asked, “why do we feel like we have to always measure things first and foremost in terms of quantity?”  He likened the game to a fine cut of meat, saying, “If you go and you eat a steak, if you pay $100 for a steak that tastes like the best steak you’ve ever had in your life but it’s only 200 grams versus paying the same price for the worst steak you could want–but it’s all-you-can-eat.  There’s an argument to be made that one is better than the other depending on who you are.”

The problem with this quality-over-quantity argument is that it’s a straw man, at least as argued in this case.  No one’s arguing for quantity over quality.  No one is arguing that The Order would be better if it consisted of “100 forgettable [hours]” instead of seven (presumably) “amazing hours.”  No one is arguing that the game would be better if it were “bad, boring, or broken,” but longer.  No one is arguing that “we have to measure things first and foremost in terms of quantity.”  Nobody is arguing that longer games are necessarily better.  The quality-over-quantity argument is being made as if the only two choices are either that game length is irrelevant or that game length is the single arbiter of a game’s worth, which is a pretty ridiculous false dichotomy.  Obviously, game length can matter without being the single or most important measure of a game.

Cumin-Cured Creekstone Hanger Steak with Green Chile Redeye Gravy, Spicy California Avocado Sope and Queso Creama.
When a videogame is this delicious, who cares how soon it’s over!  (Image: California Avocados)

Take the steak metaphor, comparing $100 for a 200 gram steak (about 7 ounces) to a $100 all-you-can-eat buffet of “the worst steak you could want.”  First of all, nobody knowingly orders “the worst steak.”  If you’re paying $100 for all-you-can-eat steak (at a rodízio, say), you expect it to be very good; maybe not the best steak imaginable, but still very good.  We’re not at Sizzler here.  Similarly, when you play a huge, open-world RPG, you don’t expect the graphics, voice acting, or pacing to be as good as they might be in a linear, narrative shooter, but you still expect them to be good.

Second of all, a seven ounce steak is still a meal; it’s almost half a pound, and probably comes with potatoes or a vegetable, or at least some bread.  But what if it were four ounces?  Two ounces?  One bite of steak?  Could a steak ever be that good?  Does the quality/quantity line stretch into infinity, so that there could hypothetically be a steak so good that you’d pay $10,000 just to lick it once?  Even if money is no object, if you order a steak that’s listed on the menu as an entrée and it ends up being one ounce, you’re probably going to be at least a little miffed.  You might not expect to achieve Pizza Hut lunch buffet levels of food shame every time you order an entrée at a restaurant, but you expect a meal; you don’t expect to have to go straight to another restaurant afterwards in order to fill your still-empty stomach.  There is some hypothetical lower bound to what constitutes a meal, regardless of how good the food is.

Obviously, game length is a much harder thing to quantify than entrée size.  You cannot weigh a game or measure its calories.  Everyone plays games at his or her own pace; I tend to savor games and explore a lot, so games always take me considerably longer than the lengths discussed in reviews.  Also, length varies wildly from one game type to another.  Depending on your play style, a good RPG will take you dozens or hundreds of hours to complete; a more linear, narrative game, like a shooter, will take you maybe ten or fifteen.  Other games, like sports games, online shooters, and racing games, can’t really be measured in terms of length.  A single match might take half an hour, or fifteen minutes, or five minutes, but that obviously doesn’t represent the “length” of those games.

What we’re really getting at when we talk about game length is an even more nebulous idea you might call the “amount of game.”  An online shooter with fifteen maps might not be “longer” than one with ten maps, but it undeniably has a greater “amount of game.”  The second game might be more fun, or have a more active community, so you might end up playing it for more total hours, but it is still “less game.”  Comparing the amount of game in an online shooter to an open-world RPG to a football game is basically impossible, or at least incredibly subjective.  Meanwhile, a puzzle game on your smartphone might be really fun, and you might play it for dozens or hundreds of hours spread out over many morning commutes and doctors’ waiting rooms, but there’s clearly not a lot of game in this game.  For some types of game, length can be a decent analog; for others, it is useless.  So instead of length, we could talk about some hypothetical unit of measurement that quantifies the “amount of game” in a game (or the amount of “content”): Gameplay Units.

But take those two hypothetical shooters.  The fact that the first game has more maps (i.e. more Gameplay Units) doesn’t make it a better game; clearly, the second game is better, which is why you end up playing it more.  But it’s obviously not better because it’s got fewer maps (i.e. fewer Gameplay Units).  No one playing this game would say, “This game would be even better if it only had eight maps!”  Nor would anyone complain if the developer released additional maps for free, so long as those maps were good.  One might assume that if the same budget were devoted to a game with fifteen or twenty maps, each individual map would be worse, but this seems like a gross oversimplification, assuming that there is a direct, linear tradeoff between quantity and quality.

