“Video games are too long.”
It was a viral tweet that set of a conversation that’s long been boiling and bubbling and brewing just beneath the surface of the games industry. Long have players, journalists, and devs alike debated the “optimal” length for a game, but the latest debate comes from The Last of Us Part II’s lengthy campaign, and whether or not it is necessary to tell its story (all while bringing up reports of crunch that make up these longer games).
Video games are too long
— Jason Schreier (@jasonschreier) June 28, 2020
To be fair, Schreier never meant his tweet to be nuanced discussion. Twitter is rarely eloquent enough to allow for a meaningful conversation about nearly anything. It was simply five words. A general opinion loaded with subtext; subtext that many different people have extruded in many different ways. Was it about The Last of Us Part II? Cyberpunk 2077? Final Fantasy VII Remake? Some old game from five years ago that Jason is just getting around to playing? It was actually prompted by The Last of Us Part II, but realistically, it doesn’t matter. But while a tweet doesn’t inspire nuance, there is a place for deeper discussion around the length of games and what exactly is “too long” for any given game under various circumstances.
On the surface, this discussion could be seen about the valuation of the player’s time. Why tell what you could say in 10 hours over the course of a 25 hour game? Is every part of the experience necessary? What is padding and filler? It’s an onerous and neverending debate. Ask 50 different people and you’ll get 50 different answers, and that’s just for a single game. Some people want more of that experience. Some want to be able to consume it faster. Now apply it to the entire catalog of games coming out. It’s a mess with no real answer.
See, the crux of the player side of this debate lies in people’s individual lives and free time. Some people are just inherently able to put more time into more games. Some people want to play everything. Some people want to spend more time with fewer things. Some dedicate hours of each day to games, while others may only play occasionally for a couple of hours each week. Still the nuance goes on, as some put time into completing every aspect of a game 100%, while others just want to complete the main campaign and move onto the next thing.
And it’s the developers who are given the impossible task to refine the length of their game. It can’t be too short, but it can’t be too grindy or full of filler. It has to have enough to do for players who want to explore on the side, but not make that content “required” for the golden path to complete the game. And the answers to these questions will vary depending on the size of the developer, genre of game, and a multitude of other factors that determine the length and content of any given game.
The simplest answer here is that each game should individually be as long as it needs to be without excessive filler content to artificially pad out playtime. That’s the basic universally agreed on truth (which can then be torn apart by thousands of opinions on what exactly constitutes filler, etc.). But there’s a bigger part of this conversation than the endless debate by players.
Video Games Are Products That Need to Make Money
At the end of the day, a video game needs to be profitable, and “longer” games are traditionally deemed more worthy of that $60 new game price value than something shorter. Comparing a game with a six-hour campaign to The Last of Us Part II’s huge 25-hour story puts artificial “value” barriers in place. Regardless of the game, players tend to think in a “dollars per hour” mindset when it comes to games. This is why replayability and multiplayer and other various features that extend playtime are so important. The more a player can squeeze out of something they paid top dollar for, the more they’ll be willing to pay that top dollar in the first place.
And so it goes, developers then squeeze everything they can out of their games, to varying effect. They are placed in this impossible predicament of making something that is accessible to everyone, whether they play occasionally in brief spurts or whether they mainline the entire campaign over the course of a weekend.
I, for one, felt that The Last of Us Part II’s length and pacing was nearly perfect (with just a couple of sections that felt they dragged on a bit too long). There was a good balance of optional exploration and mainline story path, and I was more than satisfied by the time I reached the end of it all those hours later. Others, however, weren’t as keen on its length, feeling that it plodded along miserably and could have been truncated by about 30% or more. Did The Last of Us Part II’s success hinge on its length? That’s debatable. Probably not, to be honest, but it does now set a precedent for the next Naughty Dog game, raising the bar ever higher.
I have to mention that I do love the occasional short game too. Getting in a quick 4-6 hour story over a couple of days on a weekend is a nice break to the hundreds of hours I inevitably pour into games like Destiny 2 and Call of Duty: Warzone. Is a game too long if I’m the one dictating how much time I spend playing it? And there have been enormous games that I’ve been turned away from because I can’t justify spending so much time in those worlds anymore (the two most recent Assassin’s Creed games, for example).
Video games are too long is an absurdist statement (again to be fair to Schreier, he never completely meant it to be all that serious to begin with). Like saying movies are too long, it’s both an absurd generalization and filled with more nuance than one tweet will allow. It’s an age-old debate that can only be answered personally. As long as a game never feels like its wasting my time just for the sake of keeping me playing, games can be any length they wish. I’ll happily spend 100+ hours in the worlds of The Witcher 3 or Cyberpunk 2077. I didn’t mind that Final Fantasy VII Remake was a 50+ hour epic.
Respecting the Players, Respecting the Devs
The fact is we’re starting to reach that glass ceiling of diminishing returns. Game worlds getting bigger and playtime getting longer simply isn’t impressive anymore. Now they need to focus on density. It doesn’t matter how big and varied Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City is if it’s not teeming with life. I’d rather a smaller environment that feels alive and interesting than a massive empty world that’s just a bullet point on a box.
In addition, asking developers to create more, more, more, burning themselves out and costing more development money and time may not be directly linked to the revenue the game makes on release. It’s a metric that’s extremely difficult to track. For example, had Naughty Dog cut anywhere from 25-30% of The Last of Us Part II, could they have saved money on development costs? Would it have still made the same amount when it released? Would it have been true to the artistic vision the studio had for the game? Would it have felt like it was “missing” pieces of it? And of course the biggest consideration here is not churning and burning hardworking developers who are pouring their souls into making these games. A game’s length should not come at the expense of the very people making it.
Those are questions the studios need to answer internally and responsibly. Extending a game’s length to reach a consensus of “minimum viable product” to sell to the consumer at $60 shouldn’t be the primary focus, as much as it needs to be somewhere in the cards given games as a business. It’s not even about whether critics and vocal minorities are saying something is too long or too short. It’s about quantifiable metrics and discovering what will impact sales and what keeps players coming back to and playing these games. If the completion percentage for your game is low, was the journey too long for players to get through? Too high, did it leave players demanding more, or worse, moving on and forgetting the experience?
As long as the game respects the time that it asks of me, I’m happy to pour hours and hours into each of these worlds. As long as the developer is respecting the health and happiness of its employees, I want them to pursue their artistic vision for whatever length that means for the final product. That’s what’s at the center of the “are video games too long” debate. Somewhere in the middle of artistic vision, consumer demand, developer health, and business viability is the perfect answer, an impossible paradox that we’ll never solve because you can’t please everyone.
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