Playing The Long Game

Words: 1761 Approximate Reading Time: 10-15 minutes

I’ve mentioned before that I am a fan of open world games, and one I’ve been playing recently is Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, which is the latest entry in the longrunning Assassin’s Creed series. And as I’ve been playing through it, I’ve been continually struggling with the desire to explore the world and play the game’s content with the desire to just put the game down and not touch it ever again.

And the problem I keep running into is that the game just continually feels too long. Not in the sense that there is some arbitrary number of hours that Valhalla has crossed. But rather in the sense that the game’s content feels like it is being dragged out beyond its breaking point. So much of the game feels like a slog, because so much of the content feels repetitive.

I’ve already written on the subject of content in open world games, but for this essay I wanted to explore the topic of game length more broadly. Because one value often associated with open world games is how long they are.

Indeed, it’s common to see games advertise how long they are as a way of drawing in players. Especially so if the game has an extraordinary length. But the impulse for designers to make games that are longer and longer, and the desire for players to get games that are longer and longer, is a destructive spiral.

I will note here that I don’t mean to say that long games are bad. There are plenty of reasons to make long games, and so a long game can certainly be fun and enjoyable. But the pressure placed both by designers and by players for longer games is something that should be reined in. In particular, we as players of video games should start to shift our preferences towards games that are shorter and easier to complete. Again, we shouldn’t avoid long games entirely. But we should make known that it is better to make a good short game than to stretch it out to the point that it turns into a mediocre long game.

For this essay I merely want to explain the basic pressure to make longer games, and why it creates such a problem. I will ultimately try to keep this essay relatively short, but it is nevertheless important for us to think about how we perceive the length of the video games we play.

Growing Games

Making video games comes with a series of expectations. Some of those expectations are set by the people making the games, and some will be set by the audience. The expectations will not always match up, and sometimes we can demand the impossible: either of ourselves, or of others.

The desire to make bigger and longer video games is no exception to this tendency. The more money and time that gets sunk into a project, the stronger the feeling that the product must be big to justify that expense. Because a game that is expensive must, surely, have lots of interesting content and plenty of gameplay and take a lot of time for the player to really explore.

And that temptation can get even stronger when we are dealing not merely with a new game, but a sequel. If you are building upon an existing franchise, the expectation is going to be set that you are making the game better than the original. That means building on the story, improving problems from the previous game(s), and of course, adding more content to the game. So add on to the basic expectation of effort the expectation that can go into just making a game when there is already something there to judge your game against.

Then let us add to this the expectation of players. Insofar as video games are a luxury hobby, there are many players who are essentially looking for “value.” Value is a vague term, because it means what people get out of a game compared to what they put into it. But the problem with that metric is that when you’re buying a game, you don’t have any way of knowing what its actual value will end up being. So in order to solve this problem, we come up with shortcuts.

And a major shortcut that a lot of players use is playtime. How long will it take to complete the game? Because the longer a game lasts, the more hours you’ll spend playing. Which means more value per dollar spent. Because if you are going to spend, say, 50 dollars on a game that lasts 10 hours, that means that you’re spending five dollars for every hour of playtime. Comparatively, if you spend that same 50 dollars on a game that lasts 100 hours, then you’re spending only half a dollar for every hour of playtime. Surely, then, that longer game must be the better value, right?

So all of these expectations get thrown into the pot. And the ingredients create the pressures for making games bigger and bigger.

In short, players and designers set expectations for bigger games. Games get bigger, and get advertised and sold on the promise that they’ll be even bigger than games before. Which then feeds those expectations to make games bigger and longer. Which means games will continue to grow continually in size and scope to chase after the idea that all of that time is “worth it.”

The Problem

The simple fact of the matter, though, is that for the most part this extra time isn’t worth it.

In trying to think about time as a component of value, we forget that there are a lot of other factors that need to be considered. For example, the underlying quality of the game itself.

Think back to the time example from earlier. You have 50 dollars to spend. Game A will last 10 hours. Game B will last 100 hours. Which do you choose?

If the games are going to be equally good, then it makes sense to choose Game B.

But what if Game A is going to be good, while Game B is going to be bad? Is getting more bad content preferable to getting less good content?

What about if Game B is only mediocre? What if Game B is decent, but still not as good as Game A?

Thinking about quality throws a wrench into this whole calculation.

But let’s throw some more wrenches into this. When we think about time, we often think of the time we’ll spend in the game as being all of the same quality. If a game is 100 hours, and that game is good, then all 100 hours will be good. But games rarely fit that description. Often, games have good content and bad content. Sometimes the main storyline of the game outshines the sidequests. Sometimes the sidequests are more interesting than the main story. Sometimes exploration and the non-story content feels more interesting than the actual storyline.

So we’re not just trying to guess about the quality of the game across all of the hours, but each individual hour. If a 100 hour game has 10 good hours and 90 bad ones, is that ultimately worth it? When it’s 50/50? Play around with the ratios all you wish. It’s useful to get a sense of where your tolerance lies.

The point of all of this is that time is, on its face, a useful metric. It’s something measurable that can be clearly conveyed to everyone: an hour is an hour is an hour. So if a game boasts that it has 100 hours’ worth of content, you can be pretty sure that you’re going to get about 100 hours of content. But how do you figure out whether that content is good? That’s more difficult. So instead we often just fall back on the number: it’s 100 hours, and that’s enough for me to go on.

But using time as a shortcut is actually not a good idea. It doesn’t tell us anything, and it forces us to put up with bad design that we wouldn’t normally accept, because by using it as a metric we reinforce the idea that it should be a metric. And so games expand, but often not by adding more interesting things to do, but rather by just padding the game with more things to do period.

There are, of course, quite a few players who are working with a limited budget. For them, new games are a rare commodity, so getting a game that will last is going to be prioritized, even if it might require a sacrifice in quality. And so I’m not suggesting that we should all stop buying long games, or that developers should stop making them. Because long games are not inherently bad. There are plenty of good games that can be played for many, many hours.

But we should try to shift the burden away from making games bigger and bigger. Rather than thinking that there is some arbitrary ratio of dollars to hours at which a game is “worth it,” we should think about the quality of the time we spend, or that we anticipate spending. We should prioritize better games over longer games.

Concluding Remarks

There are a lot of good games to play. More than that, there are a lot of good games to play. The more we play long games merely because they will take a long time, the less time we have to play other games that we might otherwise enjoy.

We don’t have to keep playing new games continually. Sometimes there’s just a small set of games you want to play. Perhaps you only play games with friends, which means your choices are dictated by your social circle rather than your personal preferences. Perhaps you don’t have the money to keep buying new games.

But when we have the opportunity to choose, we should reflect and focus on our experience of the game. Are we actually enjoying the game we’re playing? Do we actually want to continue, or are we driven to continue simply because we want to see the ending, or simply because we already spent money on it?

Because the decisions we make send signals regarding what we care about. When we keep using time as a metric, and put less emphasis on the quality of that time, we send the signal that things like padding and stretching – things we might in the abstract condemn in games – are what we actually want.

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