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How much of a game do you actually complete? And how long is too long?

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There's an eternally raging debate over the length of games. What's right? What's too long? What's too short? How much will a gamer actually play through before they lose interest and move on?

Sean Murray of Joe Danger dev Hello Games has recently revealed that less than 10% of players actually finished his game despite an average play time of over 20 hours, and that most games journos only got around 50% of the way through. So is that a strong case for games being too long? Is it Sean's fault? Is it the gamer's fault?

There's a growing movement these days for shorter games. It's one I don't agree with, but it's one that I understand. The argument generally comes from the older gamer, the one who's settled down and had kids, and now has big time constraints on his gaming. And as more gamers are in these situations, we're starting to hear it more often.

The idea is that less time for gaming means less time for finishing games and thus, less different games can be played if they're all 20 hours long. Fair enough, but does that mean that a 20 hour game is too long? No it doesn't. It just means that a certain social grouping finds that length logistically inconvenient. That's not the same as "too long". Not at all.

As far as I'm concerned, "too long" only happens when the length is detrimental to the quality of the game as an overall work. And that comes down to the pacing of a game, not simply its running time. We see worked examples of this all the time in films. It takes carefully timed character revelations, plot developments and treatment of the overall story arc to keep any movie engaging throughout its whole duration, and if any of the above is done wrong then the whole thing falls apart. With dodgy pacing, even the shortest film can drag. But if done right, even a four hour epic can fly by. See the Lord of the Rings trilogy for evidence of the latter.

In games it's even more complicated. As well as story pacing, a game needs to get difficulty, complexity, and the introduction and exploration of new gameplay elements right as well. There's more to juggle, but the positive and negative effects are the same. Games like Portal and Limbo get it right. Despite their relatively short lengths, they never feel short, because their respective pacings make them totally satisfying, complete experiences. Conversely, Resident Evil 4 is a meaty chunk of game, but its immaculate pacing keeps you hooked and stimulated from start to finish.

On the other end of the scale, I place games like Red Dead Redemption. Now Red Dead is a brilliant, brilliant game, and one which I love. Its narrative ambition and grand achievement in world creation make it almost peerless in modern gaming. But if you listen to our TalkRadar UK podcast (which you should, it's brilliant, after all) you'll know that both myself and Matt are beginning to find that it's starting to drag as a result of overly repeated objectives and a little too much teasing of important narrative revelations.

I'm at the end of Mexico right now, and for a while I've been finding the game a little limp and one-note. And that's because of nothing more than the pacing. The length doesn;t come into it. Final Fantasies VI and VII are a longer games than Red Dead, but I could happily play through them in their entireties (and still can) because their stories, worlds, character arcs and gameplay development are so detailed, multi-layered and carefully revealed.

As mentioned at the top of this article though, a player's staying power will also depend on the individual player. Aside from time constraints elsewhere in life, the level of challenge, gameplay depth, and the general sorty of experience a person is up for will play a major role. Joe Danger builds upon its ideas and difficulty right through to the end, but certain players just aren't interested in investing time in developing the levels of hardcore precision is later demands. Similarly, many Grand Theft Auto players sadly just aren't interested in Rockstar's epic cinematic sagas, and simply buy the games to dick around with.

So are developers making a mistake by making long, demanding games? No. No they're not at all. But they need to construct them very carefully, and they need to accept that, especially in today's climate of more casual and older players, not everyone is going to appreciate them, however well made they are. Those who do however, will absolutely bloody love them.

Where do you stand?

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76 comments

  • Anduin1 - August 31, 2010 11:40 p.m.

    No such thing as a game that is too long, as long as it can keep you interested for 30,40,50,60+ hours it doesn't matter what the length is. Games that are under 20 hours never get my $$$. I have games that Ive invested hundreds of hours into and then some like 10-15, guess which series got repeat buys?
  • kuroda - August 26, 2010 8:22 p.m.

    Can joe be a monkey? we like monkies
  • jessestell - August 26, 2010 5:09 a.m.

    Its funny to read so many people didn't like FF13, the pacing, story, and battle system in that game kept me interested and was the only game to keep me so interested since MGS4.
  • TheBoz - August 25, 2010 9:58 p.m.

    Also, are some of you guys crazy? If I spend a lot of money on a game, I would be absolutely gutted if I spend less than 20 hours on it. Fallout 3 can be as short or as long as you want it to be, do all the side quests, or just get on with the main story. Many people dislike the fact you can not complete the side quests once you have completed the main quest. I am one of those people. If you don't like to spend more than 16 hours on a game, then just buy demos and shareware and stick with them.
  • TheBoz - August 25, 2010 9:52 p.m.

    One thing I would like to mention, best thing about PC games is that you can cheat, cheat and cheat some more. When I get fed up of a game or get to a stage where I can not get any further, I like to use cheats like God mode, just to get through the game and see all the things worth seeing. I am surprised at the lack of cheats when it comes to Xbox games. Am I the only one that thinks that? I sometimes go back to a game and have a blast with God mode on to see how quick I can get through it, or just do crazy things in game. I bet I am not alone on this.
  • TheBoz - August 25, 2010 9:45 p.m.

