In the interest of saving you any suspense, here’s where I land on the issue. If a full-price game provides 6 good hours of a dense, fun single player campaign, then I can be satisfied with that. In fact, in many cases I would prefer that to 15 hours where any substantial part of that time is spent slogging through extraneous “content” just for the sake of dragging out the time commitment.
This is not, like most of my notions, a universally held opinion. For some — perhaps even you — purchasing decisions can quickly reach defcon DealBreaker if the game in question doesn’t cross some volume of time. I understand this philosophy, even if I don’t necessarily subscribe. To pay sixty dollars for a game that’s over in a long afternoon, can feel a lot like paying two-hundred for fancy cuisine that’s half the size of your average portion at Chili’s. If you can only buy one game and that has to get you through the next two months, do you really want something that’s gone in less time than your average work day?
But, that’s not the same thing as saying the two-hundred dollar meal is necessarily a worse value or even over priced. In fact, if I remember that two-hundred dollar meal five years later, even though it was smaller, even though it didn’t leave me feeling as though I needed to be hauled from the restaurant on a forklift, it’s still to me the better experience. Six good hours is enough.
However, six good hours also isn’t easy. In fact, I’d dare say for many studios it would probably just be easier to make a game twice as long that’s more mediocre and less evenly paced. And, honestly, I think that’s what we see in a lot of what’s available in the mid-market gaming world: games that hint at greatness, but can never get to a consistent state and end up drifting around for a dozen or so hours until they just kind of stop.
That, or games that provide a handful of not abysmal single-player hours, and then talk about replayability and value in terms of its multiplayer — a multiplayer that in far too many cases is likely to be a ghost town three weeks after release, unless it’s a Call of Duty or Halo.
To me, these are far less valuable products. Though I admit I can tend toward being a relic of the great single-player games of yore, I would vastly prefer to dive into a dense experience that leaves some kind of lasting impact or emotional resonance regardless of the time involved. Of course, that kind of game has become exceedingly rare. Unless you can come to a publisher with a clear example of why your single-player game will both sell boatloads of DLC and become a property with strong possibilities for sequels, they may not give you a second look.
And, I admit, in this kind of world, it’s easy to be skeptical of even those six good hours. It’s harder and harder to look at a game and not wonder what was held back so it could be sold in three months as an add-on pack. There is, even with a game thick with action and story, that niggling thought always at the back of my mind that wonders why there wasn’t more. It is a cynicism that bothers me, because what does it matter if I get to the end of the game and feel like I have something meaningful I can take away?
I think it’s also that cynicism that makes us sometimes feel happier when we get a game that has dozens and dozens of hours of gameplay. Time, after all, is a much more quantifiable and understandable measure of value, and if you’ve put in twenty hours into a game, then who cares if the studio held back some measly three hours for post-release DLC?
But when I start thinking this way, I’m reminded of a recent study that says experiences make people happier than possessions do. I’ve always had trouble spending money on something like a nice vacation to somewhere amazing, because think of all the things I could buy with that money, and wouldn’t those things last longer than some one week vacation? The answer, I know, logically, is both yes and no, because the experiences and memories that make me the happiest are never that one time I got a really nice washing machine or that day I bought a new sofa. It is always the experiences.
I think something similar is true of games. Games that I remember fondly I never remember because of how long they were or how much time it took to finish the campaign. I remember my favorite game and game moments regardless of time. Somewhere along the way, the way I measure value for a game changed — without my ever necessarily wanting it to — from dollars and hours to memories and moments. A great moment in a game is independent of its features, its DLC, its multiplayer, its price or its length.
So, I try not to think about those things too much when I’m picking what to play next. It’s not that they aren’t important, but none of those things are a deal-breaker for me, particularly if I have reason to believe that a game, even if it is full price, even if it is only six hours long and even if it has day-one DLC can provide me an experience I can carry for long after I’ve stopped playing.