A Game's Length and its Value for Money

A Game's Length and its Value for Money - Article

by Dan Carreras , posted on 26 February 2016 / 6,522 Views


This is a recurring point of debate in the video game community and it's one that has most recently raised its head again thanks to the launch of Firewatch, a beautiful adventure title (or 'walking simulator') that's generally been very well received despite its short run-time. The game's brevity has led to a large number of purchasers seeking refunds after completing the title.

It’s no secret that Firewatch only lasts a few hours and can actually be completed in time to still claim a Steam refund, if you're so inclined. But that's not exactly all that surprising - this sub-genre of adventure titles generally plays host to short games due to their reliance on a very tight narrative which, if artificially extended, risks overstaying its welcome.

Take, for example, this discussion thread on Steam, which began as follows:

“So this game was 18$. I purchased it because i enjoyed games like this. And I enjoyed this game. Alot. Like, way more than a healthy amount. But it was 2-3 hours. I feel like there could of been more, and im thinking of refunding. But here is my problem: I loved this game. It was a unique game with awesome narration and storytelling. I like the developers. I mean seriously, have you seen how active they are on theese forums? What other dev is that connected to their community? I want to support the developers, but there was so much more i could of got with my 18$. Should i refund, or hold on to it?”

It prompted Ben Kuchera from Polygon to pen a piece arguing that gamers shouldn't be entitled to refunds for games they've completed. He basically argues that narrative games like this should be as concise as possible, so that their stories are faithfully told and so that developers aren't incentivised to make poorer experiences, or to avoid the genre (and single player) altogether.

I agree with Ben, to a point; as a developer if I spend a year working on a game that can nonetheless be completed in 10 minutes then of course I still want to be paid, assuming the short experience it does provide is good. But there is of course another side to the story: the customer's side. 


About seven years ago I was a poor student. I could barely afford food, let alone games. Whenever I did have enough spare cash to purchase a game I would do so knowing that I would get value out of my purchase. Mediocre was fine, so long as I was able to spend countless hours entertaining myself in another world. 

Being that stretched for money really forces you to look for value in everything. At the time I was also working in a model store (a dedicated store for plastic war models), and I just couldn’t understand why anybody would purchase a single model for say £1,000 when it had such limited use. This, at the time, seemed crazy to me.

Everything becomes a calculation when you barely have enough money to live. £40 spent on a game divided by the 100 hours you can potentially spend enjoying it means it'd only cost me 40p an hour! That’s a bargain. Whereas a film for example would be terrible value for money: £8 divided by two hours translates to £4 an hour, which is terrible value. As narrow and limited as this perspective is, it's often how your brain works when you only have a few quid to your name.

When gaming is your biggest love and hobby - the thing you use to fill the void between the next shift or class - you don’t so much need great experiences, just good value ones. If you were to purchase a game that is only four hours long and has limited replayability, like Firewatch, then it feels like a waste, even if it's high quality while it lasts, because you can only purchase a game every few months and have nothing to tide yourself over with in-between.


Games mean different things to different people. To some, like Ben, they’re experiences to be had and anything that's less-than-incredible is a chore to play through. For others, they’re a distraction from the grind of everyday life or the go-to form of entertainment in-between sparse game purchases; complete one in a few hours and you have nothing to tide you over until you can afford one again.

Those who write about video games in a professional capacity often lose sight of this. For them gaming often becomes that drudge that most day jobs quickly turn into for everyone else. They start to write not for wider gamers, but for themselves, their fellow writers, and developers. Their opinions come from positions of privilege and so average becomes bad, great becomes average, and anything that's not fantastic is a bit of a grind to work through so the shorter and sweeter it is the better.

EGTTR Houses

I say all of this because I've felt it slowly happen to me too. As my own circumstances have improved I've drifted away from seeking lengthy, high value games and towards high quality experiences. Game length is now my least sought after feature. But just because the term value for money has now morphed into something entirely different for me personally that doesn't mean I should forget my roots and the circumstances of a large percentage of gamers out there for whom game length is an important factor.

Not all games have to be long. One of the strengths of our industry is its ability to cater to an absolutely massive number of different tastes and preferences. But to characterise a large chunk of the gaming community's concerns about game length as being pure, unadulterated over-entitlement and privilege is simplistic.

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arcaneguyver (on 26 February 2016)

This is why "value" really should be a separate metric than the standard review score (which reflects "quality"). A review taking initial price into account will not be accurate for someone who could pick it up at half that price or less down the road. Ie: "Quality: Fantastic walking sim with an engaging story and a disappointing ending. 4/5. Value: Story/walking sim enthusiasts should just buy this now. Everyone else, pick this up at $5 or less."

coolbeans (on 26 February 2016)

Instead of just separating why not try enhancing? By that I mean explaining the value rubric in detail that accommodates for both dollar-per-hour value along with the reviewer's own intrinsic value of the product?

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arcaneguyver (on 27 February 2016)

I really do thing value and quality need to be separate, because perceived monetary value is such a wildly varied thing. My example above should have included estimated play time, though.

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DanneSandin (on 26 February 2016)

Some titles are meant to be short, like 2-5 hours long. If you want more hours out of your games, don't play these short ones then. It's as simple as that.

Pipgib (on 26 February 2016)

I will take a good short story based game over a larger mostly filler based game any day.