Similarly, if we assume that The Order: 1886 is, in fact, a great game, it’s not great because it’s short; it’s great because it’s great, but it’s also short.  Its short length is neither the cause nor a necessary component of its greatness.  Nor is anyone saying that The Order: 1886 would be better if Ready at Dawn added a bunch of cookie-cutter fetch quests and made all the corridors twice as long.  Again, we might assume that if Ready at Dawn tried to make a game twice as long with the same budget and development schedule, it might not be as good, but again, it is an oversimplification.  And besides, we don’t play the development cycle; we play the game.

I know that no one is arguing that The Order is good because it’s short.  I’m not trying to construct my own straw man; I’m just trying to demonstrate a simple point: length and quality are not two variables in a simple equation where you multiply length by quality to determine the overall worth of a game.  By that logic, you could take level 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. and remove all enemies, pits, and obstacles, but put the flag so far away from the start that it would take 100,000 hours of holding right on the D-pad to finish the level, and it would be a great game, because the tremendous length would offset the low quality.  This is obviously not the case, but it is the implied logic of arguments that compare short, fun games to their hypothetical longer, boring counterparts.  Or, more specifically, it is the logic behind the straw man argument against which these quality-over-quantity arguments are made.

Consider the Assassin’s Creed games.  (I’ve played AC I, AC II, and Brotherhood; the rest are in my massive backlog.)  As something of a completist who can’t leave an unfulfilled objective on the map, I’ve often felt that Assassin’s games are, say, 10-to-15-hour games trapped in 20-to-30-hour bodies.  The games feel repetitive, especially when you’re spending several minutes traversing the map just to go to some blacksmith’s shop, where you’ll press a single button to spend a trivial amount of money upgrading the shop to gain access to an inventory of weapons you already own.  So, by a certain logic, an Assassin’s Creed game would be better if it were shorter; if you took out all the duplicate copies of repetitive quests, you’d keep everything that makes the game fun without making it feel repetitive or tedious.  I don’t disagree with this logic.

Ezio killing some dudes in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood.
Assassin’s Creed games are packed with objectives, but they’re not all this exciting.

But you know what else would make an Assassin’s Creed game better?  If it were better.  What if the quests didn’t feel repetitive – not because there were fewer of them, but because they were each individually well designed and distinct?  What if the traversal mechanics worked better, so you didn’t spend so much time unexpectedly jumping off of walls or trying to figure out how to drop three feet from a ledge without spontaneously leaping to your death?  What if the fast travel system worked better, so you weren’t always running across the map, accidentally attacking a guard, because every button does six things, and then spending another five minutes killing or escaping from guards and replenishing your health?  What if finding all the collectible feathers and flags and such actually rewarded you with something more meaningful than congratulation?  Wouldn’t that also be a better game?  Not only that, but wouldn’t that be a better better game than if you just took an existing Assassin’s Creed and pruned it into a shorter game?

A similar argument has been ongoing in music pretty much forever.  Some people just categorically hate double albums.  (“What’s an album?” asks anyone born after 1995.)  Even classics like The White Album have detractors arguing that they’d be better as single albums.  In a mathematical sense, this is obviously true.  If you ranked every song on The White Album by quality and chopped off the bottom half, you’d end up with a “better” album in that it would have a higher ratio of quality to time.  But there are inherent problems with this thinking.  For one, you could repeat the process ad nauseam, cutting the album from 40 songs to the best 20, and then to the best 10, and so on, until all you’re left with is the second half of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” at which point I don’t think you could convincingly argue that what’s left is actually a better album.  Also, good look getting all the Beatles fans to agree on which are the worst twenty songs on The White Album.  (Obviously, you throw out “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” but then where do you go from there?)

This is not to say that double albums are necessarily better than single albums.  Plenty of people think The White Album would be better if you got rid of “Revolution 9”; I doubt anyone thinks it would be a better album if “Revolution 9” were three hours long.  But what if “Revolution 9” (or whatever song you think is the worst on the album) weren’t just cut from the album, but replaced with a really great song?  Wouldn’t that also be a better album?

The point is not that longer albums, or longer games, or games with more Gameplay Units are necessarily better; it’s that length and quality are independent of each other.  You want all the parts of a game to be good, and you want there to be enough of them.  Valuing game length does not mean dismissing game quality, or even prioritizing length over quality.  It just means acknowledging that length (or “amount of game”) does in fact matter.

