Clive Thompson on game durations

Clive Thompson has written an article on the duration of games, and how it relates to different kinds of gamers.

I call it “the myth of the 40-hour gamer.” Whenever you pick up a narrative adventure game these days, it always comes with this guarantee: This game offers about 40 hours of play.

This is precisely what I was told by Eidos — and countless game reviewers — when I picked up Tomb Raider: Legend earlier this year. As I gushed at the time, Legend was the first genuinely superb Lara Croft game in years, with a reinvigorated control system, elegant puzzles, and an epic storyline involving one of Lara’s long-vanished colleagues. I was hooked — and eager to finish the game and solve the mystery. So I shoved it into my PS2, dual-wielded the pistols and began playing …

… until about four weeks later, when I finally threw in the towel. Why? Because I couldn’t get anywhere near the end. I plugged away at the game whenever I could squeeze an hour away from my day job and my family. All told, I spent far more than 40 hours — but still only got two-thirds through.


The article touches on a couple of interesting topics:

First of all, I would argue that ‘game duration’ is a nebulous concept related more to ‘value’ than to actual time spent playing. As such, it is obviously strongly linked to replayability. In the end, games have to deliver a certain kind of value, and that value is related to price. So you can make free web games that you can play for 30 seconds, but once you start asking, say, 60 dollars you better make sure the game can be played for a reasonable amount of time, whether that includes replaying, new modes etc. or just a single play-through.

Second, the general industry attitude (in so far as this can be discerned) to game duration for full-price games has changed notably in the last 5 years. Square used to have a rule of ‘an hour per dollar’, and for all I know they still have. But there have been some public or semi-public announcements saying 20 hours is OK, it’s quality that counts, not quantity, etc. Since then, some games have tested the lower ends of the game duration spectrum – I remember Max Payne 2 got criticised for only providing 8 hours of gameplay. (Having said that, a former co-worker of mine once offered the theory that if a game is hard to finish, people tend to keep it instead of selling it back to game stores. This is a bit cynical but makes economic sense.)

Third, obviously from a development standpoint one wants to optimise development costs per entertainment hour, and also entertainment value per hour. This is why everyone is complaining about high budgets – the trend in the industry for the last decade at least has been to increase entertainment value per hour by increasing development costs per entertainment hour. In other words, bigger production values. As trends do, this will overshoot, some people will notice too late, and niches for new approaches will appear, or grow in size. This is happening right now.

Fourth, it is hard to measure or even define game duration. This is essentially what Mr. Thompson is pointing out in his article. Hard-core gamers breeze through games that he gives up on after weeks of playing. This is not a new development, and I would argue that it has by now become a convention inside the industry (surely correlated to the average age of middle management). Even the counter-movement to this has become boring already. Nevertheless, it is true. No longer being able to dedicate large chunks of time to gaming (it would interfere with my WoW), and having a low frustration threshold, I am a strong proponent of making games more accessible, playable in shorter chunks, etc. (and, hey, it sure worked for WoW, as you can read here).

The best approach to knowing how long your game takes is to take an ‘average’ gamer and having him or her play the entire game. I am not sure how many companies do this. Better methodology (especially regarding that ‘average’ gamer) should yield better results. I think what is more likely to happen is that one takes a couple of single-level play times from relatively new players and multiplies it by the number of levels. At some point, typically nobody cares that much, as long as you hit 20 rather than 5 hours for a full-price game. In the end, it’s all about the perceived value of your game for your customers.

Fifth, most estimates of game duration made at the start of a game’s development are, to the best of my knowledge, pure guesswork (I would love to be corrected on this by the way). Although I can think of a few developers with the analytical balls to know how long a level should take, will take, and does take (e.g. any game Mark Cerny works on), I think most multiply wishful thinking (the minimum amount of levels they think they can make, plus some more to be removed again when it becomes obvious there’s no time) with an arbitrary number (‘an hour’ sounds like the time you’d need to finish any level, in any game… right?). At least, that’s what I do, and I’ve never worked with anyone doing anything fancier. The trick is to guess with authority.

Sixth, one of my pet subjects in game design are the qualities of a game over time: difficulty, accessibility, fun, introduction of new elements, etc. Obviously, game duration and replayability are factors too. I think it’s a fascinating subject, and it’s too bad you need something resembling a complete game before you can really go to work on this stuff, because by that time, the pressure to ship is usually too high to do anything fancy. Which is a pity, as I consider these qualities to be strong factors to a game’s success, and if not low-hanging, at least pickable fruit for game design improvements.

