So every once in a while, while browsing our forums, or just out and about on the internet reading about game design, I run into a single question. A question I’m sure that you, too, have heard before.
And I’m sure that the title has already spoiled what that question will be, so let’s just get to it:
How long should I make my game?
And at first glance, this seems like a reasonable question. But then if you think about it for any amount of time…
It’s a bit infuriating.
It’s the WRONG question.
It’s putting the cart before the chocobo.
The question isn’t “How long should I make my game?” it’s, “How long does the experience I want to create take to deliver?”
Now, in some cases, this is your story. How long can my story stay? What is overstaying its welcome? What is the perfect amount of time to deliver this story? Unless you have some other considerations (and sometimes you do, but we’ll talk about that later), that is how long your game should be. If you go under that time, it will feel clipped. If you go over that time… the player will start to notice that things are stretched for no reason. NO ONE WANTS A GAME TO WASTE THEIR TIME. Adding 30 minutes of unnecessary grinding makes your game LONGER but it doesn’t make your game BETTER, it makes it worse.
And that doesn’t mean you can’t add MORE, it just means that any more you add needs to be optional. Take a look at a game like Dragon Age: Inquisition
The main story is not really that long. You can knock it out pretty quickly if that is what you want to do. BUT, there is a lot of other stuff to do. It’s optional. You can go explore tons of stuff that you never actually HAVE to touch to win. Players are OK with wasting time, as long as they get to make the decision to waste time, not the game making it for them. The game is only as long as it needs to be to tell the story. Sure there are the power roadbumps, but those are there to give the game the proper scale, to communicate the setting as part of the story.
And then, even if it’s not the story that is the experience you want to deliver, even if it’s a mechanic. How long until that mechanic gets old?
How long does it take to get the full experience of that mechanic or structure?
It isn’t about a set amount of hours, it’s about what works for the EXPERIENCE.
There is a small indie game that I’m pretty fond of, called Atom Zombie Smasher. The entire game is the mechanics really. Go to location, save civilians from zombies with a group of units and a helicopter. Assess how that changes the map, repeat. It’s fun, it’s got a bit of strategy. And the game is a few hours to play from beginning to end.
The game isn’t longer than it needs to be. It plays through in a single afternoon. It’s replayable, so I’ve played it multiple times, but it doesn’t take 30 hours to beat because we’ve decided that 30 hours is how long a game should be.
Games should never be about length. Games are about the experience. Think about your experience first, and the length will come naturally.