Have you ever had to push yourself to complete a video game? Many of you reading this probably understand the feeling of a game being far too long to beat. A game can often overstay its welcome and show all the tricks it has to offer long before the credits roll. Why is that? Is it just because some developers might have overlooked some design flaws in their games? Possibly, but this is often not a mistake.
You may have heard of something called the sunk cost fallacy. In basic terms, this logical fallacy occurs when someone believes they must continue an action because of how much they have invested (time, money, etc.) in that action, even though ceasing that action is the more beneficial choice. For example, you may eat most of a large meal at a restaurant, but push yourself to eat all of it since you paid for it and it feels like a waste to not eat the rest. It’s probably wise to stop eating if you’re full, but the sunk cost fallacy is putting a lot of psychological pressure on you to finish your meal. Similar scenarios can happen with video games, and game companies know that.
The Value of Game Length
I often enjoy playing long games. Immersing yourself in a big journey that spans dozens of hours can be tons of fun. However, some games benefit from longer playthroughs than others. Imagine if a Resident Evil game took eighty hours to beat. It would probably be an exhausting experience with lots of padding, wouldn’t it? Thankfully, most Resident Evil games are built around exploring elaborate locations and replayability, but some other big franchises have gone in a different direction.
“You can beat this game over a weekend, so you should not buy it at full price” is probably a sentiment you have seen or have even shared several times before. I’m not quoting anyone in particular, but it’s safe to say that many value completion time when choosing games to purchase. This mentality isn’t completely unfounded, as full-price games can take a lot out of an individual’s entertainment budget. Beating a new game over a weekend can be very underwhelming depending on what kind of preferences you may have. That feeling is valid, but the problem is that many publishers want to take advantage of that sentiment.
Take Dying Light 2 for example. Techland infamously boasted that the game may take 100 hours to beat for some players. This unsurprisingly turned out to be an exaggeration, but I still remember seeing several complaints of the game feeling somewhat bloated and repetitive while generally being considered a worse game than its predecessor. It probably isn’t anywhere near the worst offender when it comes to bloated game design, but it’s a sign that many game developers feel the pressure to increase the length of their games when it may not necessarily benefit the game’s design.
Open World Chores
Chances are that you have played a game that contains the infamous “Ubisoft” open-world formula. We have even talked about why it’s considered to be so lackluster before. As someone who has played several of these games, I have noticed a trend of them becoming more expansive but generally less interesting to play. While I’m not inherently opposed to grindy progression in games, I often think that the newest Ubisoft games can be the prime example of how to make a grind tedious.
The gameplay loops in Ubisoft games often do not present enough depth to keep reiterating them in interesting ways. You can only unlock so many new abilities until your dopamine receptors start going numb after clearing out dozens of enemy outposts. It seems that even Ubisoft themselves agree that the progression in these games is tedious, as some of their most recent single-player titles include microtransactions to make progression faster. If a game is so tedious that paying to skip over it seems enticing, why even play the game at all?
While I thankfully don’t know of many single-player games that allow you to skip over progression through microtransactions, Ubisoft open-world games are not unique in their design flaws. A lot of games I’ve played seem to use open worlds as an excuse to make the player grind filler content instead of being built around exploration and player freedom. There are countless times I have thought to myself about how an open-world game could be improved by being a linear experience instead.
Beyond Beating the Game
I have a personal example of how the sunk cost fallacy got me last year. I don’t usually play many MMOs, but something about Phantasy Star Online 2: New Genesis seemed appealing to me, so I gave it a shot. The first several hours had me lost in its vibrant world and enjoying its combat system. Beating the game’s story content didn’t take me very long, but that shouldn’t necessarily be a problem, right? The endgame should be interesting enough to keep me coming back.
