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We’re cheapening the artistic value of games by linking their retail cost with their length

Big game good. Small game baaad.

A tweet from MMO video essayist Josh Strife Hayes popped up on my timeline yesterday and it got me thinking about the length of games. The tweet in question reads:

Instead of making games bigger, make the shorter experience better. A game doesn’t need to be 100+ hours to be good, it just needs each hour of gameplay to be the best it can be.

Now Strife isn’t saying here that all games should be shorter, or that shorter games are in any way preferable to longer games. He’s just saying that length doesn’t have any direct correlation to quality.

Naturally, the replies are… a mixed bag, but one bothersome remark which comes up several times is that, in essence, “If I pay $xx for a game I expect it to be at least so many hours long”.

It’s a hot topic at the moment given the decision of so many publishers to ramp up the retail prices of their games in the past few months. While, as a consumer, I’m obviously not filled with joy at the prospect of having to shell out more money to play the latest games, I do understand that there are complex economic factors at work, and I’m not going to make an argument against those price rises here.

The issue with trying to impose some minimum required number of hours per $ spent on a game is that it just further reinforces the idea of games as mere content rather than as art. Something made to do nothing more than fill, by any means necessary, the increasingly more precious yet undervalued hours of our overburdened days.

And look, I’m not saying that sometimes a game that’s just full to the rafters with hours of simple, repetitive, non-faculty-straining stuff to do isn’t exactly what you need. Heck, I mainly play MMOs, so I’m quite familiar with the idea of whiling away the hours of an evening doing dailies so I can get that little dopamine high that comes when you get yet another token to add to your currency chest.

I don’t walk away from those sessions thinking “well, that justified the half buck that made up today’s part of my $15 monthly subscription”.

On the flip side I haven’t ever watched the end credits roll on a game I spent $60 on and pulled out a calculator to work out how much each hour of the game cost me. And I’ve played a lot of movie tie-in games down the years, so trust me, it ain’t all hundred hour JRPG epics up in here.

Of course I’ve played games that were disappointing. I’ve played straight-up howlers that I genuinely regret handing over money for. But that had nothing to do with how long the game lasted.

I’m not coming at this from a position of privilege either. I’ve very rarely ever brought a game at its full retail price. When I was growing up a ‘new’ game was more often than not a deeply reduced game that was released three years ago. Usually, my only exposure to chart titles was a weekend Blockbuster rental, in which case I’d be dead chuffed if the game was short enough that I could play the whole thing before I had to reluctantly hand it back over.

These days I’ve got an unending backlist, and because I’m always on the lookout for a freebie (thanks Epic Games Store), I seldom feel as though I can justify buying a game when I have so many great ones already waiting to be installed.

Outside of the never-discounted realm of first-party Nintendo games though, the last two games I brought at full price were Star Wars: Battlefront II, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and Star Wars: Squadrons (noticing a theme?). All of them had a completion time of around 8-20 hours, and I didn’t feel short-changed by any of them.

And let’s be honest, that wasn’t because they’re masterpieces. I had a good time in them and they didn’t outstay their welcome (I’m talking about the single-player campaign for Battlefront II, not the multiplayer). I wasn’t misled by any marketing which had me believe that they were sprawling epics so all in all I felt as though I got what I expected.

Not what I expected for the dollar amount that I spent buying the game, but rather, what I expected of the game itself.

There’s another argument which goes something along the lines of “I don’t mind if a game is only 20 hours long, as long as there are 80 more hours of extra things I can do if I want to”. It’s just totally nonsensical to expect or desire the people who set out to create games to bulk them out with more story, more side-quests, and more banal collectables, just so they can justify slapping a full price tag on it.

There are some games which suit this kind of thing. RPGs being the most obvious genre. Perhaps the best example of this is the Pokemon games, which have a main story generally in the region of 30-40 hours but have a secondary goal (catching ’em all) which is just as important as winning the Pokemon League.

It’s a fantastic template because the ‘extra stuff’ is baked into the very fabric of the game design. If every game had to have such a meaningful secondary goal running parallel to the main story though it would just be a wild burden on creativity.

Among all this chatter you’ll find people sensibly arguing that we don’t impose lengths on books, movies, or music, so if we want to hold up videogames alongside them we have to treat them the same way.

My worry is, that rather than slowly seeing videogames pushed in the direction of those mediums, we’re starting to see attitudes to those other mediums match that of videogames.

The strange thing is, I’m not actively seeing people ask for 3-hour movies in the same way that they ask for 40 hour (minimum) games, but I wonder if movie studios are clued into the present mode of thought where games, films, television etc are thought of more as content than as art and are giving us a constant barrage of almost-3 hour movies just because they think audiences will feel less aggrieved by ever-rising ticket prices if they can justify that their transaction is filling a sufficient portion of their 24 daily hours with content.

Huge games are fantastic. It’s great to feel completely sucked into a big open world where you know you can spend hours and hours growing your character and seeking out every little secret. That’s the reason why a game like Elden Ring was showered with praise and awards for all of last year. Just building such a game on that scale is an almost unfathomable feat. But to build one which is that good? It’s borderline magic.

That’s a term they use for films too: “Lawrence of Arabia is movie magic”, you’ll hear. A big, lavish, wildly ambitious production that never misses a beat for the entirety of its whopping 227 minute running time.

Well you know what, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is movie magic too, and frankly I’m perfectly happy that it’s over in 83 minutes.

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