If you pay $30 for a game, how long does it have to be to get your money's worth?
This is a complicated question, so I would like to look at each part independently. First I would like to discuss what 'length' means for games, then we can look at game 'value', and finally, we can think about how they fit together.
What is game length?
The common idea of game length refers to the time it takes for an average player to start a single-player narrative game and play until the end credits roll. So, for example, in Metal Gear Solid 4 it takes about ten hours to complete every mission objective and another six hours to watch the cutscenes, so the game is sixteen hours long. Mirror's Edge has three and a half hours of story levels and half an hour of cutscenes, adding up to four hours.
To me, this concept of game length is uselessly narrow -- that's just the length of the structured, linear, narrative portion of the game. It completely misses the multiplayer portion of Metal Gear Solid 4, and the time trials for Mirror's Edge, which are arguably more important than the tacked-on 'story' mode. For many games the question of game length doesn't even make sense. How long is The Sims? Spelunky? Team Fortress? Chess?
It doesn't even necessarily work for the narrative portion either, since many players quit halfway through. For example, barely a quarter of Grand Theft Auto 4 players made it to the end. Even a short game like Half-Life 2: Episode 2 only has a 50% completion rate.
There is only one metric I can think of for 'game length' that is in any way useful or universal. That metric is the median amount of time that players spend with the game. That is, the number of hours of entertainment that it provides to people, regardless of the narrative.
What is game value?
If you spend more time with a game, does that mean it's worth more? For example, I spent $5 on Puzzle Quest, which I played for a total of about twenty hours over the last year. I also spent $15 on Limbo for XBLA, which provided only four hours of entertainment. $5 for twenty hours compared to $15 for four hours? Are these prices as crazy as they seem?
I don't think so. I bought them for different purposes that have different economics. I used Puzzle Quest to make frustrating delays more bearable by masking them with the illusion of labor: "I wasted an hour on a broken-down train, but at least I leveled up and completed that quest!" This is a valuable service, but the price is driven down by the supply of similarly well-crafted time-killers like Drop7, Zen Bound, Cross Fingers, Peggle, and so on.
On the other hand, I played Limbo for its unique atmosphere, and unusual nonverbal approach to game design. The supply of such distinctive and well-executed games is very limited -- there are only two or three of them on a good year. Even though Limbo provided fewer 'hours of entertainment', they were more irreplaceable than those provided by Puzzle Quest, so it's expected that they have a higher price.
Are game length and value related?
I don't see a direct link there, but there is an indirect one. Value is related to quality content and game mechanics, and the longer the player spends with a game the more potential there is for exposure to new content and mechanics. This means there is an upper-bound to the value of really short games. For example, if you only spend two minutes with a game, you will not experience more than two minutes of high-quality gameplay.
However, if you spend ten hours with a game, there is no guarantee that you will experience ten hours of high-quality gameplay. Games with really long narratives often use large quantities of lower-quality content, or repeat a small amount of high-quality content until it gets tedious.
To recap, narrative game length is not really a useful or universal metric, it's more useful to talk about how long players spend with the game. The value of an hour of gameplay varies not only with quality but also with scarcity, and there is no direct relationship between the value of a game and its narrative length.
For Overgrowth, I would like to make the game as long as it has to be to introduce deep gameplay mechanics at an appropriate rate, and to explore them completely. Aside from the narrative, I would also like to focus on mod support, challenge levels, and other forms of non-narrative gameplay.
Size Doesn't Matter Day
This post is part of the "Size Doesn’t Matter Day" set of articles -- if you are interested in this topic, check out the other posts here:
What do you think about game length? Is there a set number of hours that you think a $30 game should be, or is it not so simple?