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Judging Games On Length: Indies Declare 'Size Doesn't Matter Day'
Judging Games On Length: Indies Declare 'Size Doesn't Matter Day' Exclusive
August 18, 2010 | By Jamie Cheng

August 18, 2010 | By Jamie Cheng
More: Console/PC, Indie, Exclusive

[Klei Entertainment's Jamie Cheng gathers prominent independent developers in a simultaneous group discussion on what critics expect from game length, calling for a halt on the critical tendency to weigh or value a game according to its duration or content volume.]

In order to call attention to the topic of game length, a group of independent developers have dubbed today ďSize Doesnít MatterĒ Day, and shared their various thoughts in their respective blogs. My own thoughts are below.

What Iíd like to discuss today is the critics role in shaping the expectations of consumers and why we should stop asking questions that try to quantify the game experience in terms of game length or content size.

The Critics' Role

In every medium, the critics play a vital role in creating awareness and shaping expectations. In the video games industry, this is done primarily through previews, interviews, and reviews. The questions and topics that a critic chooses shapes what is important about the title, and a trend of questioning across titles shapes what consumers look for, or at least notice, in the games they play.

Hence, when a journalist asks How long is the game?, no matter what the answer, there is an immediate value being placed on the number of hours is takes to complete the game. Likewise, How many levels are there? gives value to the amount of content.

Never mind that many games are unquantifiable in terms of content or game time (Tetris is the easy example) -- even in linear games where it is (more) quantifiable, itís still an irrelevant and ultimately harmful question.

The Definition of Value

The shaping of expectations trickles directly from the consumers to the developers and publishers. With every preview and review discussing quantity, there adds more incentive for the developers to think that itís an important facet of the experience.

The result is we often hear developers or publishers talk about how much "value" their game / product provides for a player -- with "value" placed squarely in the wrong place. Look at how much content our game has, or how long it takes to unlock everything! I donít know about you, but itís been a while since I valued a book based on the number of pages it has, or got excited about a movie with the selling feature "over 6 hours of running time!"

Thankfully, gamers arenít actually looking for that. At times, they may sound like they do, but the evidence from Braid, Portal and Limbo certainly speaks otherwise. Itís not even about the aging population of gamers, where we have less time to spend; it's simply a matter of not wasting players' time. If your experience is best told in three hours, please, for goodness' sake, donít add another three hours of the same damn thing just to pad my gaming time -- that, contrary to popular opinion, removes value.

Worse Than Irrelevant

Of course, Iím not the first one to mention that that the length of a game isn't really a relevant question. But my point is that itís actually worse than irrelevant and indeed harmful to the creation of quality video games. While gamers are looking to developers to create new experiences, developers distribute their resources in order to create a product that will sell. Having a constant pressure that more content is better very actively diverts resources away from the core experience.

Letís take a look at what happens when we remove the pressure of an ever increasing amount of content, features, and game length:

-The core game mechanics improve, as developers spend their time and money on improving the game rather than the play time.
-Storytelling gets better, as players actually reach the end of the game, and developers can spend time with the later levels, knowing that the majority of players havenít stopped playing.
-Pacing improves, as no fillers are needed.
-The variety of games increases, as not all games lend itself well to continual play.

I believe critics should ask questions surrounding whether the experience was compelling -- whether it fulfilled its promise of engaging the player. Using a book analogy, if a book starts awesome, and then abruptly ends, the response isnít "I only spent 4 hours reading it!". It would be "the story wasnít fully developed, and I felt it ended abruptly." Similarly, if a book drags on, people donít say "it was kind of boring, but at least it has a lot of pages in it, so itís great value." They say "it dragged on, and I got the message in the first half of the book." Time spent reading just isnít mentioned, and indeed, isnít the point.

We Are Not A Commodity

I can agree on one thing regarding time and quantity: there is a minimum expectation. A novel that is 10 pages long isnít a novel, and a movie that is half an hour long would cause people to question the value of their dollars. Hence a retail game does have a minimum expectation, and a downloadable title has a different, smaller expectation.

But I think we can move beyond questioning every developer if they are reaching a minimum quantity bar. That bar, as evidenced by Portal, is quite low.

