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The Right Length

Written by Joshua Hufton

Recently, two articles rekindled a diehard peeve of mine about this industry.  Simply put, video games are just too damn long.

Randy Smith of next-gen.biz beautifully illustrates in his article here:

I reach the point of satisfaction two or three hours in where I think fondly of the game, have had a good time exploring the mechanic, and feel done. But the game disagrees with me, pointing out that I’ve only seen a fifth of the cutscenes, four of the power-ups and just a couple of levels. I believe I’ve had a graceful arc with a satisfying point of closure, but the game argues that I’m just at the beginning. We have to part ways disagreeably, the fondness diminished, akin to a break up. The box haunts my shelves, like it would be awkward to play again in the future.

It all sounds frustratingly familiar to me.  How about the questionable second act of Read Dead Redemption?  Or the Final act slowdown—not to mention the final boss—of Bioshock?  Or perhaps the most notorious: the unnecessarily elongated 30 introductory hours for Final Fantasy XIII to “get good”?

Tae Kim of gamepro.com agrees.  He writes here with the same thesis, though Kim presses the urgency for

…more tightly paced games that come in, say what they need to say, and then have the grace to know when to walk off the stage.

This I find to be a particularly poignant concept: a “fluff”-less experience.  How many times have you felt frazzled when things seemed to be winding down only to be buried with more content?  It is astonishing how quickly entertainment becomes a chore.  Another, “one-more” dungeon, another “this is it” hub world, or even the tacked-on “bonuses” in the form of needless challenges are more trials of patience, completionism, and Achievement mining than they are compelling entertainment.

As I’ve gotten older and acknowledged the increasing demands on my precious-short day, I’ve watched my backlog grow while my free time diminishes.  I’ve come to ferociously defend my hour or two to play each day with an almost religious zeal—I’ve even wished in jest to become hospitalized just enough to enable an uninterrupted gaming binge to catch up.

There just isn’t enough time.

When I examine the shining obelisk of unopened games bearing down on me, I do not so much feel elation to play as I do dread that I’ll never quite catch up.  It seems I must resign to a handful of hours for each to taste the mechanics—to grasp the look-and-feel and sense of things enough to add to my knowledge base, formulate an opinion, and move on.  Games these days to me seem less about complete, compelling experiences, and more about hitting that eight-to-twelve-hour “sweet spot.”

It seems the days of 100{33432aa694e5f3438fe8434693c65104c8003966d5d6736d07d2c878ff0de51a} completions are behind me; gone are the days of pouring several hours each day into one title and moving on only when each has been fully grokked.

But there is a greater risk here than the Grinch-like chip on my shoulder.

If I might hop on the old soap box for a moment, I’d like to refer us all to the great games-as-art debate (I know, I know, bear with me).  If this industry is ever going to get the respect it deserves—as a purveyor of content to mature, cognizant adults, much less as high art—games must be more accessible.

I am not talking about learning curve or difficulty level here.  I’m talking about making games shorter.  What “games-are-toys” Luddite is going to sit through Bioshock, much less a sixty to eighty hour RPG like Eternal Sonata or Final Fantasy XII?  If Joe Schmoe wants to contest Kandinksy as art, he at the very least can nay-say following a three-minute observation of Transverse Line.  Those who aren’t gamers, yet form opinions about them, do not have this luxury.  Instead, they are left to comment on a youtube clip, or a synopsis on Wikipedia—and that’s if they are that motivated before liberally dolling out opinion.

Kandinsky's "Traverse Line"

If a film is hailed with greatness—games’ most appropriate cousin—one can at the very least watch it within a three-hour sitting before formulating opinion.  There is a very good reason why the vast majority of films released settle comfortably around the two or three hour demarcation.

It is therefore my suggestion that to push the medium forward—to push games and their discussion from blogs and dorm rooms to dining room tables and tavern trivia night categories alongside movies, sports, and history—games must be more accessible.  At the current rate, a cognizant toddler could not devote enough time in their life to play everything that should be experienced, much less someone older wanting to educate themselves with the best this industry has to offer.

There is hope at the end of the tunnel, however, for folks likeminded as me.  The accessibility of XBLA, WiiWare, PSN, and Steam have enabled the explosion of the indie game scene, and the shorter and tighter gameplay experiences that come with them.  A platformer of the year contender, Limbo, is the epitome of not only highly accessible games, but those that stand out for brilliant simplicity.

