Game Column: Time is Money?

Perhaps a sticking point for gamers since the earliest days of gaming but, with the economic downturn lingering above us all, it seems like I have heard more and more about how long any new release takes to complete. This is almost always brought up as some factor in the calculation of the value of any given title. But is the length of a game really any indication of it’s value? As usual, it’s all relative.

Having shied away from single player games, opting to play mostly shooters and sports games, which have huge replay-ability, until recently, I had been able to insulate myself from the masses who call for longer games because of the perceived value of more hours of gameplay. Now, while finally dabbling into the wild world of single player games, I find that, when reading reviews and the like, the length of any given game is brought up in the discussion its quality.

Any mildly educated person over the age of 8 has heard the saying “quality over quantity.” Yet this phrases message seems to be immediately pushed aside when talking about video games, especially those that are single player only. That same demographic would have also heard the sayings “less is more” as well as its reciprocal, “more is less.” Again, these ideas never seem to come into play when proper reviews or simple word of mouth is disseminated. There are plenty of examples that show that more of something is not necessarily better.

Last year’s Grand Theft Auto IV was a game of the year contender and, during our year end awards podcast, I placed it in my top 4 games. It has competent controls and one of the best stories I have ever played through in a game. You wind up really caring about Niko, his cousin and his friends. There is a very attainable achievement for completing the game in less than 30 hours. If this achievement would have been more like 20 hours, the game would have been right at the very top of my list of games from last year.

The GTA series has long been a big open world sandbox but, with the fourth installment in the franchise, the storyline that Niko’s coming to America takes you on is far superior to any inclination one would have to venture off that path. This generally leads to you not wanting to cause random havoc while actually playing through the storyline and sticking to the game’s main path. When sticking to that path, you see that Rockstar has added many filler missions to force players to cause mayhem. A tighter experience that clocked in about 20 hours for an attainable achievement, rather than 30, would have made me feel that much better about a game I already believed to be one of the best titles of 2008.

On the other end of the quality spectrum, but not the fun one, is a game like 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand. The game clocks in at about 6-8 hours and maybe makes it 5 hours if you play with a relatively capable co-op partner. The game is vastly different than a game like GTA but, that being said, I would say that Blood on the Sand is a more focused experience and wastes none of the player’s time. Yes, one could argue that this means you are only going down corridors. It could also be argued that their are no choices for a player to make. This is all true but the fact that the developers did not choose to make players do anything irrelevant to advancement in or completion of the game’s ultimate goal (i.e. get paid) seems more focused and a better choice in a time where nearly one thousand titles are released every year.

Of course there are titles like Pokemon that can easily last 100+ hours and have millions of fans. These titles’ overall objectives are not necessarily to end the story but to catch ’em all. These types of games with overlying objectives beyond that of the storyline, such as Crackdown, with it’s agility orbs and RPG-like character leveling system, can provide almost endless fun to a player and not suffer from diminishing returns.

Whether it be too much or too little, the length of a game can effect quality but not solely based on a number of hours alone. If the game is a quality experience for hundreds or thousands of hours, like many World of Warcraft players would say their favorite game is, or, like many Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network titles tend to be, a much shorter experience, the quality of the time spent for your dollar is what matters. For every $60 waste of money and not much time, there is a title like Geometry Wars on the XBLA that is $5 and countless hours of fun.

So, next time you are about to complain about the length of a given title, first consider if you got your money’s worth and if extra time was actually needed. In many cases, a tighter experience, in which you are left wanting more, would be the better option. Wouldn’t you rather be left wanting more quality rather than being left with mediocre quantity?