A commodity is something that has no special distinguishing feature from one product to the next. For example, a floor cleaner is a commodity. In these cases, quantity matters -- a lot. The converse of that is a specialty item, where the distinguishing factors define it. This is where video games lie, and where I believe we should be placing value. And where value is placed is definitely affected by what the critics draw attention to.

The questions and comments that critics choose, whether it be a preview, an interview, or a review, matter a great deal to the industry. They are not the sole movers in the industry, but they do matter. Iím simply advocating that critics use their tools carefully to encourage game developers to choose a better game over more game.

Links To Other Developers' Thoughts On Game Length

Thanks for reading this far! I encourage you to also read the thoughts of the other developers who have weighed in on the topic today. Please share what your own thoughts in the comment boxes below!

Jonathan Blow of Number None

Ron Carmel of 2DBoy

Chris DeLeon

Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye Games

Mike Gilgenbach of 24 Caret Games

Eitan Glinert of Fire Hose Games

Cliff Harris of Positech Games

Chris Hecker of Spy Party

Scott Macmillan of Macguffin Games

Noel Llopis

Peter Jones of Retro Affect

Lau Korsgaard

Martin Pichlmair of Broken Rules

Greg Wohlwend of Intution Games

Jeffrey Rosen of Wolfire

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Brett Williams
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You are seeing a lot of discussion around this concept recently and I applaud these people for bringing it to attention.

A shift that many groups seem to be going for now is providing content that is available in bite sized portions while maintaining a persistent overlying arc or development throughout. You are seeing this in many games from RTS to FPS and beyond, as well as from larger studios to smaller studios, commercial and free to play.

I think this is a good bridge between providing smaller or easier to consume (and produce) bits of content that don't necessarily mean hundreds of hours of development, while providing hours of gameplay.

I will judge a game by its content, but I won't judge it by the amount or length of that content.

Gregory Kinneman
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There was just a Gamasutra article on Limbo and the comments were split in two groups. One group was that the game was too long and became boring for the 2nd and 3rd hour. The other was that the game was inferior specifically because it was too short and players expected more length out of a game. The 1st group would probably agree with this article wholeheartedly. The 2nd one would say "that's fine if indies don't care about length, but I want more out of my $60 AAA game."

I've seen an review of Starcraft 2 that complained the single-player campaign only took him about 12 hours to complete and therefore the entire game was worthy only of a 1 star rating. Clearly this person had some incredibly high expectations (IMO SC2 is a very well made game overall) but clearly the attitude that length = strength holds a lot of weight for some people.

I also posted a comment on another article about subscription fees pointing out that in the case of MMOs the player is paying to be entertained for the duration of that subscription period (usually 30 days) and the amount of content, not the quality thereof, is thus a key selling factor. That's a key point to remember if companies like Activision proceed with their attempts to require subscription fees for non-massive multi-player or single-player games.

Finally, I think that shorter games make it harder to create a good demo that encourages players to buy the game if they like it (rather than pirate it immediately). If game length is reduced to an hour or three, how can a company be expected to make a demo that doesn't: A) Show too little or B) Give it all away? It's easy to give away an hour-long demo for a 20 hour game, but with shorter works it's harder. I suppose we could return to the days of Apogee shareware, where the first 1/3 of a game was the demo, but even those games took at least 2 hours/ep. It's really a difficult issue.

Jonathan Jennings
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i am struggling with this issue myself, granted my game isn't being made for profit so player value perception isn't a massive issue . the desire to make a fun game is conflicting with my desire to make a memorable game. i am planning to send my game to the indie game festival but i fear that due to its length ( or lack of) it will be easily overlooked. granted i plan on fine tuning the gameplay to create something truly unique but i just worry that my 10 minutes of fun may not be enough to appeal to an audience but the alternative is stretching the game and the moments i think will make the game grand . is 10 minutes of mind blowing fun as good as 20 minutes of fun mixed with length stretching activities ? It is very possible i am over thinking this issue , it's just i truly want my game to be enjoyed and hopefully memorable , not just something fun but forgotten quickly . A s Gregory said this is a much more complicated issue than one would think .

Benjamin Marquardt
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The question of length really was never a question in my mind; certain games were too long and unwieldy, while others cut the action off too soon. Some games became boring part of the way through, and then picked up later on.

