One of the creators of White Knight Chronicles, the upcoming PlayStation 3 role-playing game, just wanted to know how long their game was. "So, that was the point of the question," Yoshiaki Kusuda said through a translator, laughing. Not really.
Level 5, the studio behind White Knight Chronicles, is an RPG juggernaut in Japan. They make the top-selling Dragon Quest games these days, are working with Studio Ghibli on a major adventure and have the Dark Cloud and Rogue Galaxy RPGs to their credit.
So if anyone would be able to explain the art of deciding how long an RPG is, I was sure it would be someone from Level 5.
"When we start developing an RPG we start from a story," Kusuda explained. "Then we divide the story into the parts where the player should play and the parts that would be just shown. Based on that, we create kind of a flow chart and then decide how many hours should be allocated to this part where players are supposed to be in the story, to make sure we keep a good balance.
Level 5's next RPG for the US, White Knight Chronicles, has an online-enabled quest system that auto-matches players interested in group missions. That affected how long this game would be.
"With White Knight Chronicles, we thought that many players would first complete the story mode and then spend more time online. So in terms of the story mode we decided it should be completed within 25 or 30 hours — it will be different from one player to another. And then, in terms of the online games, you could continue to do it forever."
As soon as Kusuda told me this, Sony's producer on the game, Kentaro Motomura, chimed in: "I have spent 1500 hours online and I don't feel i have finished doing everything."
Shaken from my original line of questioning, I had to follow up. I asked Mr. Motomura if he did anything other than play the game?
"Evey moment I can spare and every break time I have, I play White Knight Chronicles," he told me.
Ask for one secret to be revealed and you get another. But at least now I have a little better sense of how RPG-makers figure out how long their games will be.