Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Are Games Too Long?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 22, 2011

According to CNN, fewer players are “finishing” long games now:

Why Most People Don’t Finish Video Games

When I first saw this article last week, my first thought was, “Crap! Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon is taking testers 30+ hours now. Is it too long?


The article cites several key reasons why – they suspect – fewer players are seeing the end of games.  And I don’t think they are incorrect. The average gamer is older and… well, has a life. When I was fourteen, I could fill an entire lazy summer day with game-playing. And I often did.  Nowadays, spare time is at more of a premium. I still found the time to finish Fallout: New Vegas earlier this year, so it’s not like a long game is an impossibility for me. But historically, I’ve left the majority of games unfinished. So this isn’t a new issue with me, either.

Although there are plenty of new games to distract me from finishing a current game, one factor the article doesn’t mention which may not be entirely unique to me is the availability of older titles. For me, a Dragon Age has to compete with a Might & Magic. That may be pretty extreme for most players, but as consoles get a few years into their life-cycle, they experience exactly the same problem. In fact, it can be somewhat worse, as older titles are not technologically that inferior to their more recent counterparts.  So players not only face a plethora of new releases, but a glut of older titles at used or discount prices to distract them from completing their current game.

But none of this is a new problem. When I was working for Infogrammes / Atari in 1999, the company was already talking about these studies. The problem may have gotten slightly worse, but it’s hardly a new problem.

I have a radical suggestion about where the real problem lies. It’s not that games need to be shorter, or that games need to all be multiplayer. No, here’s what I think:

Games are just too frickin’ boring in the middle!

You guys know I love games, and I love big, meaty games I can sink my teeth into and play for weeks. That’s all good. Many games have spectacular beginnings which combine with the novelty of being a “new game” which can sustain play for hours. And many have some pretty cool, interesting endings. But between that explosive beginning and the equally explosive ending, there’s this vast wasteland of grueling repetition punctuated by moments of interesting story progression and the very occasional change of gameplay to spice things up. A little bit of a slowness in the middle can be forgiven in a 2-hour movie. But in a 30+ hour game, it’s very easy to lose focus and enthusiasm. As a younger, inexperienced gamer, it may be easier to stick with it, but jaded gamers probably grow bored more quickly.

This is exactly what happened to me with Dragon Age: Origins. And Mass Effect, come to think of it. I had a great time in the intro. For DA:O, in particular, I remember thinking, “Okay, this is heavy-handed and a little formulaic, but I don’t care. I think I could really love this game.” And then, a few hours later, I found myself loading up the game and trying to remember what I was supposed to be doing, and why I should care.

Many years ago, I attended a game design panel where they mentioned the success of jRPGs. The speakers noted that the Japanese developers had determined that the average length of a play session (at the time… this was in the late 90s in Japan – a somewhat different market from today’s western market) was about two hours in length. The speakers noted how most jRPGs had sub-quests or story segments that — SURPRISE! — took about two hours to complete, with their own sub-story and climax / boss / whatever. The upshot was that the games were designed to be consumed and fully enjoyed in smaller chunks. Each play session was a complete experience, which combined formed a larger whole.

My own average play-session is probably closer to about forty-five minutes. Interestingly, I felt that most of the sub-quests in Fallout: New Vegas were able to be completed in about that much time. Some were a lot shorter. But that game was all about sub-quests and just exploring stuff at your own pace. Once I started getting bored, I was able to quickly play through the end-game.  I’ve still probably only seen around two-thirds of what the game has to offer, but it’s pretty cool that I could choose when to hit the end-game.

So I don’t know that shorter games are necessarily the answer. I’m not too keen on spending $60 on a 10-hour game,  and 90% of the time I’m completely uninterested in multiplayer.  But what we need to learn how to do is to make our games more interesting through the entire 30+ hour experience, not just padding them out.

Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 15 Comments to Read

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    There does seem to be a bit of pressure to makes games long, so that people can claim that it will last 40, 50 or 60+ hours on the back of the box.

    There’s this opinion that length = value for money, and people do complain if games are “short”.

    I don’t tend to mind shorter games, provided that the experience is good. If the game is interesting, fun or challenging in the right ways then I will easily forgive it being shorter. The last thing I want is an artificially lengthened game, and I’ve played plenty of those.

    Interesting you mention JRPGs, since I would put those at the top of my list for artificial length, since several of the ones I’ve played require you to spend some time grinding levels or whatever, which can make the game longer but will make me tire of a game very fast.

  • EHamilton said,


    1. For the last decade, the industry has consistently shifted away from making the sort of games that deserve to be played for extended periods of time. It’s rare to find a system that feels deep enough that you’re still discovering new facets of strategy after the first hour. People play a game until they reach the “I know how this works now” stage, and then they find something new.

    2. MMO’s are soaking up too much of the long-game population, so that only shorter games still have a profitable product niche to fill.