For me, it really isn't about a specific length; it's about keeping a certain balance between the quality and evolution of the gameplay itself throughout the experience, the creativity of the plot development and storytelling aspects of the game, smooth transitioning through each step of the game, and then a satisfying ending that requires the utmost of the player. If a game requires more devotion, then I expect to accomplish that much more in the game; the game ought to be testing the limits of my abilities throughout the experience, and I expect to encounter the New for a good majority of the game. Otherwise, boredom sneaks in and I lose interest.

Is it too much to ask for a little quality, even at the price of quantity?

Bart Stewart
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I agree completely with the point that quality ought to be judged on whether the game's content communicates the intended entertainment experience, regardless of length.

Obviously that point serves independent developers, who often can't afford to crank out numerous giant levels or thousands of quests. If size/length has a high weighting independent of anything else, that puts indies at an extreme disadvantage relative to the large corporate developers. But the point is good regardless of who it serves -- games ought to be as long as needed to serve their design vision, and should be judged accordingly.

That said... like Gregory Kinneman I think there are some caveats to this position. For me, there's a qualitative difference between a small game and a big game because a big game is more likely to have the exploratory depth I enjoy.

I don't mind a small game from time to time (especially given the constraints of a working day). But given my druthers, what I really enjoy is a game that creates a world large enough, and containing systems deep enough, that I can spend hundreds of hours exploring it, seeing new places and frobbing the knobs and dials of the various systems to see how they work. With a few exceptions, small games just don't have the scope to deliver that experience of long-term discovery in an enjoyable setting. When size is understood as an analogue or requirement for systems-depth, bigger really can be qualitatively better.

So as long as that objection is noted -- size *does* matter when exploration is the gameplay goal -- I support the developers who ask that reviewers don't judge a game primarily by its size or length.

Lou Ruggiero
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Well said Bart.

I believe that the type of game should determine whether the length of its content matters. I think this holds true when the sales pitch includes the length of content as a selling point. Lets take Tetris as an example. By itself the original game of Tetris should never be reviewed in terms of its length.

However, lets say that someone decided to licence a version of Tetris that provided a different experience, such as unique levels or a platform element where a player could "progress" in some fashion and then on top of that the main selling point were these features. I think this is a valid instance where the reviewer should evaluate the length. If advertised as providing, "Hours" of entertainment shouldn't that as subjective as it is, attempt to be evaluated?

David Delanty
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Bart, took the words right out of me, very excellently put.

I cared about the length of games when I was in high school, when I had more than five hours a day to devote to games. I cared about the length of games when I didn't have to pay bills, shop for groceries, fix faulty plumbing, rewire the kitchen lighting, or fold my own laundry. But shift forward ten years, I have a job, I have to take care of my own living space, I just don't have the time to devote to games.

Games tout 100+ hours of play as a perk, as a reason to purchase the game. To me, a person who only has about an hour to devote to gaming between work, dinner, and Mad Men, a game advertising itself as a 100+ hour experience actually turns me off. Their intention with such huge numbers is to grab my interest, but since time is now a limited currency in my life, the opposite happens.

So when Portal came along and gave me a full gaming experience complete with exploration, puzzle solving, and excellent story in under three hours, I was a very happy gamer. When Limbo got panned for being such a short game, I looked at it differently and put it at the top of my 'to play' list.

Shorter games? Yes please! These 100+ hour single player campaigns make me one less customer. With the prime demographic of gamers getting gradually older into the employed age, game developers would probably make better sales by creating gameplay experiences that cater to those of us without the high-school quantity of free time.

Eric Geer
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Lately...well maybe always I have been a person that has been attracted to shorter games. More so lately. It seems that as games get longer...they do lose their meaning. The goals seem less interesting...start becoming more bland and repetitive...With shorter games you only see about 1 interation of this goal before getting something new. But something outside of this...on the business/money side of all of this is that 1)most custmers don't buy all the games that are out i.e. if there are 3 AAA games that come out in a month they are most likely only going to pick up one of them if they are longer games with an in depth multiplayer aspect(wich we are moving more towards) and 2) The longer the game the higher costs are i.e. making devs and publishers very reliable on just 1 game to draw a profit(hence the mass amount of devs closing) 3) Game prices are increased for customers because these costs increase. 4)How many people have backlogs of games they haven't completed?--I know i have at least 5 or 6 on the list--bought but never finished--there is just not enough time in life-if you work a full time job(not as a game tester) to be putting the required 40-50+ hours into some of these larger/longer games when there are 5 more of them that you want to play.

