December 28, 2007

Game Length

Portal was a transformative experience for me. It was undeniably a short game, but it felt like it lasted just the right amount of time. It got all the good puzzles in, never felt repetitious, and it didn't overstay its welcome.

Further, I had a lot of other stuff to play, and it was really, really nice to be able to suck all the enjoyment out of Portal in a few hours. It didn't require a month-long commitment to appreciate. I didn't enjoy Portal "despite" its short length, but because of it.

But, then again, my favorite game of all time is Morrowind, and I often cite the game's depth as its strongest point. I probably spent over 200 hours in the game world, learning all of its secrets and exploring all of its hidden corners, and I really don't think that anyone can truly enjoy the game without spending a lot of quality time with it.

So I'm left with the interesting and important question: how long ought a game to last?

I'm immediately tempted to turn back to my earlier post about playing for the experience of the game versus playing for the joy of exploration versus playing for skill. And, certainly, I'd expect a game that offers a lot of exploration to last a long time (like Morrowind), a game that offers a test of skill to be endlessly replayable (like multiplayer shooters), and a game that offers a tight and powerful experience to be shorter (like Call of Duty 4 single player).

But this system breaks down with some examples. The Final Fantasy series is certainly an experience game (though mostly a passive one), but it relies on its long length for an engaging story and world. Psychonauts is an exploratory "new art"-motivated game, but it's linear and could succeed even if it were much shorter. And you might be able to describe Portal as a skill-test, especially if you include the "challenge" levels.

I think that ultimately a game designer must look at exactly what his game has to offer and then pace the game accordingly. If there's not much variety to offer in the gameplay, then a short and dense experience like CoD4's is a good idea. If the joy of playing is through immersion in an open world, as in Morrowind, then create that open world and don't limit the player's time in it. If you've got a few hours worth of fantastic puzzles and hilarious dialogue, then don't try to extend the game to an unnecessary length; just make Portal!

The important thing to remember is that game length does not determine game content or game value. Let the game decide its own length, and we'll be happy with however many hours result.

EDIT: Coincidentally, Tycho from Penny Arcade also blogged about Portal and game length today.

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