Tales from the Ebony Fortress

Playing time

by on Jul.20, 2009, under Uncategorized

Sorry for not updating recently; real-life has been a bit busier than usual and I’ve had little time to ruminate on game development of late. But then this was always going to be a sporadic endeavour rather than a regular column so have patience! I’ve plenty of posts drafted up, they just need editing and finishing off.

Until then, a note on the length of time required to enjoy or complete games today. Personally I love RPGs, and especially those permitting a large degree of freedom for exploration such as Oblivion or the Might and Magic series. Even with more linear games I tend to have a cautious play style, spending 30 minutes on Doom 2 levels that had a ‘par’ time of 2 minutes, spending 8 hours on Thief 2 levels that others finished in 1, and so on. Recently I clocked up my 200th hour on Oblivion, and although I am tiring of it somewhat, it still holds a lot of interest and novelty to me at this point. Strangely, the time I spend on these games far exceeds that which I spend on explicitly ‘replayable’ games, such as Sid Meier’s Civilization, TrackMania, or any number of RTS games.

Anecdotally it seems like many people, perhaps older gamers, seem to want shorter and more focused entertainment these days. Is this just because they have played so many games and have less tolerance for obvious filler content? I’ve watched young children play certain platformers where they’ll happily try the same jump 20 times before they get it right, while I would probably have lost patience before half that many attempts. Or is it simply because older gamers have more free time to spare and they would rather see more variety and experience more victories in that time than playing one very long game would allow? It certainly seems the case that the industry is providing us with such games – And even when playing time isn’t decreased, the play area has shrunk and traded wide expanses for fine detail – compare Oblivion’s world of 16 square miles to Daggerfall’s 62, or look at the tiny compartmentalised levels in Thief 3 when compared to the sprawling cityscapes in Thief 2 such as the ‘Life Of The Party’ mission (the size of which which even this speed-run manages to portray effectively).

How does this trend for shorter games compare to the hours sunk into MMOs like World of Warcraft? Those of us who grew up with MUDs will recognise that this phenomenon doesn’t necessarily come from the presentation values, which in MUDs were almost non-existent, or even from the quality of the game design, since most MUDs gave you the equivalent of a text adventure with the worst parser since 1982 and an unbalanced version of the Dungeons and Dragons combat rules. Was it almost entirely from the socialising and the exploration factor? Maybe the combination of the two? (Brian Green has some thoughts on the relevance of different player types in a post made a couple of years ago.)

As much as I love long games, I know I could enjoy so many more if they were quicker to complete. I currently have over 30 games installed and which I play to a lesser or greater degree, but the 2 I spend the most time on being Deus Ex and Oblivion. These preclude me from making much progress on some other games (Bard’s Tale 2, Fallout, and Football Manager 2005 to name three that I’ve put on the back-burner for now) since the longer narrative driven games require a certain degree of attention and continuity. It’s easy to forget where you stashed some equipment or which NPC you meant to talk to next if you only play the game once a month, for example. So I suppose that is the downside of the games that are more demanding of time. Modern games are getting better at maintaining this state in the game for you – both Oblivion’s and Deus Ex track your objectives for you, whereas I have reams of hand-drawn maps for the Bards Tale games – but there is only so much they can do without giving you an in-game notepad which you scrawl notes into when you save and quit for the night.

What’s your preference – short play times or longer? Do both essentially give you the same value for money, and the payoff for your hours invested? Do you feel cheated by a game that ended all too soon, or by apparent filler put in to space out the content?

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3 Comments for this entry

  • brian.ripoff

    It is totally dependant on the style of game.

    I could sink hours into a game of Deus Ex or Civilisation. I don’t mind having the game continue over a number of weeks. However, I like shorter games too. I recently replayed DOTT in a day and enjoyed it immensely.

    My feeling is that a story driven game should take its average play time from the pace of the story itself. Action driven games should base the play time on how long they can maintain a varied and fun combat (or whatever) scenario. I really dislike filler. If ever I feel a good game was too short, I prefer to think of how awful it would have been if the packed it with filler to pad the game time.

    I think I am similar to yourself, I would tend to play games at a slow pace relative to the average. I like to explore a bit. But certainly not as much as you… 200 hours? =)

  • Ben

    I think I just really appreciate a game which has both a strong story-line and an exploratory element. Oblivion has that, and many other RPGs do too, such as Might and Magic. I’ve spent 200 hours on Oblivion but I know there are probably 100 places I’ve not been to and maybe 20 or 30 quests I’ve not started or finished yet. Now, whether each of those truly constitutes unseen content or just a new permutation of existing content is an interesting question.

    I don’t mind trudging across empty wasteland if I think I might find something at the other side. I like to think of it as a bit like percussion in music – the rhythm comes not just from the sound of the drums but the spaces between the sounds. As long as the excitement isn’t too sparsely spread, I still find it fun.

  • Furiant

    Speaking of World of Warcraft, one of the things I really love about Azeroth is the level of detail the designers poured into it. If you poke around as you travel, you end up stumbling upon little stories, many half-told, that breathe life into the content. A campfire with an open pack nearby… a few meters away, a disacarded axe near a bundle of twigs… a little further, a corpse… finally, at the end of a path, a cave with some bones littered around it. What happened here?

    I too have become sensitive to filler content – I can recognize it earlier, and when it’s obviously meant as a cheap means to bloat the apparent scale of the game, it’s even more annoying. But if there’s a little intrigue at all, a little “there is more to this place than my personal interests”, that somehow makes it a more personal experience. It’s the richness that counts.

    I like to be rewarded for exploration. Not necessarily getting a piece of loot or a title because I found a “secret” area, but finding that someone had an experience there, that a developer put a little love into his craft without expecting anyone to notice. Orc grafitti, a doll that some kid dropped as their family fled from an invasion, a journal written by some completely irrelevant person.

    The opposite of this is endless square mileage of algorithmically-generated terrain stocked with ultra-aggressive wildlife who wander aimlessly in little circles waiting for JUST ME to walk by. NPC’s walk right through them; tasty deer and rabbits frolic among them; but I step foot in there, and the entire zone comes after me. Lame. Overused, cheap, lazy, uninspired, unbelievable, and non-immersive.

    With Oblivion it was even worse, in my opinion: as you got more powerful, the entire world got more powerful with you.

    I don’t know what the solution to making games infinitely interesting is, but I know it doesn’t involve making me, the player, the center of it all.

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