Too Long or Too Short? What is the right length for a game?

The amount of time from the opening cutscene to the end credits of a video game is an important part of the game. People like to feel like they’ve had their “money’s” worth, but at the same time you don’t want the game to grow tiresome before you reach the end. The balance is a very important one. On top of that, the feeling of a “perfect length” isn’t simply a set time, but something that is different for every game, and people of course will have a different view of what is the “right” length for a particular game. So how do you make a game that caters for these views?

Pshychonauts 2 is a game where I felt was a perfect length.

If a developer thinks that their game may be viewed as too short, they may look at ways to artificially lengthen the game, creating content that reuses assets, completing fairly dull tasks or even just forcing the player to replay stuff. I’m currently playing a lot of Sonic games, which is a franchise that has a lot of “padding” in their games. The classic games were amazing games that were short, but still extremely well loved, but as time went one, people expected all games to last longer so Sega had to come up with different ways to make later Sonic games last longer.

For Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2, Sega added additional gameplay styles. These were a bit hit and miss. In Sonic Adventure, I would have been more than happy with playing through the Sonic campaign and then fighting the final boss, then having the other characters be optional, but instead you have to play through all of them to reach the final section of the game, including an incredibly tedious set of fishing levels as Big the Cat. Sonic Adventure 2 handled it much better by intertwining the other gameplay styles between the main Sonic gameplay, although at parts I just really wanted to get through parts to reach the next Sonic/Shadow stage.

These Gaia gates are the absolute worst.

Sonic Unleashed also had something like this, with the “Werehog” sections, utilising a “budget God of War” style of gameplay. I personally thought that this was a decent form of padding and actually enjoyed the Werehog gameplay, but Unleashed didn’t think this was enough. To me, the major flaw with Sonic Unleashed are the Sun and Moon medals: items hidden throughout stages that are required to progress. Having to stop your “urgent because the world is ending” quest to grind medals on previous stages really kills the momentum of the game.

The sun and moon medals were, however, the start of something good: the Red Rings that have appeared in multiple Sonic games, starting with Sonic Colours. These have the same general idea as the Sun and Moon medals, but aren’t required to complete the main game. As they’re not forced on you, I actually find myself wanting to find them a lot more, especially as I can do it after beating the game. In Colours, the red rings also unlock extra levels with a simplistic graphical style which I think is a great bonus. In terms of pacing and structure, I think Sonic Colours does an incredible job of getting the length of a game down, especially for Sonic.

Choosing to hunt for red rings is a lot of fun.

Sonic Generations also used Red Rings, but also added extra optional missions. This is something else which I think is a great way of adding content to the game. They’re short snippets of gameplay, either challenging a very specific aspect, or coming up with new alterations to the gameplay. It’s a fun way of honing your skills once you’ve beaten the main game.

Another type of padding – one that I personally hate – is repetition, where a game forces you to replay levels, sometimes with slight alterations. In Sonic Heroes, you have to play through the same levels (with small changes) four times before you have a chance of facing the final boss, and on top of that you also have to get 7 Chaos emeralds. The gameplay for each playthrough is mostly the same, so you’ll likely get fed up with the game before you beat it. Shadow the Hedgehog takes this even further, making you beat the game in 10 different ways before you get the ending. 

There are more kinds of padding outside of Sonic. Open world games often have a lot, such as in terms of side quests. I have a love-hate relationship with side quests as I’m the kind of gamer who likes beating all missions before moving on, and for some games it can be difficult to decide how many side quests to go for. Dragon Age Inquisition is a nightmare to play from a completionist point of view, as it seems to be designed in a way where you choose the kind of quests you prefer playing. The idea is a good one, but I think too many people just like doing everything that this set up puts a lot of people off playing the game, especially as the starting area is fairly dull and some people can spend over 10 hours there before moving on. I am very glad that I was warned in advance so I could stop myself from trying to do all I could, which allowed me to enjoy the game.

A game I feel is underrated, but also a great example of a game that feels right in terms of how big it is.

Another common thing in open world games are hidden collectables. Fewer people seem to have the compulsion to find all of these, so they feel more “optional” than the side quests, possibly as there’s usually little story elements that go alongside them. I think Sleeping Dogs is a good example of a game where the collectibles have you exploring the whole map, but it never feels like there’s an overwhelming amount. I’ve fully completed it multiple times, while I’ve never bothered with collectables in GTA. One exception to this that I’ve found is the Koroks in Breath of the Wild. There is an obscene amount of them to find (900) and while I’ll never attempt to find every single one of them, I still found myself stopping whenever I noticed a little puzzle that led to finding one. I think the bit of interactivity within the world (as opposed to walking over something or pressing “pick up”) makes it a lot more fun than most collectible hunts.

One game which I felt had a massive amount of collectibles, but still managed to balance its length well, was Super Mario Odyssey. The main aim is to collect Power Moons, and there are a whopping 836 to find, then there’s blue coins (which have a different appearance in each level) with 1,000 of them to find as well. I found everything, but never felt like the game was too long as it never outstayed its welcome.

The different visual styles of each world in Super Mario Odyssey also helped with keeping it feeling fresh.