Seventh, even I managed to finish Tomb Raider: Legend in a weekend. I mean, sheesh.

Comments 6

  1. tobe wrote:

    Interesting that you should be stirring up the old ‘I never get to see the last third of a game’ problem. I recently started playing three very different games, and two of them are about to suffer from the same fate: being eventually put into the shelf.

    As I observed myself before playing, I recently began to notice a certain amount of anxiety building up whenever thinking about continuing a game. Personally, if traced this back to the challenges, not the duration of the game. For example, I’m really looking forward to finding out the story behind Dead Rising (xbox360) but the sheer frustration of failing and re-playing seems to keep me from picking the game up.

    On the other hand, playing Okami (ps2) suffers not from difficult game play. I spent more time reading distractingly long cut scenes than playing.

    The third game however, Half-Life 2 (xbox) neither feels to hard nor has any passive playing times, I simply lost interest. I wonder if this is similar to the dilemma you have with Tomb Raider?

    I feel that all of these examples suffer from a loss of ‘flow’, a term borrowed by the flow theory. I was made aware of the game design version of the theory through penny arcade, ironically. It seems that our customers are more eager to increase quality, they’re probably feeling a little uneasy about recent game qualities too.

    check you the flow theory here, btw: http://www.jenovachen.com/flowingames/flowtheory.htm

    Posted 30 Sep 2006 at 10:31
  2. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    I don’t have a dilemma with Tomb Raider :) And I finished Half-Life 2 – couldn’t stop playing in fact. But, as you know, in general I have a problem finishing games :) Still haven’t finished Ico…

    I agree with what you’re saying about frustration. Yes, a certain level of frustration is nice, etc. etc. But if I get the feeling that a section is too hard or unfair, I will be reluctant to play it again, whether it’s because I just failed or because I stopped playing for a month. With some games, getting (back) into the story and the controls can take a while too.

    I don’t know enough about either the psychogical theory of flow or how it could be applied to games, but, if I may attempt to articulate a theory on the spot, I think getting people to keep playing beyond the ’30 second of fun’ cycle is based on a game’s medium- to long-term reward structure. The game is rewarding you with stuff (new abilities, pats on the back, story revelations, cool new levels, etc.), these rewards must be spaced out in time and foreshadowed, this has to happen on several levels: the immediate encounter, the level (say), the game. The foreshadowing is key – you have to know that something cool will or may happen (you may even know exactly what it is) in order to want to achieve it. This careful design of your reward structure is of course strongly related to pacing.

    Posted 30 Sep 2006 at 12:44
  3. Autobot wrote:

    Excellent post. Obviously, difficulty levels can play a key role in all this, but I don’t see them as much anymore. Mostly just dumbed-down games (from my point of view) that are too easy, or relatively easy games with insanely difficult bosses to tack on hours of frustrating gameplay. Gave up on Metroid Prime for that very reason, and wished they’d just given me a toggle for the bosses.

    Which is something that I think has gotten lost in the last decade: the idea of letting the player customize the game the way they want it. And that doesn’t necessarily mean wasting assets: just build the game so it’s as hard as you want it, then add difficulty levels that detune the combat, etc.

    “The trick is to guess with authority.”

    I see you’ve been studying the American President, Mr. Bush.

    I remember Spector in Dallas at the GDW talking about how Sony (I think) told him they only wanted him to make ten-hour games or some such. Well, if that’s what Sony wants, that’s what Sony gets, and who knows, for the kind of game Spector makes and the intended audience, maybe that’s right.

    Your point about replayability is spot on, particularly relative to FPS’s that you can also play online. How many hours of play are there in Medal of Honor? There’s the original game, playable online. Three follow-up mission disks, too. Plus new online maps, and new online features. It’s still going strong, it’s still fun – how many hours does that represent?

    I guess in the end I come back to another metric: hours of fun. Gimme all you got, and keep the rest of it.

    Posted 30 Sep 2006 at 23:38
  4. Aubrey wrote:

    I’ve heard about more than a few contracts being signed under the express condition that the games in question deliver “X hours or more”. Indeed, it’s a fallacy to judge a game on these terms, especially in games which are more about exploring possibility space than munching content. In those kinds of games, as you’d expect with an interactive medium, it’s more about the player’s OCD level than the developer’s ability to entice forever. (Something like WoW, the classic Pavlovian Machine, is a great test of your OCD level, and only charges proportional to how much you salivate at every ring of the bell.)

