How Long is Too Long?
Contributed by DJMMT
Over the years, the conversation around game length has changed considerably. Some people prefer shorter games. Some prefer longer games. Some tie length to cost. Others think length should have nothing to do with pricing. Genre also plays a factor as well. An open world RPG will of course be longer than an on rails platformer. But I don’t really want to discuss game pricing today. I only want to discuss game length. More specifically, I want to discuss how long games “should” be. Not how long they can be. Not how long they need to be at a minimum. Let’s talk about the ideal length of a video game in 2021. Let’s completely ignore price. Assume the game’s price is whatever you would want to pay for it. Let’s also completely ignore platform. It can be PS4, PS5, XSX, XB1, NS, PC, or whatever else you want to play on. But let’s assume you are playing the game at home on a TV or monitor. Let’s also just talk about AAA titles. Indies have to go through a number of hurdles that affect a game’s length while also often being very experimental. So the question is in an ideal scenario where the game was a AAA title, and let’s assume it’s a good game as well, what is the ideal length of a game?
Because money so often plays a factor in game purchasing decisions, traditionally most consumers, myself included, tend to lean towards the longer is better mentality when it comes to games. The problem is that this has led to the industry padding their games with pointless repetitive tasks and large maps that take forever to travel without actually making the gameplay or the content better. Think about open worlds like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. Both amazing games that I spent more than 100 hours in, but both also would have been way shorter if you remove the amount of time spent just travelling from place to place. Ubisoft open worlds are also extremely bloated with repetitive tasks like clearing bases. For me personally both games are masterpieces but had overstayed their welcome by the time I beat them. I was tired when I got the Odyssey platinum. It took me almost 200 hours over the course of several months. By the end, I just wanted it to be done.
One also has to discuss the trophy/100% part of the discussion. It didn’t take me 200 hours to beat Odyssey. It took me 200 hours to fully exhaust everything Odyssey has to offer. That’s not a requirement to beat the game. Also note that I’m including the optional DLC as part of the overall experience, which in my opinion is necessary and appropriate but others may disagree. So when we discuss a game’s length should we be discussing the totality of the experience offered or the bare minimum to reach the credits? In general, I think the question of length should be based on reaching the credits. It’s not a perfectly objective system, as different people will take different amounts of time to reach the end of a game, but it’s probably as close to a general conclusion as we could hope to find.
I find this discussion interesting because it forces you to really think about the games you play and also how you play them. Recently I finished Horizon Zero Dawn. It took me about 90 hours to get the platinum, including playing the DLC. I’ve done everything on the map and completed every side quest. I probably could have cut off at least 30 hours of my play time if I hadn’t shot for full map completion. Yet the reason I went for such a sweeping playthrough is that I genuinely enjoy the game. I never really got bored with HZD. By the time I reached the end of the game, I was happy to be finished but by no means bored or overwhelmed. I played it for the better part of 100 hours. Meaning 80 hours isn’t necessarily too long for a game.
The opposite situation can occur as well. I’m currently playing Nioh 2 and have been since December 2020. I’m at nearly 160 hours. Now this is a JRPG, but honestly most of that time hasn’t been spent on grinding. This also isn’t an open world game. There’s no time spent traveling. You just play mission-based levels one at a time. So if you don’t count the grinding, which you should since I needed to do it in order to get strong enough to beat the game, we’re still talking about 80 or more hours of fully organic gameplay. No replaying levels. No item hunting. No grinding. Just the time it has taken me to beat the base game, the first DLC pack, the second DLC pack, and just part of the first mission of the third DLC pack. And there’s still a whole lot of the third DLC pack I have left to play. We can safely assume I’m going to have at least another 10 hours of play before I’ve completed every mission on the standard difficulty. Maybe even 20 if we're being honest. 10 is the the bare minimum. Just beat all the levels in the game. That’s at least 100 hours of fully organic content with no bullshit thrown in. Well except for gear management which does take a nightmarish amount of time. But the point is that there’s no padding here. This is just a long game. And it’s a really good game. Excellent gameplay, well balanced, lots of gameplay customization, and a solid enough story. I recommend everyone who likes Soulslikes to play it. But this game is too long. As great as it is, Nioh 2 has overstayed its welcome. I love the game and I will see it through to the end, but I am tired. Not bored. Tired. I have played this game for much too long. And there’s people who have played and continue to play it for longer.
Obviously this is all subjective, but for me personally I think 40 hours is the sweet spot. A game that organically takes 40 hours to complete is right where I want it to be. Then an additional 20 hours to pursue the 100% completion, if you aren’t bored yet, equaling a grand total of 60 hours. At the same time, I know in my head that those numbers come from a price-based bias. 60 hours comes from the fact that games were traditionally $60 at launch for the last three generations of consoles. If they had cost less, I would probably have picked lower numbers. If they had cost more, I probably would have picked higher numbers. I can admit my bias, but there’s not much I can do about it in terms of trying to pick the “right” length for a game. It’s been drilled into me over more than 20 years of gaming industry practices. On the flip side, there’s nothing wrong with developers doing extra credit, provided it’s legitimate content and not just filler quests. I’d still say there’s a line though. Games, even if there’s no junk content, can be too long. But I couldn’t tell you how long too long is.
When I played Final Fantasy X as a kid, it took me well over 100 hours to beat it. And I was fine with that. I don’t remember ever thinking the game was too long. Whereas when I beat Necromunda: Hired Gun a few weeks ago, I was happy to be done with it after only about 13 hours. Now obviously these are two different genres in two different points in my life. My patience, standards, and interests all factor into my feelings about whether or not a game is too long. A better comparison might be Nioh 2 and The Surge. Same genre and both played within the same year. I was definitely ready for The Surge to be over when I beat it, but it did not feel too long. And I actually did end up doing a lot of grinding in that game. According to my save file, I ultimately played it for just over 48 hours. That’s way less time than I put into Nioh 2 with what at least feels like a lot less grinding and yet I’ve spent way more time playing Nioh 2 and still haven’t beaten it yet. And as I already said, yes, it’s too long. Not too grindy. Not too hard. Not too unbalanced. Not too slowly paced. Too long, specifically. It’s like watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not a bad movie. In fact, it’s hailed as one of the greatest movies of all time by many even now, 53 years later. But it’s too long. It’s a long movie. Not the longest movie ever made by any means. But it doesn’t need to be as long as it is. That’s how Nioh 2 feels. A masterpiece that’s just too long.
So how long is too long? I played Mass Effect 3 multiplayer for more than 300 hours before I finally stopped playing. I know people who have put more than 1000 hours into Skyrim. Is there really a golden number? Or at least a general range of say 10 hours that’s the sweet spot for a game’s length? I honestly don’t know. The one thing I can say is that I appreciate games most when they have a clear ending. Reaching the end of the journey and knowing that it’s finally and properly over is way more satisfying than just playing a game until you finally get tired of it and stop because there was no clear ending to get to.