How many hours of gameplay? It's a depressingly common question asked by gamers and journalists alike. But is it missing the point?
Almost without fail, a game demonstration at events such as E3 will conclude with one of the assembled media enquiring as to how many hours of gameplay are contained within the game we just saw. If I'm rolling my eyes, the developer giving said demonstration would surely want to do likewise.
After all, it's a stupid question.
For one, how many hours for who, exactly? Me? You? The guy who made the game? Your mum? The - ugh - average player?
For two, when do you start and finish the timer? When the end credits roll on the singleplayer? When the multiplayer has been "fully tested"? When every difficulty level has been beaten? When you have to stop playing because it's so terrible? When every Achievement and unlockable has been awarded? What if the game doesn't have levels? Or a story? What if - heaven forbid - you might want to play it again? What if the whole point is to replay it for a high score?
Kyle Orland, writing over at Gamasutra, agrees.
While noting that recent Xbox Live Arcade release Limbo had been near-unanimously praised, Orland observed a curious trend of criticism of the game's perceived brevity. It's a bit short, say the reviews, citing anywhere from three to eight hours for them to "complete" the game.
But as I've already queried, what counts as completion?
I made it to the end of Limbo's world - its designed levels - in around five hours (approximately, I don't count these things). Did I complete it? Am I done with that game? Actually, no.
What happened was, I started playing it again. To me, the core gameplay, the utterly gorgeous art, the tactile pleasure of moving through these bleak environments, the black humour of each sudden and brutal death, all these things were so enjoyable I wanted to experience them again. Suddenly, Limbo's length - for me - has grown.
I played Final Fantasy XIII for a good twelve, maybe fifteen hours. Certainly, I've spent more time with Lightning and co. than I've spent with that strange, unnamed silhouette boy in Limbo. But I enjoyed very little of it. I forced myself to keep playing, thinking the whole time "This is a major release, I need to play it and work out why people like it. Surely it's going to get better?" Eventually I gave up. I was done with Final Fantasy XIII. I hadn't "completed" it, but - to my mind - I had undoubtedly finished it.
When reviewers and gamers talk of such-and-such a game having X number of hours of gameplay, it's nothing more than lazy shorthand. Worse, it's worthless advice that tells you nothing about whether you or indeed any other person would enjoy the game.
Instead of this value per hour measurement, Orland proposes we consider not "How long until I reach the end?" but "How long do I want to play?"
He's got a good point. Games aren't products designed to perform a certain function, like a fridge or a toaster; they're something to be experienced. When talking about a game's value, talk about the experience you had, not how long it took.
Would you say to someone, "Don't watch Firefly, it's only 11 episodes. Watch Neighbours instead, it goes on forever"?
Follow the link below to read Orland’s article in full.