How long is too long?

Spoiler Warning: Minor spoilers are present for Dying Light 2, Red Dead Redemption II, Kena: Bridge of Spirits, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

I’ve talked a couple of times about video game length here on the website, and specifically about how some games can feel too short to offer good value at their price point. Games which cost £65 or $70 but only last five or six hours routinely get criticised for being too short, but my argument is that they’re really just priced incorrectly – had a six-hour game cost £25 instead of £65, it feels like a better price point and thus better value.

Take Ori and the Blind Forest or Kena: Bridge of Spirits as examples – relatively short games (under twelve hours) yet priced around the £30 mark. Both games felt like great value at that price point, and no one seemed to argue that they were somehow “too short.” In my review of Kena: Bridge of Spirits I even argued that padding out the game much beyond the 12-hour mark would’ve been too much.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits was the perfect length for the kind of game it wanted to be.

Over the past 24 hours I’ve seen a different argument arise online, particularly in relation to upcoming action-horror game Dying Light 2. Developer Techland recently claimed that total completion of the game is expected to take in excess of 500 hours – longer, they say, than it would take to walk from Warsaw in Poland to Madrid in Spain. That’s a distance of 2,631 kilometres, or 1,634 miles.

Long-distance hiking aside, I’ve seen a lot of folks online actually criticising Techland and Dying Light 2, proclaiming that its length “isn’t a selling point,” or that the game is “too long.” Having tackled a similar argument before with games that were said to be too short, I wanted to take a look at this and consider whether a game can indeed be too long.

This recent boast from the Dying Light 2 developers hasn’t gone down well with everyone…

In 2020 I spent in excess of 120 hours playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and the longest I spent in any single game in 2021 was Red Dead Redemption II, which took me 103 hours to complete the main story and the epilogue. I’m not a completionist who has to get every single achievement and discover every single hidden item or collectable. According to Red Dead Redemption II’s in-game progress tracker, after my 103 hours I’d completed 84% of the game.

However, the remaining 16% was – for want of a better term – fluff. It consists of collectables, travelling to obscure locations, catching at least one of every fish… in a word, boring nonsense that I had no interest in! Likewise with Animal Crossing: New Horizons – after 120+ hours I felt I’d done everything that the game had to offer at least once, and I had no real interest in continuing to dig up fossils or buy random junk from the shop to keep playing.

After more than 100 hours, I’d completed 84% of Red Dead Redemption II.

Games have a natural lifespan, just like any other entertainment product. That length will depend on what the game has to offer, how repetitive some of the tasks and missions are, and many other factors. If Red Dead Redemption II had offered another 103 hours’ worth of proper story missions, I daresay I’d have kept playing because I found the story to be engrossing – but I wasn’t going to spend that time in a fairly static endgame world where all of the missions were complete and all I had left were collectables to find and minor tasks to perform. That doesn’t hold my interest.

For some folks, though, it does. Some games encourage players to keep playing over and over again, and in some quadrants of the gaming community, it isn’t uncommon at all to find players who’ve dedicated literally years to a single game, sinking thousands or even tens of thousands of hours of playtime into titles like Minecraft, EVE Online, or even the aforementioned Animal Crossing series.

EVE Online is well-known for having very dedicated players who play for years and years.

But statistics would seem to suggest that those kinds of players – and those kinds of games – are comparatively rare. For example, in Red Dead Redemption II, most players have unlocked the achievement or trophy for completing the game’s first chapter. Yet on all platforms – Xbox, Playstation, and PC – barely one in three make it to the end of the epilogue and see the credits roll. Red Dead Redemption II has been out for more than three years, so there’s ample time for most players to have progressed that far if they’d wanted to – but it seems that the game’s length sees more and more players drop out as the story goes on.

I like a long story. I’ll happily watch a television show with seven seasons or something like the extended versions of The Lord of the Rings films. And I enjoyed my time with Red Dead Redemption II. But perhaps players who seek out these very long experiences are in a minority – achievement stats for a number of big titles would seem to bear that out.

Scarcely one in five Steam players who started Red Dead Redemption II actually managed to finish its story.

I mentioned the length-versus-value debate at the beginning, and I think a variation of this argument comes into play for long titles just as it does for short ones. If a game is unnaturally “long” because it’s padded out with repetitive fetch-quests, a massive open world that takes ages to traverse, and hundreds of hidden collectables that make no impact whatsoever on gameplay and story, then a developer shouldn’t be bragging about length. That isn’t a long game – it’s a bloated, padded one, and one that probably won’t be much fun for 80% of the time!

This is what I think people were getting at with the Dying Light 2 situation. While some folks may feel that any game can be too long to be enjoyable, the real criticism seems to be that players are concerned that the developers of Dying Light 2 are making a nonsense brag based on how the game world is going to be stuffed with minor, inconsequential fluff. Tasks like shooting 200 pigeons in Grand Theft Auto IV aren’t actually a lot of fun for most players who wanted to complete the entire game, and while finally unlocking that last achievement or trophy may provide some folks with a brief hit of dopamine, the frustration of having to track down 200 obscure, hard-to-reach locations across a large open world probably wasn’t worth it.

Shooting pigeons was a minor task in Grand Theft Auto IV.

So is Dying Light 2 “too long” at 500 hours? Until the game is in reviewers’ hands and we can find out how many of those hours are spent on fun, interesting, or original quests, I don’t think it’s possible to say. Some people may argue that 500 hours will always be too long, and for them that may well be the case. Aside from Civilization VI, I can’t think of any game in the past decade that I’ve spent much more than 100 hours playing – so I guess I’m part of that crowd as well.

In principle, though, I don’t think 500 hours has to be too long for Dying Light 2. But it depends what the game has to offer by way of story, exploration, and engaging gameplay. If the bulk of players’ 500 hours is spent chasing boring collectables or slowly trudging across an open world that’s too large for the game’s mediocre level of content, then yeah, I’d agree that it’s too long and has been overstuffed with meaningless fluff. But if there’s a long story that manages to hook players in and keep their interest, then it’s a whole different conversation.

At the end of the day, we all want different things from our games. Folks who have busy lives and other commitments might feel the need for a shorter game, or a game that they can dip in and out of easily. Players with more free time or who like to stream their gameplay on Twitch might prefer longer, open-ended games that are chock-full of collectables. We all like different things, and there really isn’t an answer to a question like this that can satisfy everyone. If you think Dying Light 2 is going to be too long for you to enjoy… don’t play it, I guess. There are plenty of shorter games out there to take your interest instead. For my two cents, I’d rather see a game have too much content than too little, and be too long rather than too short – especially if it’s charging me £60 or $70!

Dying Light 2 will be released on the 4th of February 2022 for PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One/Series S/X, Nintendo Switch, and PC. All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective developer and/or publisher. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Game length and value

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.

Last year’s Resident Evil 3 remake is one title that has been criticised for its length.

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.

Anthem was also attacked in some quarters for its short campaign.

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.

The Ori games aren’t particularly long, but they don’t charge full price either.

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.

The Order 1886 is another title that was subject to criticism.

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.

Game length can be one factor in determining value for money.

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.