    FORZA 3 is probably toooooooooo long, I will not buy all the available cars, and a lot of the races are repeated, just with different car classification. I am still playing my way through it now, only because I am determined to complete the seasons and ger a gold in every single event. LOST EDEN what a classic game, it took me less than 24 hours to complete, I didn't cheat and read walkthroughs. I don't know why, but I was a fan of Cryo games, maybe they just released the most beautiful games at the time to show off what the PC can do when I first got a PC. In all honesty, the game was way too short, I loved the music, and if I am honest, I did go back to it a few times just because of the outstanding graphics and the great music. Possibly the easiest game of all time. It was just pure evil to have this masterpiece so short. SANITARIUM BLADERUNNER These 2 games were a couple of my faves at the time, both took me less than a week to complete without any walkthroughs or anything. Sanitarium I played only the once then sold it, but still look at clips on youtube, no other game is like it at all, even after all this time. Bladerunner I must admit, I did play and complete maybe 3 or 4 times. Again, it was a crime for these 2 games to be too short. Bladerunner should really be made into a first person RPG/shooter. FULL THROTTLE Famous for a few things, Mark Hamill, Great graphics/cut scenes, great characters and plot, and bikes and bikers. Also was infamous for being too short.
  • TheSpanishAnnounceTable - August 25, 2010 4:04 p.m.

    Brilliant Brilliant article i 100% agree
  • FatRat - August 25, 2010 11:22 a.m.

    I have to dissagree with this article for me Re4 was the perfect example of a game that is two long I remember i spent about a week playing that game and thought i must be was getting near the end then i got stuck on something and decided to look a walkthrough up online i was shocked to discover i was barley halfway through. I imideatly thought to myself "fuck it,its not worth it" took the disk out of my machine and never played it again.
  • philipshaw - August 25, 2010 10:21 a.m.

    I try to beat every game I get and it doesn't matter if it's long or short because I'm a student with a lot of free time
  • sepirothpk - August 25, 2010 10:02 a.m.

    I am in complete agreement. I prefer my games to be a little meaty, but if it drags on, then it's better to cut the excess. Portal was the right length. I also though TWEWY was a good length, and still has re-playability thanks to it's extra missions/chapter select.
  • jmcgrotty - August 25, 2010 7:35 a.m.

    I finish maybe 20% of the games I buy. I'm actually surprised that anyone would think that is low. Who the heck has time to play a game to completion? And someone said that you would read a book to completion even if it took weeks to do it. This doesn't really correlate to the game world. Playing a game over and over would be the equivalent of reading the section of Les Miserables over and over where Jean Valjean steals bishop Myriels silverware. Over and over and over.
  • HawtKakez - August 25, 2010 1:42 a.m.

    It's funny that I never look at the timelength of gameplay in the game. I just enjoy the game as how I've got it.
  • Genericide - August 25, 2010 12:07 a.m.

    This article is spot on, although of course to pace a game so well does take a serious amount of skill and effort. In general I'm all for longer games, as I think if I'm going to spend fifty or sixty dollars on something it better be enough entertainment to last me until I can afford another one. Of course, some shorter games are better, but too many titles these days go for a shorter main game, which is a bummer for people like me who aren't as fond of online multiplayer. I don't even mind a bit of padding in the game, so long as the base mechanics of the game are enjoyable enough to justify it. However, there are far to many variables for me to decide how much is to much on anything but a case by case basis.
  • Metroidhunter32 - August 24, 2010 11:06 p.m.

    My vote goes for longer games. They keep me playing for longer with less money spent. If I ever get tired of it I can come back to it next week. I can appreciate a short game, but long ones are where it's at for me. Not just the 20 hour ones, my favorite game took me 65 first time. Big games for me.
  • Blash - August 24, 2010 10:29 p.m.

    This is an issue that collides horribly with my completionist mentality. If a game has too much to do, or it just stretches out too long, I tend to, well, not complete it. Open world games, ala Fallout 3 and Elder Scrolls IV, are the main perpetrators for me, they give me a headache just thinking about them. Knowing that I won't be able to fully complete a game without putting more than 20+ hours into it turns me off from it. This is more of a personal problem rather than the topics David covered, but still. Does anybody view this the same way as me, or am I alone on this one? Hahaha
  • SUCKxITxEZ - August 24, 2010 8:24 p.m.

    i think darksiders is a good example of how long an action adventure game should take. around 16 hours. tbh i thought twilight princess was kinda too long
  • CAPST3R - August 24, 2010 8:21 p.m.

    It just depends how long it takes for the game to become repetitive. A few examples of how long I've played some games: FO3: 225 hrs. JC2: 50 hrs, 65%. Borderlands: 20 hrs. FC2: 30 hrs. GTA4: 35 hrs. GTA:SA: 170 hrs. I've played on FO3 and GTA:SA so much because you're always doing something different, but on Borderlands, it's always the same thing. That's why some people are so addicted to (the godawful) MW2, because online, something different's always happening.
  • sofaku - August 24, 2010 8:20 p.m.

    i beat red dead in a week...
  • ShaneCedt - August 24, 2010 8:17 p.m.

    it's all about pacing...i think us older gamers are tired of game developers putting in sections that just drag out the game ("now do action X 100 times before you can move on")
  • AnonymouZ - August 24, 2010 7:34 p.m.

    clovin 64 pretty much ninja'd my comment. i dislike fps for that matter... except for when i get to have fun with them, like bad company's games.

Showing 1-20 of 76 comments

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