From time to time a video game will come along that causes controversy for its length. Titles like last year’s Resident Evil 3 remake, PlayStation 4 launch title The Order 1886, and even Gears of War 4 have all been criticised in some quarters for being too short, and whenever such criticism is made the same keyboard warriors crawl out of the woodwork. “There’s no such thing as too short!” they exclaim, stating that a game’s length doesn’t matter so long as the game itself is good. And that’s not an unfair argument; many players would rather play an excellent game that’s 6 hours than endure a bad game for 60 hours. But that isn’t the end of the affair.
This whole discussion seems to stem from a place of wealth and privilege. If someone has a huge budget for gaming, then of course the length of a game doesn’t matter. Paying £50 or £60 for a six-hour experience is absolutely fine – but only for players who can afford it. Many folks, myself included, have a limited budget for games and gaming, and the length of time we’ll be able to enjoy a game is thus a factor in deciding whether to purchase it and whether it meets our needs, especially considering how many games are out there waiting to be played.
In brief, if I’m confronted with two games that are each £55 (the standard price for brand-new AAA games in the UK at present) one of which is 6 hours long and one of which is 30 hours long, one game clearly offers better value than the other; I will get more gaming for my money with the longer title. “Enjoyment” is a nebulous concept which is difficult to quantify, but if we assume both games are in the same genre and both were well-received by reviewers, one game demonstrably offers better value.
It’s uncommon for me to pick up a brand-new title at launch specifically because of how pricey games can be. Though length isn’t the only consideration when deciding which new game to pick up, it certainly can be one factor among many. Though I would never say “short games are bad,” because many aren’t and can be a lot of fun, how much time I can expect to enjoy a game for is a factor for myself and, I have no doubt, for many other players with limited funds.
The length-to-value calculation assumes that games are initially offered at full price – £55 or $60 for the basic version, with some ultra-special editions going for a lot more. But there is a second component to this issue, and for me it gets right to the heart of the matter. Some games, such as Ori and the Blind Forest, are competitively priced right from the moment that they launch. Both games in the Ori series didn’t ask full price, and because both games were relatively short (at around eight and ten hours respectively) they still offered good value.
If a game only has six hours’ worth of content and asks for £55 or $60 up front, it deserves all of the criticism that it gets. But if the same game were to launch for £20 or £30, practically all of that criticism would melt away. The game could be seen as good value because it would be priced accordingly. Raw length on its own isn’t the issue, the real reason why some people – especially those of us on lower incomes or with less money for gaming – can feel ripped off by a short game is that they feel like bad value.
Getting the best value for money isn’t always about buying the cheapest product. If I buy an incredibly cheap roll of bin liners (garbage bags) but they leak so I have to use two each time, I haven’t necessarily got the best value. If I buy a cheap pair of headphones that break, and I have to keep replacing them every few months, I haven’t necessarily got the best value. The same is true of video games: I could log on to Steam or any other digital shop right now and buy the cheapest game I could find – but there’s no guarantee I’d enjoy it or even be able to play it.
Value for money exists whatever kind of product we’re talking about, and video games are commercial products. Just like the cheapest game isn’t necessarily the best value game, nor is the longest game. But when considering all of the different factors involved in deciding whether or not to go ahead and make a purchase, for a lot of folks length absolutely can be a valid consideration.
If a game is too short, and a player only has enough money for one new game, I can quite understand that player choosing to overlook that game in favour of a longer one. For someone whose primary hobby is playing video games, how long a video game lasts can be important. If a game is over within a few hours, and can thus reasonably be beaten in a day or even in an afternoon, someone on a limited budget could find themselves stuck with nothing to play for the rest of the week or the rest of the month.
This is why length matters. It isn’t the only thing that matters, and I don’t believe that most folks on this side of the argument are trying to simplistically argue that “short game equals bad game.” But what we are saying is that short games that ask full price aren’t great value, and that some publishers need to reconsider how much they charge if their latest title is particularly short.
There are many short games that I’ve played over the years that I had a lot of fun with, and I would never say that short games are inherently bad or not worth playing. But at the same time, when reviewing a title like that you can expect to see me comment on the length and even go so far in some cases as to recommend players wait until a game’s price is reduced before picking it up. That’s simply because of my own perception of a game’s value.
Think about it like this: a six-hour game that costs $60 is charging you $10 per hour of playtime, whereas a six-hour game priced at $20 is only charging $3.33 per hour of playtime, and a game with a hundred hours’ worth of content at $60 is charging you a mere 60¢ per hour of playtime. Now it’s true that not all games and thus not all hours of gameplay are created equal, but assuming that we’re looking at games with similar review scores within the same genre then I think the comparison is apt.
Let’s conclude by answering a question: can a game be too short? No, but it can be too short to offer good value at its price point. Asking for games to be priced accordingly instead of blindly leaping to the defence of publishers who are, in some cases at least, trying to get away with overcharging and underdelivering, will see this argument all but disappear.
All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studio, developer, and/or publisher. Some screenshots and promotional art courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.