Back in February, we saw one of the earliest gaming controversies of the year – as well as the PlayStation 4 – with the release of Ready at Dawn’s The Order: 1886. It was a new IP from a somewhat smaller developer hoping to make a name for themselves, and possibly enter the ranks of AAA releases. Unfortunately, on top of generally mixed reviews for the game overall, the gaming community as a whole took issue with one key facet of the game: that it’s actually pretty short. This inevitably sparked (or perhaps rather, re-ignited) the debate regarding the issue of game length. What’s took long, what’s too short. And perhaps most importantly, how does this play in the cost of a game.
The Order‘s criticisms regarding its lengths came not only for that it’s a relatively short game, but also that it doesn’t offer much in the way of trophies, goodies, easter eggs, and generally the usual extras one kind of that provide replay. Add on top of that the title sold for the tradition $60 price tag and the gaming community was almost primed for an explosion.
Meanwhile, in recent weeks, with release of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, developer CD Projekt Red has been releasing more and more details about their long-awaited sequel. And among that information was a claim that completing absolutely everything in the game – in a single playthrough – would take well over 200 hours.
As I’ve discussed in the past, the presence of open-world gaming and open-world mechanics seem to be something on the rise, with more and more franchises opting for, if not quite full incorporation, and increase in many traditional sandbox elements. Because much of that can increase a given game’s length, and likely many a gamer feels that their money has been better spent when so much content can be pulled from a single title.
One of the key issues as play here really is that of value. When someone spends $60 on a game, they want to feel like that $60 was worth it. Likely because the quality of a game can be so difficult to measure – as well as anticipate – value, as represented in the likes of open-world mechanics, can be much easier to quantify.
In turn, this is likely a key element that has encouraged so many developers to expand the world – and capabilities of the player – in a given game. Everything from Skyrim‘s inspirations for Dragon Age: Inquisition, Naughty Dog’s proclamations of sandbox elements being incorporated into the next Uncharted, and even Nintendo, who if early information is to be believed, appears to be opting for a larger – and more explorable – world than ever for their next Zelda title.
But the matter at hand is more specifically that of game length – one of the most easily quantified elements of all. And what the controversy The Order spawned demonstrates is that there are any number of gamers within the community who feel like that they get their money’s worth if they can spend enormous amounts of time in the game.
At the same time, what CD Projekt Red’s announcement demonstrates is one of the more disconcerting aspects of where these ideas take us: sure, I might be able to spend 200 hours of playthrough in the new Witcher title. But if I were to go out of my way to complete every single available task, would I really feel that it was worth the time spent?
200 hours is a lot of time to spend on a single playthrough of any single-player campaign – and I can’t honestly say there’s a single title that even came close that approaching that goal. Older CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate perhaps – but that was a different era, and it’s arguably been to the benefit of many RPGs to limit their game length to a degree. Even as a slower gamer (I almost always take longer than the average) the closest I’ve approached in recent years was my first run through of Dark Souls – which capped out at about 120 hours.
By the time I hit that 200 hour mark, I’d probably find myself downright exhausted with the game, forcing myself to keep playing, no matter how good the content. And it would need to be extraordinarily good content to maintain the peaks and heights in quality something like The Witcher is no doubt looking to accomplish. Can anything really maintain that 200 hours in? That’s doubtful.
There’s no way all of this time is being spent on story – and once you start padding on peripherals for the sake of extended game length, filler almost inevitably sets in. Uncharted wants you to collect random (and difficult to find) trophies for the sole purpose of earning trophies; Dragon Age: Inquisition scatters shards around its open-world environments and then places them on roofs and cliffs where they become almost inaccessible; Assassin’s Creed scatters chests with odd assortments of pseudo-treasures that don’t really help you in the long run, but encourages the finding of them all the same.
The problem with a lot of these ideas is that while they provide extra longevity in gaming, they don’t necessarily provide fun gaming. Instead, they tap into the same completionist ideas that haunt many a trophy-addicted player that, in turn, can sometimes turn that need – that compulsion – into something of a torturous experience.
And at the same time, it’s equally important to remember the value of that which is short and sweet. In spite of the optional-treasure finding, all three Uncharted are relatively short, story-driven (and largely linear) titles that still offer up a stellar experience that makes the cost of full retail worth it. Doubtless many would say the same of Naughty Dog’s much loved The Last of Us – somewhat longer, but still pretty restrictive in much of the world exploration.
All three Metroid Prime games could individually be finished in less than ten hours, especially going for a speedrun – and having those limitations on length (with no obvious encouragement for diversity in a replay) is part of what makes them great. Because none of the trilogy tries to add on peripherals for the sake of lengthening the experience, there’s a much greater sense of focus; with no tangents to distract, the core experience remains of stunning high quality.
Like so many forms – including book series and tv series – it’s also good for video game developers to remember that sometimes it’s best to choose your exit soon, go out while you’re still loved, rather than dragging things on and on until the audience member or game player becomes tired of you and turns you off before the story has even ended.
Perhaps the conversation would be different if The Order had been more universally praised. Would all the upset gamers have changed their tune had the title been of equal quality to that of something like Uncharted? It’s possible. But that kind of stabs at the heart of the quality vs quantity debate which remains a perpetual part of gaming.