    3. No one bothers to create decent manuals. Instead, every element of the game need to be explained with tooltips or (increasingly) interactive VO tutorials. This makes the learning portions of many games seem slow-paced and boring, and causes the pool of hardcore players who otherwise WOULD play a game for 60 hours to get sick of the hand-holding and quit after a few hours.

    The last one isn’t consistent with your experience, but I do find it happening to me at least.

  • Rigor Mortis said,

    But, but, padding is so cheap! And content is so expensive.

    Adding Trash Encounter #42 is vastly cheaper than writing Plot Quest #11. So we get loads of trash accompanied by the minimum content that might result in a purchase.

    This is just the latest iteration of publishers wanting more money for doing less work. “Let’s make it shorter! (We won’t make it any cheaper, though.) That’s what people really want! (People, don’t bother thinking about your actual desires. We’re better at that. And completely unbiased.) We’re doing you a favor by giving you less product for the same price.” As also seen with the constantly shrinking size of every physical good in this economy.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I really miss those summers of my teen years. I thought nothing of playing a game all day long. Oh, that master weapon requires a 10 hour long quest? Cool, it must be a really great weapon.

    Now, as an adult who works 50 hours a week (and should be working more on my art portfolio in my free time), I tend to get easily annoyed with games when I see them artificially padding out the length of a game. RPGs are especially guilty of the old “you thought I was the Master of Evil? Mwahaha. There is one more evil than me!” That seems to happen ad nauseum, even multiple times in a single game. It makes me want to scream “I don’t have time for this bullshit!” at the screen.

    Pacing is of utmost importance – in books, movies, and games. If you are padding the story, the pacing is hurt. Do it too much and the story’s urgency and excitement vanishes. It is why HBO or British shows with only 12 episodes a season tend to be much better than standard 22 episode seasons of American shows. No padding, i.e. no boring parts.

    Games should be packed with the best gameplay and story the developers can create and left at that, regardless of what the final length comes out to.

    As an adult, I find my favorite games are those that are short (6-8 hours or less) with high replay value. Games like Princess Maker or Dead Rising. I can finish those games inside of a week (so the story stays fresh on my mind), or power through them in a single weekend if need be. The action, gameplay, and story tend to be tight and focused, and the emphasis on replay means I am likely to pick them back up again or start over again immediately.

    If a 6 hour game has multiple branches and endings I am likely to see them all if I enjoy the game. With a 30+ hour game like Mass Effect or Dragon Age, I will likely be unwilling to sink that much time back in to see different endings, so all that content will go unseen.

    And all the hand-holding in modern games is an issue as well. A lot of games make you play through 5 hours of extended tutorial “plot” before letting you loose to have fun. If I make it through all that I may or may not finish the game. If it cannot be skipped on subsequent playthroughs however, I will almost certainly never play that game again. I cannot waste 5 hours of my life willy-nilly.

    I’m sad to say that Final Fantasy is dead to me for these reasons as of 13. Endless contrived plot twists? 35+ hours of tutorials and hand-holding? Bah. Just make movies Square-Enix. I can spare 2 hours for those.

    And maybe I’m just old and jaded, but the problems of whining emo teens aren’t interesting or important to me anymore. I don’t finish a lot of games because the stories seem written for a demographic that is no longer me. Teen boy pines after girl and must save the world? Yawn. (Half of all JRPGs ever.) However, adult man must protect and find medication for his daughter in the middle of a zombie apocalypse? (Dead Rising 2.) I can relate and empathize with that. It interests me as an adult while still maintaining some fantasy elements (zombies). Why must games always be forcing me to save the world?

  • Corwin said,

    Ah yes DA:O!! The Deep Roads killed that game for me; I just couldn’t play it again after that, I was totally drained. I currently have 16 rpg’s on my desktop which are in variable states of completion. In fact, I have only managed to complete ONE full game this year……the beta of Frayed Knights which did hold my interest for a VERY fast 30+ hours. A game needs something new or different every couple of hours to keep people playing; fighting one repetative battle after another for hours on end (Deep Roads) is NOT the way to keep me playing.

  • Xian said,

    If it becomes a grind, it’s too long. Corwin mentioned Deep Roads in DA:O. I managed to trudge through there, but after that I was just wanting the game to end. I just finished Divinity II, about 68 hours per Steam, and thought it was also a little too long – the flying fortresses got way too repetitive. I would have enjoyed it more if it had lost about 10-20 hours. With the duties of work and family, my gaming time is limited, so it is harder to stick with one if it can’t hold my interest.

    It is hard to find a happy median. There are some long games that I still wanted more even after putting in many hours such as the original Witcher and Kings Bounty. Then there are others that I thought were way too short, for instance I remember beating the Leather Goddess of Phobos II the same day I bought it and thinking that I had been had. I think the best compromise is the games that have a main quest track and optional side quests. That way if you do get bored, you can at least make a run for the finish.

    I remember the PC version of Eye of the Beholder was not shipped with the end game animation that was on the Amiga version. It would have required another floppy and they decided hardly anyone would play it through to the end to see it so they did not include it. Instead it had one of the worst endings I can remember – a one line congratulatory text and drop to DOS.

