Is Playtime in Games Overrated?

Everyone has at least one game they’ve poured their life into. Hours upon hours spent completing quests, grinding for unique items, and gaining that coveted 100% mark. Be honest, there’s nothing quite like noticing you’ve reached 100 hours with a game and still having more to do. But at what point does playtime matter? Should it be the deciding factor in buying a game or passing it up? Should a game be looked at differently if it doesn’t have hundreds of hours of content packed in one disk? The answer is no.

Just recently, South Park: The Stick of Truth was released. A critical success, South Park is one of, if not the, funniest games of all time. Yet, the first question people ask is “how long did it take you to beat it?” A fair question I suppose, but not one that should be the focus. It seems that one of the game’s hottest critiques is its length. People can’t get over the realization that it is a 10-15 hour RPG, period. Sure, get rid of the fact that you’ll be in hysterics most of the game, the fact that it’s essentially an entire playable season of South Park, or the fact that its mechanics and gameplay are extremely solid and it does boil down to how long it will take you to beat.

It makes sense to be concerned with a games length, especially when you’re being asked to drop a good amount of money for it. Just recently however, a presentation during last weeks Game Developers Conference showed that less than half of players finish the games that they start. And we’re not talking about games limited to Skyrim or Mass Effect (though those were included) we’re talking about games like Portal, BioShock Infinite, and The Walking Dead: Season 1, Episode 1. That’s right, 66% of players didn’t even finish the first episode of one of 2012’s best games. So when you have the majority of players not finishing the games they start, what incentive does a developer have in pouring money and resources into a game just to beef up its length?

Some developers love to talk about length, especially when their game boasts a high playtime. Most of the times however, the statistics are woefully inflated. Take Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag for example. Days before launch, lead game designer Jean-Sebastien Decant stated that in order to complete the game, in all of its capacity, it would take the average player 60-80 hours. After all, according to Decant, one of their testers who had spent years with the game took 50 and he “knew what he was doing.” Well, I didn’t and it took me just under 38 hours. And this isn’t the only example; recently Ubisoft’s Jonathan Morin said it would take 40 hours just to complete their upcoming game, Watch Dogs. Forget the other 60 to see the rest of everything. There’s a good reason to be skeptical. Have you ever wondered why these numbers are always higher than normal? When consumers place such an emphasis on game length it is hard not to get wrapped up in it and make the game seem as long as possible.

At the end of the day it all comes back to money. If you could get 100 hours of content off of a $60 disk vs. 15 hours for the same price, and that’s the only thing that you care about, the investment almost seems obvious. But a games length is rarely indicative of its quality. Think back to the best games over the past years and certain ones come to mind: The Last of Us, Journey, The Walking Dead, and more. Sure Skyrim is in the mix, along with Mass Effect and others, but the truly best experiences come in the form of storytelling and gameplay, not playtime. Even great games that carry a hefty completion time don’t quite seem to match up. At the GDC Awards show last week, Grand Theft Auto V won the award for Best Technology. The applause was mum. No where near the noise that games like The Last of Us and Papers, Please made. Not necessarily because of Grand Theft Auto V’s quality, but because at that point so many people had simply burnt out.

Earlier I used South Park: The Stick of Truth as an example of a great game that’s length has caused some eyebrows to rise. As the most recent game to have this criticism, people haven’t wanted to drop their hard earned cash on something so “short.” Yet that mentality means many people haven’t enjoyed one of 2014’s best games. And with numbers dwindling, how else are we supposed to find ManBearPig?