Promo art for Dragon Age: Inquisition
Everyone loves Dragon Age: Inquisition and its gigantic world.

Take Dragon Age: Inquisition.  By most accounts, this is a great game.  (Caveat: I haven’t played it yet, emphasis on “yet.”)  Reviews were generally glowing and it’s taken a bunch of Game of the Year awards.  And just about every review of this game has mentioned its length as an asset.  The game was praised for how much game there is.  Reviewer after reviewer raved that he or she had already played the game for 70 or 80 or 100 hours, and there was still so much left to do!  I didn’t see a single review suggesting that the game be shortened in order to make it better.  Why?  Because it’s a good game.  That there’s so much of it isn’t a mark against it, because longer games aren’t inherently worse.  You don’t have to choose between seven hours of good game or 100 hours of boring game.  You can have 100 hours of great game, and win Game of the Year!  So, clearly, game length is not irrelevant.  Reviewers would not heap praise on Dragon Age for offering such a big world and so much to do in it if length did not matter at all.

Obviously game length is not irrelevant.  Having a lot of stuff to do in a game will usually earn that game praise – if the stuff is fun.  And so, on the other end of the spectrum, a short game’s length should absolutely be taken into consideration.  If you want to argue that an Assassin’s Creed game would be better if it were shorter, that’s fine.  I wouldn’t necessarily disagree.  But recognize that the argument here isn’t that the game is necessarily too long; it’s just that the amount of interesting stuff to do in the game is out of sync with how long it takes to do it.  And recognize that while a game can be improved by aligning its length with the amount of creative stuff in it (by decreasing one and/or increasing the other), there comes a point where there’s simply not enough game.  If you have a twenty or thirty hour game with only fifteen hours’ worth of good gameplay in it, maybe you should make it shorter.  But if you only have two or three hours’ worth of gameplay, maybe you just shouldn’t release your game.

At least not for $60.  Because, of course, criticisms of game length are really criticisms of value.  People have invoked a number of other short games in defense of The Order’s length, such as Journey and Telltale’s Walking Dead games.  But, tellingly, these games are (and were at launch) dramatically less expensive than The Order.  If The Order were $10, I’m sure it would be getting rave reviews.  If Threes were $10, I’m sure it would have gotten panned.  No one is arguing that short games are intrinsically bad, just that some games are too short for their price.  And at some point, when you can get a used copy for thirty or twenty or ten bucks, a seven-hour game is a perfectly reasonable proposition.  But Sony isn’t publishing The Order with the intention of everyone playing it six months from now, or borrowing it from that one friend who buys everything.  The game should be judged on the basis of what it purports to be: a game worth your $60.  And, while the standard for what constitutes a full $60 game is beyond nebulous, that standard still does, hypothetically, exist.  The standard might only be defined the way Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously described pornography – “I know it when I see it” – but the standard still exists.

Money
We work hard for our money, and we don’t want to waste it. (Image: Tax Credits)

I haven’t played The Order, and $60 means a lot more to some people than it does to others, so I can’t say that the game is or isn’t objectively worth the money, though I personally wouldn’t pay that much for a seven-hour game with minimal replay value.  But what I can say is that game length is not irrelevant.  It isn’t meaningless.  It does matter.  Your $100, one-ounce steak might be delicious.  And you might easily be able to afford it, (and the meal you’re going to have to eat right after it).  But it is not an entrée, and should not be listed as such on the menu.  I don’t know how many hours, or how many Gameplay Units, is an acceptable length for a $60 game.  But let’s not pretend than any length is hypothetically acceptable, so long as the quality is high enough.  That’s just nonsensical.  Of course game length matters.

And understanding this is perhaps more critical now than at any other time in videogame history.  In the eighties, game length was limited almost exclusively by the hardware.  The challenge was fitting the game in the cartridge, not fulfilling an abstract demand for value.  Today, game length is virtually limitless.  Instead of trying to cram as much as they can into a cartridge, many publishers today are trying to figure out how little they can give you for your $60 so they can sell you DLC later.

The ability to expand games with DLC has been a great advancement, giving us a chance to stay a little longer in worlds we’re not yet ready to leave.  But it’s a huge double-edged sword, giving publishers the opportunity to charge us extra for features that once would’ve been included in a retail game.  There’s no clear line of demarcation between games that use DLC to give you added value and games that use it to nickel and dime you, but few would argue that both of these things happen.  It’s impossible to objectively quantify how long a game really is, or how much game there is in it, so it’s certainly impossible to have even an approximate idea of how many Gameplay Units a game needs in order to be worth $60.  But let’s not completely abandon the idea that we expect games to give us our money’s worth.

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