Machina (on 26 February 2016)

I noticed that too Dan. When I first started writing about video games I would gladly accept all review copies and the longer and more involved the game the better. After a while though it becomes a chore to play through mediocre titles, at which point you actually come to much prefer short titles, and I expect secretly a lot of reviewers end up feeling this way, especially those who are essentially forced to review games for whatever reason. This, as well as time constraints, is why I suspect a lot of the big review sites don't play games through to completion. Essentially you become jaded, a bit complacent, and just not as enthusiastic to play any but the most exceptional of games. That feeling is the main reason why I no longer review games. I was already a harsh reviewer but that personal change was making me even more intolerant of all but the best experiences so I thought it best to move on to other things instead.

Normchacho (on 26 February 2016)

Honestly, how long a game is doesn't factor into whether I think a game is worth buying or not at all. Until Dawn is realistically a 9 or 10 hour game, and it was totally worth $60. If the content is worthwhile, then who cares how long it takes you to beat it?

spemanig (on 03 April 2016)

I feel bad that I read this so late. I don't necessarily agree with your sentiments, but it's well argued and well written. Good work.

John2290 (on 02 March 2016)

No offense to the writer of this article but this is one hell of an over simplified bunch of nonsense, so much so that they need to state it right there at the end. The whole article essentially says nothing whatsoever besides the authors preference when choosing games of certain quality when they are strapped for cash or living comfortably, why write this? It would better serve as a forum topic for discussion. Despite meaning no offense, I have probably given plenty but I just don't understand why this is an article, I use this feed as my main source of "News" and I look over the Spencer quotes and the, I'm assuming, sponsored content updates but articles like these make the site look like some random blog. Sorry Daniel, but I don't know who you are or why I'm reading your random, brain fart that gives no elaboration or insight into the matter in the title. Peace.

archer9234 (on 26 February 2016)

Honestly. $18 for 2 hours of game, is good. You pay that for a DVD movie.

Shadow1980 (on 01 March 2016)

I've always had problems with the simplistic "Cost divided by hours to complete" metric. There's other variables to consider as well. For example, replay value can certainly matter as much if not more than how long the average playthrough lasts. Taking just single-player games as a whole, if I play a 40-hour game only once but play a 2-3 hour game every couple of months, which game am I getting more for my money out of? Most of the games I've replayed the most were shorter titles like Mario or Mega Man, or games designed to where they can be played in short bursts if you want (e.g., racing and fighting games). Long games can overstay their welcome by being padded by repetitive objectives and tedious backtracking, which could hurt replay value. To me, the value of a game is determined by more than a simple equation. If it lasts 40 hours or only 4, if I enjoy the game enough to where I want to revisit it regularly, then I feel my money was well-spent.

czecherychestnut (on 28 February 2016)

I used to love long games, especially when I was a student and could only afford 2-3 games a year. But now with kids, I don't have the time for long games, especially when games are long just for the sake of it (lots of grinding). Short but high quality games allow me to still finish games (and enjoy the sense of accomplishment).

DanCarreras (on 28 February 2016)

Exactly the point of my article 😊 Since I've gotten older and have more disposable income but less free time, short high quality games are my go to. I just wanted to make the argument that many don't make for a lot of people out there, that for some, longer games are what they look for, not quality.

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Ruler (on 26 February 2016)

WoW steam refund just doesnt work, he beat the game he shouldnt even be allowed to be refunded imo

Stoneysilence (on 26 February 2016)

I personally don't believe I would ever use Steam's refund policy. Even if a game is terrible, I will always keep it. The only time I might consider the refund policy is if it just plain didn't work. But I usually do my homework before buying a game like that. I also agree if the game has been completed then the refund should not be available. They could easily plant some flags in the game to indicate if the campaign has been finished or not. Maybe even make it on short titles only the first half of a game can be played? Of course to make things fair you would/should indicate to the user that they hit the halfway point and going further would end the refund period.

Random_Matt (on 27 February 2016)

Only buy games with tons of hours, biggest criteria for me.

fleischr (on 26 February 2016)

I have this rule. Every hour of enjoyment out of a game is worth $1 - maybe $2 if the experience is extraordinary. Multiply that by the number of hours I actually play = what I consider a fair price.

Normchacho (on 26 February 2016)

Really? Wouldn't that mean that games like Far Cry, Bioshock, Mass Effect 1 and 2, Halo C.E. all wouldn't meet your criteria as being worth a full price purchase?

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fleischr (on 26 February 2016)

You got the math backwards. All the titles you mentioned are meaty games with 50 hrs+ plus of gameplay. They actually fit my criteria perfectly. But if I have to pay $60 for a 10 hour game, that's not a good value. If I pay $30 for a 100 hour game, that's an extraordinary value.

  • -1
Normchacho (on 26 February 2016)

Mmmm...no, not really. According to How Long to Beat, the longest Bioshock game is just over 25 hours long if you do everything. Halo is 12 hours, Far Cry 4 is the closest at 43 hours.

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Ucouldntbemorewrong (on 26 February 2016)

Going to a movie will cost about that much after popcorn and drink or whatever. If you think you deserve to get a refund for an excellent built game ya need to get bent. The Order 1886 is an example of not a good game and bad price point, it had moments but not for $60.

NinjaFox (on 26 February 2016)

I was *this* close to being able to get the Collector's Edition of The Order for $25 but was picking it up for friends and the store didn't have a third copy.

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squibbfire (on 26 February 2016)

Ahh yes...And the gamer boy becomes a gamer man. When you feel like you spent too much money on a game that's too short. You have graduated into the next level. Veteran Gamer. You my fiend are why games like skyrim, fallout 4, kingdom hearts, and batman arkham series exist. You don't expect good games for the money spent....you DEMAND THEM.