Theres many reasons I would like to see shorter games..but 1 would be most stories in games seem to be fairly poor---If I could get a short strong story with some incredible gameplay..i would take that in a minute over the laborous job of crossing huge worlds just to get to the next part of the story.---

Also I would like to see an increase in seem to easy now...if we could get some short, hard games, with rewarding goals, and a great story....for a $10 cheaper than some of these other games that are out...I would be all over them.

J Benjamin Hollman
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This is part of what makes indies more fun and interesting than AAA devs.

Alan Youngblood
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"Size doesn't matter"? That's what she said--Zing!

But on a more serious note: I couldn't agree more with this idea. Quality trumps quantity. Always. Hopefully this will add more value to games. God forbid we be makers of commodities. That's a great distinction and it serves to warn others against becoming that way.

Prash Nelson-Smythe
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"Game length" is only a concept for a certain type of game, often one that tries to integrate with a narrative. Many, many games don't have a clear concept of a fixed "game length" and leave that to the player.

I think if a game has a "game length" there is some aspect of game design that the creators have not tapped in to, which will probably leave it lacking in replayability.

I don't mind seeing shorter games or at least games that can be played in short sittings, but if the short experience is very linear and non-variable, there is little reason to replay it and it will probably feel like a waste of money. The most common reason for a game to be like this is because it was trying to tell me one fixed long story. This is assuming that you are paying to be entertained, which the vast majority of gamers are.

I want my games to be able to entertain me for a reasonable amount of time on multiple occasions, rather than for them to simply be "long". This is coming from someone who only has an hour or so to play every other day.

Prash Nelson-Smythe
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And I fully agree with the idea of "don't waste the player's time". This covers everything from removing unnecessary cutscenes to having as few button as possible presses to start the game.

I *really* don't have time to stare at each logo for 3 seconds and click through several menus to resume my game. That wasted time has often put me off having a gaming session.

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Joshua McDonald
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'"Game length" is only a concept for a certain type of game, often one that tries to integrate with a narrative. Many, many games don't have a clear concept of a fixed "game length" and leave that to the player.'

Agreed. People are way too stuck on defining "game" here as a fixed-length narrative. I've logged 30 or 40 hours into Gears of War without ever touching the scenario (horde mode). I've probably spent 70 or 80 in League of Legends, which has 2 levels.

Game "length" may not matter much, but duration that a game can entertain me matters a ton. I've never passed Fallout 2, but I've spent enough time in the game to have passed it 3 or 4 times because I had so much fun experimenting with different character builds or different approaches to quests. The length of the narrative didn't matter, but the amount of time I could spend being entertained by the game certainly did.

People keep referencing Portal, but don't forget that it was a cheap game. I loved Portal, but even if I had known beforehand how much I'd enjoy it, I certainly wouldn't have paid $60 for it precisely because it only provided about 4 hours of entertainment.

Older games (which I often find more fun than modern) actually used the time it took to build the skills to pass it as the way to lengthen the game. A perfect run through one of the older Mario games can be done in a fairly short time, even without warping, but most players had to log in a lot of hours to develop sufficient skill to do so, and for many of us, those hours were quite enjoyable.

I do require a game that I pay full price for to provide me with a substantial amount of entertainment, but lengthening the narrative rarely accomplishes that for me. Give me cool mechanics that I need to master, an interesting world to explore, and/or a way for me to enjoy spending a lot of time on similar tasks (i.e. Geometry Wars, RTS skirmish mode, etc), and I'll gladly fork over full price for your game.

Tomiko Gun
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I 100% agree with this. My time is valuable, don't waste it.

