I was recently asked this after Wanted: Weapons of Fate weighed in at four hours, which at $60 retail is $15 an hour (I can find you girls cheaper than that). In contrast I picked up Mass Effect for considerably less and get lost for fifty or so hours. It doesn’t seem fair to judge two different games on quantity of playable hours, it’s quality that counts in the end, right? So another win for Mass Effect there too. It’s an issue that expands into many more, concerning value, gaming style and the longevity of multiplayer, but let’s focus on the core question.
You have to factor in many things when weighing up the perfect length. Firstly genre; a fifty hour single-player action game would never get finished, an eight hour RPG would leave people feeling cheated. Secondly, variety; if you’re doing the same thing over and over for twelve hours, you will definitely get tired of it by the final quarter. No amount of jazzy cut-scenes could prevent a repetitive stop-and-pop from leaving you with a dull feeling in your gut whenever you think about playing the game again. Thirdly, context; if you’re trying to beat the game over a weekend, you’ll stay on top of the difficulty curve but you might get exhausted with it by the end. Space it out over six months and you’ll keep having to re-learn the controls and mechanics and wandering around not knowing where you should be (Final Fantasy XII, I’m looking at you). It’s easy to just say that it depends on the game, but Drake’s Fortune would have been more digestible minus the last hour or so of frantic blasting.
A great deal of the problem lies in the development process. When designing a game and estimating time of play, it is incredibly difficult to balance out players who will try to finish quickly or slowly. There are months of meetings, scripting and storyboarding sessions, months more of engine building, texture mapping, voice recording and motion capture. Hard effort goes into every iota of design in the production and the deadlines always loom on the horizon. By the time it gets to the play-testing stage, any reports that the final sections are tedious or frustrating come after months of expensive production. What are the developers meant to do, simply scissor them out in a rush to the finale?
Wanted is a short, stylish game that is nonetheless frustrating and formulaic. It manages to outstay its welcome by precisely one level; the last one, which after eight previous missions of Gears/Uncharted/Dark Sector/50 Cent-style blasting action that we’ve all done before, presents you with alley after alley of stupid, bullet-absorbing thugs. It might be a good rental but only if you’re not tired of treading that well-worn path. As a retail game it’s hard to recommend. The sting of it is that four more levels would have taken it into the realms of galling tedium. By the middle of the game you’ve learned all the mechanics and you’re just rinse/repeating so Swedish developers, Grin, were already in a no-win situation. Ultimately it’s a licensed game and while the investment means it may sell more than a new IP, it also constrains. Wanted may have been better as a downloadable game along the lines of Watchmen, along with the lower price point.
The simplest answer to the perfect length of a game is; if you are beginning to get cheesed off with the game and just want it to be over, it’s too long. If you finish and feel like the developers could have given you more, it’s too short. The sweet spot is an exhilarating final section/race/puzzle and satisfying end sequence bringing you back to the title screen and hovering over “New Game” even though it’s 1am. You can get by on four hours sleep, right?