How Long Should I Make My Game?

in Advice

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.

It only works if you hook it up this direction, everybody

It only works if you hook it up this direction, guys.

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

I have no choice but to look at it, My wife seems to be playing it every day.

I have no choice but to look at it, My wife seems to be playing it every day.

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.

... that helicopter better get there fast.

… that helicopter better get there fast.

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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Peace Boy

    Interesting. I always thought about making really long games because players like myself get sad when a game ends.
    Xenoblade Chronicles is pretty huge, how does that fit in here?

    • Nick Palmer

      Haven’t played it in all honesty. Some long games should be long games though. If it feels right when playing, it probably is.

      • jomarcenter

        True it depends on the story… I mean xenoblade chronicles is in fact to explore the planet that you as one of the human survivor to know your new natural surrounding which is kinda good since you discovered vast landscape, new creature and more. While making the story simple but effective.

  • Great article, I never ask myself the question “how long I should make a game” I think it always come naturally

  • William Johnson

    My taste for rpgs in general has changed as I have gotten older with less time to devote. For me, the game needs to be short and to the point. Tell me the story and/or message you are trying to tell while giving me a feeling of progression & challenge. I feel games like Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, and BoF 3 accomplish this well. At least for me. I like how you pointed out in this article to make it as long as it needs to be to give the experience you are trying to give. That’s a good way to look at it 🙂

  • mbncd

    I sometimes wonder if the things I make are too long. For instance, I’ll write something and end up going back multiple generations in backstories and I’ll end up with a meandering mess that I personally adore but that others wish would get to the point.

    That isn’t to say I ask the question of length anywhere near the start
    but rather as an afterthought of the writing process, as I start hacking away at it and am trying to figure out how much is enough without going overboard.

    It’s hard to tell what should be cut entirely, delegated to obscurity via side content or slimmed down for the main objectives. Cutting out too much feels like robbing the story and the players of the full experience, but leaving too much in seems to alienate those who don’t already have the great love I feel for my characters and worlds…

  • Dakota

    Good article. Thought about the same thing many times while working on my current project. In the end just decided to make whatever made sense to me and the game will end up being however long it takes for the player to accomplish what they want to do amongst what I’ve created for them. If they like to explore and read up on all the lore, it may be awhile. If they just want to go and beat the game as fast as possible, they can do that too.

  • Vit Otahal

    Right now, my game is about 30 hours long and it told only about 10% of whole story so far. So expected lenght will be 200 hours for main quest +100 more additional hours for side quests. It might look really long at first sight but on the other sight… my wife and my son loves every minute of play and each of them waiting for every new area I open to them. Both played that part multiple times just for trying alternative way how to beat it. So – yes, any lenght is fine as long as it enjoys the player and keep him tuned for next part.