Eric Geer
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"Give me cool mechanics that I need to master"


I really think this is the key to it all-in a way it could be summed up as gameplay...but I think its different. Theres something that draws a player back...that intrigues them to WANT to get better. And I think this mechanic is more incredible when it does NOT include multiplayer--if a game can draw you--lets say Mario Bros for NES--without the need to have someone else playing there with you....just the sheer mechanic of the game makes you want more...makes you want to play more..makes you want to tear the sh*t out of the game...I think those are games that are really worth my $40-60. Lately...that has not been readily available in the gaming world. I can't say/vouch for I have not played Modern Warfare 2, but can the single player campaign draw you in like Mario for NES...or for any of the older games with a focus on single player? Asteroids, DK, Galaga---Yes I understand the stories are generally weak in these games..but I think that is key to what I am discussing---Does story matter? or can we just have games? Do we need cut scenes?(Do we even care?) If games as simple as these are being played over and over and over--why are we creating games that have stories that can only be played once or twice? Do stories hinder the lifetime/replay value of a game? I know and can consider a couple games that I have played like crazy because the story is weak but the 1)gameplay incredible 2)challenging 3)offers rewards/sacrafices 4)Little story(only initially) 5)Replay value is extremely high------these games are Monster Hunter Tri and Demon's Souls--I suppose Monster Hunter is reliant upon multiplayer but multiplayer in a more cooperative play opposed to just getting headshots....and demons souls is just a ruthless game that requires a skilled gaming hand but also a lot of focus and care when playing-but in either game you are rewarded for your efforts which keeps you moving forward...brings you back again and again to try and get better.....(Demons Souls probably could turn off alot of people-but if the difficulty could be turned back a could open this up a bit more)

Chan Chun Phang
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On an offthought: What's the general opinion about game length, in MMOs? I know it's a current tendency for developers to implement "time sinks" and for players to complain about "grind" (at least, for western MMOs, "grind" seems to be a feature in some eastern ones). What can be done to salvage such developments and opinions, while still developing the MMO to have sufficient persistent connections?

Paopao Saul
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There is another factor at work here, wherein gameplay length affects the price of the game. Although this is mostly valid for commercial games only. Ideally the price of the game should match its quality, if all games had the same length, but since the cost of commerical game development for the consoles have skyrocketed in recent years, we have to put up with expensive yet lackluster games. I'd argue that length is important, but should qualify IMHO that it should be something along: game length = quality / price. I'm not going to pay for an expensive fps clone, and I'm not going to buy a farting 'app' either, no matter how cheap it is.

Extrapolating my opinions above, where price=quality, then,

game length = quality

or game length = price

In other words, I will buy a high quality game with hundreds of hours worth of gamplay even if its expensive. However, a high quality game that only has at most a few hours of gameplay will have to be affordably priced for me to even consider buying it. In this regard, Limbo is a very good game(short game), and so is Dragon Quest 9(long game).

2 cents.

Jamie Cheng
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Thanks for the great comments, everyone. For those mentioning that larger prices require longer experiences, I agree on that premise, though as mentioned I believe that there's simply a minimum bar that must be met for each band of price point, and that minimum bar is quite low.

It's rare that a game is unappealing simply because, although it has a great experience, it's simply too short for that price point -- more often the game isn't too short but simply too boring. It's rare enough that I don't believe we don't need to ask the question every time a game arrives.

I also agree that a game that sells as a feature the depth you can discover by investing time does have amount of content as a valid question. This, as well noted by Bart, does not equate to asking that question for every title. As an analogy, just as some games tout "realistic fighting mechanics!" does not mean we should ask every game with fighting how realistic their fight mechanics are.

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Robert Boyd
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I think game length is very important at times - sometimes you're low on funds and you want a game that will last you a while. However, I think it's much better to look at game length as the amount of time that a game continues to be fun and not the amount of time it takes to "beat" the game. By that measurement, I've found games like Mirror's Edge & Pac-Man: Championship Edition to be far longer games in practice than some huge games like Final Fantasy XIII & Morrowind because the former games kept me entertained for multiple playthroughs as I tried to improve my scores whereas I lost interest in the latter game before reaching the end.

Sean Kiley
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What I expect for my bucks:

$60: minimum 12 hours game play

$50: 10

$40: 8

$30: actually, i still want 7 or 8

$20: 6

$10: 4

$5: 1.5

It's interesting how the linear equation breaks for me around $30