However, Super Mario Odyssey is also clever in how the game is structured. The first time in each level, you are only able to find around half of the Power Moons. This means that people won’t spend too long on a level before moving on. Some will still find everything, while others will see it as a sign that they’ll return later to mop everything up. You’ll progress through the worlds before you defeat Bowser and see the end credits, which creates a satisfying ending for people who wish to stop there. For people who want to do more, extra challenges await. My only minor complaint is I think the hints should be a bit more available, essentially making the Amiibo hints part of the normal game instead of needing 50 coins a go. 

Then there are games which have a definite ending, but you can choose to face the ending when you feel like you’re ready, even if it’s very early on. Breath of the Wild and Sable both do this, albeit in slightly different ways. Breath of the Wild is all about preparing yourself for a tough fight, making Link as powerful as you think he needs to be, whereas Sable is more subtle. The game is all about exploring the world to discover what your place in it should be, returning back home once you’ve decided it’s the right time to choose. It’s an interesting idea as the player can choose when they feel is right for them to end it. If you start getting tired of the gameplay, you can face the ending before it becomes too monotonous, potentially returning to complete the rest at a later date.

Sable: explore as much or as little as you want until you’re ready to end the game.

Other western RPGs have this to a certain extent, but the “main quest” is usually fairly long. That said, in these games, some players can have a lot of enjoyment out of all of the side stuff, such as in Bethesda games, so much that they don’t even care about completing the main game. These games do, however, need to respect players’ time. One kind of quest which does not do this are procedurally generated quests. In Skyrim, these weren’t a big issue as you had to go out of your way to ask for them, but Fallout 4 got a lot of criticism because it forced these quests into your quest log, cluttering it up. It ended up feeling that the game was wasting your time by getting you to do meaningless stuff, when all it had to do was make it clear that it was a “random” quest and require you to ask for one.

Backtracking is also another way a game can sometimes give a feeling of repetitiveness. It’s not usually something that comes up for open world games (possibly because most let you skip it with fast travel), but is for more structured games, especially Metroid-like games, or more “semi-open world” games (which borrow elements from Metroid). In these games, you often traverse back and forth through corridors you’ve already walked down, however you’ll become more powerful and earn new powers throughout the game that each time you go through an area, it will be easier and quicker and you’ll have your eye open for new secrets to discover. This created a wonderful sense of progression and is something I actually love. In games like Metroid, Control and God of War, I rarely feel like I’m repeating sections for the sake of it, but because it’s part of a coherent world that I’m learning and exploring. 

I’m hoping that Metroid Dread continues the tradition.

So far I’ve focused on games that either feel too long, or games that come up with ways to avoid feeling too short. In terms of big budget games, the example of games feeling “too short” are much rarer because developers tend to aim for longer games, and if the main gameplay is too short, they will use some of these methods of padding (and more I haven’t touched on). Some games occasionally feel lacking and like content has had to be cut for time, such as The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker (one of my favourite games), but it seems quite rare that a big budget title is accused of being too short.

However, since the advent of downloadable games, the concept of “cheaper, shorter” games started to get popular with the Xbox Live Arcade, and the digital stores have made it more accessible for indie games to be far more accessible, and now more people are playing them due to subscription services like PlayStation Now and Xbox Games Pass. And I absolutely love it, because it has created such a variety in gaming that it is really nice just playing a game for a few hours. I would love to see more big budget games follow on from the format of indie games where the length of the game is simply what the game needs it to be, and not what an executive demands it to be because of market research.

Off topic: play this game. Don’t look anything up unless you’re well and truly stuck, and then only look at hints.

One interesting game in terms of length is The Outer Wilds. You could technically finish the game in 22-minutes, but you would have to use a guide (and you would completely ruin the game for yourself). Instead, the game is all about experimenting and figuring out how the universe works and working out what the actual goal of the game is. It’s a wonderful experience and the length of the game will vary massively based on how long it takes you to figure stuff out, the order you explore stuff in and just how long you spend trying crazy things that end up failing or just messing around. The time cycle aspect of the game ends up creating a feeling that you can take as long as you want or be as quick as you can, and it’s a lovely feeling of freedom.

Then there are games which take interesting ideas and present them in a format where they don’t outstay their welcome. Journey is a wonderful experience that would be dull if it was stretched to a 15 hour game, and games with unique mechanics like Superliminal would end up feeling repetitive if they were much longer. It’s really nice when games aren’t pressured into taking up all of your time.

Not focusing on length also means more humours games like the lovey Rain on your Parade can exist.

Which is also a popular kind of game: there are some games which attempt to fight to be your only games, pushing out new content on a regular basis, often funded by cosmetic purchases or loot boxes. They’ll often have weekly or daily quests to encourage people to play every day. While some people love this, and you can get a lot of time from a limited budget, I just find this exhausting, and ends up making some games into something that feels like a second job. 

I am excited for what the future of gaming will bring, as I expect that we’ll see even more variation in the future. I think big budget games will start experimenting more with game length, and indie developers have plenty more ideas to bring to the table. 

But what kind of game length do you like, and which methods of padding do you think enhances a game, or which ones make you sigh when you encounter them?

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