Limbo is a game (frankly, a masterpiece, but I won’t push that agenda here) in which four hours does more than most other shooters, RPGs, and action-adventures do in three to six times that amount.  Critically, if you haven’t yet checked it out, it is a game that doesn’t require the investment gaming in general requires.  Don’t have plans on a Friday night?  Boot up this game for the cost of a movie ticket, and be fully engaged in a rapturous, deviously clever, and astonishingly simple adventure.

And finish it in four hours or less.

I don’t need to explain the game to you, and this is exactly why it makes such an excellent example.  Give it one sit-down and come back and talk to me about it yourself.  It is the quintessence of what good game development needs to be if this industry is ever going to break tired stereotypes and become the respected and acknowledged art form we gamers have always known it to be.

More info about Joshua:

Joshua is a recent graduate of Full Sail University’s Masters Program in Game Design.

Check out his website – http://www.huftopia.com

Follow Joshua on Twitter@huftopia


  1. You mention film, but what about literature? Most famous and satisfying works of writing involve the same level of stop and go as these lengthy games. It's almost impossible to enjoy a novel, cover-to-cover, in a four hour session. There's a certain fondness when I open back up to my bookmark (save point) and continue the journey where I last left off. Perhaps the issue here isn't the length but an unnecessary length. Great novels are long for a reason, it's the amount needed to create the world, characters and narrative we would find meaningful. If games are going to be as long, they need to be long for a reason.

  2. So he's completely ignoring games that improve with the amount of time you invest like beat em ups and racers. If a game has a good story you never once check how long you have been playing you just play. If a story is poor then it feels a …slog. He should of given some examples of some games that are far too long to back up his broad statement. People go to watch movies whereas I think people invest money and time into games, they want hours of gameplay for the money they pay and a story and characters they won't forget any time soon. Is he saying the force unleashed 2 is gaming perfection?

  3. Basically, I want to say he means stick to the storytelling and main gameplay and cut out all the unnecessary BS that diminishes its purpose. There are so many games with unrelated content; be it levels, bosses, etc. There's usually just mindless and inappropriate filler to make a game longer than whatever relevant content there really is, if any.
    The FF13 example is a good one. I never got close the the 30 hour mark, at which point the game is supposed to finally get interesting. No. I gave up after about 10 hours because the game was just awful. I could not relate to any character, cringed at every line of spoken dialog, got tired of riding the single track rail that was story and level design, shook my head at music that did not even come close to setting the appropriate mood, cut-scenes were meaningless, and many more other negative complaints.
    To treat the player like they are some moron for 30 hours or so to get to the meat and gravy of the game is inexcusable. I felt like i was going through someones acid trip and could no longer handle forcing myself to play it. More-so, it felt like SE figured that by slapping their name on it people would buy and play and revere them further for that reason alone. Who cares if any of this ties together, we created 7 and 8 and they all played it- HAR HAR HAAAR! Who cares if voices and characters are complete crap- WE ARE S-E AND THEY WILL BUY WHAT WE TELL THEM TO HAR HAR HARRR! See FFX and X-2.
    There are several examples of games that beat around the bush for hours going no where. Plopping in trophies/achievements designed to capitalize on those completionists out there. By going for them you lengthen the game and/or its redundancy. For what? There's generally no real reward other than bragging rights. Just think about it. Any real gamer can find a few. Perhaps being broad in his statements was a deft way of avoiding going into specifics and spoilers. It allows a gamer to go forth and play those titles see for themselves.
    What richhoyle24 is pointing out seems to be that there are exceptions to all rules. What does follow the writers formula wont always turn out a good game. Perhaps some games are best designed to be nice and long by involving the player to develop their skills, over time, through practice. If games are going to become shorter and to the point then let the price tag reflect this.
    Now Dylan brings up and interesting point about literature. The difference I see is that movies and games provide so my sensory input to the viewer already. Much how one might compare a live play to the script and the directors view of how it is portrayed. A book allows the reader to set almost all of that sort of thing in their own minds making for a more personalized and, therefore, a more enjoyable experience. You are better off reading portions and setting it down to allow your brain to process and reflect on what was given to you. Thus letting your imagination take wing. This is turn should amp up your anticipation of what is yet to come. In my humble opinion, that is the magic of reading literature. Perhaps future games would benefit from attempting to be more like this.

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