  • Barry Brenesal said,

    What I find annoying is the PR coming out of some Industry game developers that “Nobody likes or needs to play these very long, boring games.” This is either said to cynically justify short, graphically heavy titles, or because they don’t know how to design a good, long, satisfying game. Perhaps both.

    But simply put, a really good game is just as long as it needs to be.

    So I wouldn’t want a game of chess that went on for 50 hours, but I think the overall scope of Ultima VII required that amount of time (or more) to mass all its minor and major objectives into one huge steamroller. Had it been shorter, it would have felt rushed. But RPGs, action titles, and dungeon delvers that just jump the level of monsters you suddenly face, forcing you to engage in tedious party leveling with lower enemies, aren’t using your time well. They’re just examples of poor design.

  • Rigor Mortis said,

    Considering that Origin foundered thanks in part to the price of floppy disks, perhaps SSI’s coldhearted decision wasn’t as unreasonable as it sounds.

  • adorna said,

    Maybe all these online/social games are also making me more sensitive to things that feel like they just waste your time. I remember that as a teen I loved grinding my way through bonus final fantasy dungeons. Archieving nothing in day long gaming session but gaining a few levels so I could beat the boss next time was totally ok with me, but right now I find my self thinking that if I really want to wait for meters to fill in battle that do nothing but slow my progress or do grinding/ raising crops stuff like that – I could have that easier on some crappy facebook game.
    If I sit down for a real game I don’t want to just pass time – I want it to matter what I do. And I get quickly impatient with time eaters that wouldn’t have annoyed me a few years ago.

  • Maklak said,

    When I was younger, I really enjoyed Civilization and Master of Orion. This was partly because I could finish them in one day, and they were different every time. There is something to that “achive something in every game session” rule of Yours.

    As for Mass Effect it pretty much consists of side quests. Problem is, they are all the same, down to using identical levels. Looks like every damaged ship is the same model and the same corporation built identical bases everywhere.

  • Barry Brenesal said,

    “Considering that Origin foundered thanks in part to the price of floppy disks, perhaps SSI’s coldhearted decision wasn’t as unreasonable as it sounds.”

    Not really. Varney uses his floppy disk price killer line to add punch to his narrative. I interviewed Garriott several times while Origin Systems was on the top, and had friends that were employees. It wasn’t the ruthless sweat shop that EA was, but Garriott and his idiosyncracies trumped every other judgment, irrational or otherwise. I once asked him half-jokingly during an interview before Ultima VII, when he complained at length about how difficult it was to get everybody going in the same direction and doing what they were supposed to on time if he’d considered project management software. There was dead silence (capital D, capital S) for about 15 seconds, then an absolute zero “No.”

    That’s what killed Origin Systems, for what little my opinion’s worth. Both a perceived need for the guy at the top to do everybody’s job, and an unwillingness to understand how business products, as opposed to personal visions, work.

  • Andy said,

    Is this really a matter of fewer people finishing games, or that the industry has expanded so much over recent years that many of the more or less “casual” run-and-gun gamers added don’t see much point in finishing games? I guess I’m wondering if it’s because of actual declining interest in completing games, or because the increase in gamers who don’t care is outstripping the number of gamers that like to finish their games.

    OTOH, this has been an issue for a long time. I understand that many old console games, for instance, didn’t bother with much beyond a “Thanks you for playing! The Greatest You Are!” message because in those Nintendo-Hard days most players simply weren’t good enough to finish a lot of games.

  • Markus said,

    I have to agree with LateWhiteRabbit here. I would not have had a problem with bloated RPGs 10 years ago, hell even just 2-3 years ago when I was still in University. Now however, I’m in my 30’s, have a job, a family, and take evening classes. I’m lucky to get 10 hours of gaming in a week, and usually, if I get 2 hours in one evening it’s divided into 30-45min segments. That means, if a game takes 30 hours to complete, it’ll mean ~3 weeks of gameplay.

    Now, before anyone say’s I’m whining, I’m not against long games. There are plenty of young people out there who will enjoy them, just as I did in my youth.

    What I would like to see, however, are games catered for my crowd. Short, but well made games with decent plots and good mechanics. Graphics don’t have to be top notch, hell I love the old school isometric 3d of the late 90’s early 2000’s. Surely it’s possible to tell a good story in ~10 hours, and advance your character to lvl 10 or so while providing a good skill selection? In fact, I’d bet there are some games like that out there, but since this demographic hasn’t been very vocal, where does one go to find them?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Well, I’d say: “Right here” and point to http://www.rampantgames.com, and that would be the case sometimes, but some of those can be pretty epic in length too. On the whole, though, more and more mainstream games are getting to be pretty dang short. I think the average now is about 10 hours. Maybe not so much on the RPG front, but in general.

    On the whole, I’m right there with you. I *WANT* to have the time to sink my teeth into an epic-length RPG, too, like I used to. I still love them in theory. But my time is limited to just a few hours a week, now, instead of a few hours per night like in the old days.

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