However, New Genesis was very lacking in things to do once you beat the game’s story content. I was logging in every day to complete my daily missions, but I wasn’t quite sure why. Was it to get rewards for daily login bonuses? Was it to level up my other classes, or was it just to get a fancy new outfit? After a while, I had a sobering realization. I played the game out of a sense of obligation rather than enjoyment.
I did not invest a dime into the game, but what I did invest was my time. My mind had tricked me into thinking that I had to keep playing the game, otherwise all the time I had spent would be wasted. That’s probably what the game wanted me to think as well since spending real-world money becomes somewhat more enticing as the grind becomes more intense. Thankfully, once I realized how the game tricked me into playing it daily, I was able to let go of the game and uninstall it.
Learning From New Genesis
My experience with New Genesis is a great example of how the sunk cost fallacy can affect free-to-play games. Just because you haven’t spent money on a game, doesn’t mean that there aren’t any psychological tricks to keep you playing for longer. I’d say that free-to-play games are even more susceptible to the sunk cost fallacy than full-price games in some ways. I’ve witnessed at least one of my friends invest ridiculous amounts of time into a mobile game despite not enjoying it.
A huge time investment can sometimes feel much heavier than a financial investment. If you’ve already spent around forty hours playing a game and still haven’t unlocked the cool thing the game dangles in front of you like a carrot on a stick, quitting may feel like a huge waste. You may have enjoyed the game early on, but are you still having fun after all this time? If you aren’t, what is the point in putting in the effort to get an item in a game you don’t care for anymore?
It’s good to know when to quit a game that’s simply wasting your time. There are several games out there that get dangerously close to becoming a job without the pay. Of course, I’m not saying they are, but if a game actively incentivizes you to pay to skip over the gameplay itself, isn’t that questionable? Otherwise, completing tedious tasks over and over again is mandatory if the player wants a reward without paying. Not all free-to-play games are designed like this, but I’ve encountered more games of this nature than I’d wish to say.
The Intention Behind Taking Too Long to Beat
So, with all this in mind, what are the primary reasons some games disrespect your time? One is to make a game more marketable. Many AAA games are made with the assumption that consumers want bigger games with more content. As this approach becomes less sustainable, developers have no other choice but to spread their resources thin under strict time constraints.
People want to get the most out of their money, and there’s a perception that more play time is equal to greater value. While I’d say this is true in some respects, it’s a bit more complicated than increasing the length of a playthrough. A highly replayable game is likely to give me many hours of playtime. On the other hand, I’ll be much faster to put down a game that turns into a long, tedious marathon of grinding. Essentially, some game companies could learn that value isn’t completely dependent on how long it takes to beat a game.
The other primary reason is monetization. If you can quickly hook players on your game, this can be quite profitable for your company. Making your game free-to-play opens you up to a potentially larger audience than if you were to put a price tag on it. If there are enough extrinsic rewards that players find interesting, you can easily keep many people playing and rake in the money.
Playing Long Games is Fine
It’s ok to prefer longer games. If you want a game that takes you a month to beat instead of a weekend, there is nothing wrong with that. It might sound contradictory to what I’ve been saying, but the point isn’t that long games are bad. What people find fun or engaging in a game can differ quite a lot from each other. You might even enjoy some of the games I’ve mentioned here. As long as you’re having fun, don’t let me stop you.
I believe that many games benefit from being longer. Some games have a slower gameplay loop that needs more time to explore fully. Other games have a fun grind that somehow never gets old after many hours. For example, I enjoy the older Gran Turismo games for their expansive career modes, even if they aren’t for everyone. There simply isn’t one length that every game in existence should be. How long a game should be is dependent on what the game is trying to accomplish.
My main intention is to provide a reminder. Don’t force yourself to beat a game you don’t enjoy playing. Your time is more valuable than “getting your money’s worth”. It sucks to spend money on a game, only to discover that it’s not your cup of tea. However, the time you spend playing is something you’ll never be able to get back. Unless you enjoy analyzing games as much as I do, it’s probably best to play a different game or put the controller down.