    However, it was sort of hilarious to hear how one un-named studio dealt with this problem when they realized that they did not have enough Content : they Removed save-anYwhere funcTionality. Not because they wanted to force a sense of dread – it was simply because the game wouldn’t be long enough for the contract if players were allowed to save-crawl. When even that wasn’t enough, thEy inCreased enemy numbers and difficulty until the last few levels looked like Doom 2 on nightmare!

    My take on flow in games is pretty simple. Humans are pattern recognizing machines. It takes them a while to understand any system through trial and error, and occasionally through reason and logic (once the very base mechanics are established in their minds).

    A lot of games are based on some kind of core gameplay – an interface through which all other game play is interacted with (notable exceptions are things like WarioWare, where every minigame re-establishes a new core).

    When that core gameplay is digested into the mind of the player (i.e. the system is ingrained into their mind, and they can start to extrapolate predictable, actionable strategies out of the mental model) they can start to play the game abstractly… almost autistically – they play the “game qua game”. So flow is like focussed play, after learning. It’s interesting how many games KEEP you learning with new verbs and content, because reaching a flow state in some games is just not that interesting: the game may have no depth or room for expression, or the challenge is not worth the payoff (there are exceptions, of course: Guitar Hero’s mechanics are pretty shallow, but there’s a constant, frequent, well paced amount of reward dropping every time you hit a note. In fact, the progression you mine in GH is not just the musical content, but also the exploration of your own skill. Very taoist. You have mini-epiphanies as you learn little finger movements to get that tricky orange note etc.. And most games do this to some degree, but it’s very pronounced in GH).

    What tends to break flow are “unnatural” feeling interruptions to the core system where the developer has inelegantly reneged on established rules. Special case rules which don’t seem logical. i.e. If you teach the player that they can set fire to wooden objects, don’t, for christ’s sake, make all your typical “fake locked doors” out of wood – they’ll be confused that fire only applies to “some kinds of wood” for a while. That disrupts their mental model, creating inelegant exceptions and ugly minutae.

    And that stems from a very simple rule of thumb I like to pull out from time to time: Don’t imply a freedom that you are unwilling or unable to cater for. Implication comes from both metaphor and from learned core game mechanics. Perceivable affordance comes just before perceivable consequence.

    So, if i see an open field in Call of Brothers in Arms of Valor, I might want to walk into. I’ve assumed I can because I’ve already learned the verb “to move”, but for some reason there’s our old friend: “the invisible fucking wall” in the way: I get angry and write angry comments on eurogamer, and die a little inside.

    But if I see an open field in the background of Smash Brothers Melee, I’m less inclined to go there since I’ve learned, very quickly (not because I’m smart – because it’s well explained), that the playing fields are actually 2D, and anything else is just eye candy. The reason Smash Brothers can get away with the “inaccessible open field” meme, and Allied Spearhead of Merit Badges can’t is because Smash Brothers has clearly defined the depth AND limits of player expression (and sticks to it), while Dutiful War Brother’s Hill (yike) defines and implies its freedoms and then restricts them arbitrarily.

    I believe the name for the former is “Verb Completeness” – fulfilling every logical emergent expression that the base verbs imply, and not simply amputating expression where certain emergent expressions were not anticipated (though that’s easier said than done). Mine climbing in Deux Ex is something that I really like, and it’s just a shame that it happened to break levels. The thing is, levels CAN be designed with it in mind: it’s more elegant to do that than to “break” established rules and not allow the natural, logical emergent expression.

    This post went on longer than I anticipated. And I suspect I’m preaching to the choir on this. And perhaps the Deux Ex mines example is not the best… even though it’s a really neat example of emergence, it does look a bit implausible. Maybe Rocket Jumping is a better example: emergence may be difficult to predict, but once you find something wonderful coming out of it, it’s well worth embracing, and promoting into a fully fledged mechanic. That’s the designer’s way of exploring and plotting out the emergent possibility space that they themselves have implied with their core mechanics.

    Posted 07 Oct 2006 at 14:35
  5. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    lol u said metaphor

    Posted 07 Oct 2006 at 15:53
  6. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    Just joshing… I agree of course. Consistency is key, player expectations must be managed, designers should think systemically.

    By the way, I’ve heard of games that intentionally were made impossible to finish so no-one could notice that the final levels weren’t done…

    Posted 07 Oct 2006 at 15:55