Fire Emblem: Three Houses recently released, and it’s good. Boy oh boy, it’s everything I want a Fire Emblem game to be. It’s got great characters, a gripping story, and incredible depth to its signature tactical gameplay. But despite its incredible strengths, there’s something that’s been bugging me:
Does it really have to be 80 hours long?
Indeed, most players have been taking 60-80 hours to complete Three Houses, compared to the usual 25-40 hour playtime of previous Fire Emblem titles. But wait, we’re just getting started. That 60-80 hour figure applies to just one story route, and spoiler alert: there are four. Much to my delight and dismay, Three Houses could demand 200+ hours of my life for me to get the full experience, and that’s being conservative with the numbers.
But it’s not just Fire Emblem. This is a trend that is becoming increasingly more common. AAA games are starting to demand copious amounts of time, and while many people welcome this with open arms, I have concerns. Whether you’re nodding your head in stalwart agreement, or huffing with fuming disgust, hear me out on why we could really benefit from some shorter games.
A Lot of People Just Don’t Have Time for Long Games
This is my first point, and it is admittedly the most selfish one. But let’s look at the facts — over 70% of gamers are over the age of 18, with 34 being the average age. With that in mind, how many 34-year olds do you know that have literally hundreds of hours of time to spend on a single video game?
At 34, the average person has settled deeply into the responsibilities of adult life. They’re more than likely working full-time, and there are probably many activities competing for their spare time. Being married reduces your free-time by a decent amount, and that figure multiplies by about ten thousand when kids enter the picture. But even if you’re single as can be, most people have something going on in their life which doesn’t allow them to play video games for eight hours a day. If you’ve got friends, family, a workout schedule, and any other hobbies, forget about it.
Now, I know that not all gamers are 34, and that there are plenty of exceptions to the factors I mentioned above. But the point still stands — grown adults are the primary demographic of video games these days, but they’re increasingly unable to commit to titles from their favorite franchises because games are just becoming too impossibly long.
Long Games Can Inflate Budgets And Prolong Development Time
In an industry where video game development costs have ballooned into the hundreds of millions, where a single AAA release can be in development for several years, it’s time to consider how the industry may benefit from being just a little less ambitious. The game industry is becoming increasingly infamous for its brutal work conditions and toxic crunch culture, and it probably doesn’t help when so many games are absolutely titanic in size.
Now, I’m fully aware that short games don’t always make things easier on developers. A game like The Last Of Us might clock in at a modest 12 hours or so, but it’s so stuffed with rich detail and quality assets that its development is just as demanding as many other AAA games which are much bigger in scope. But there are a lot of games that are much bigger than they need to be, and sometimes the mindset of “quality, not quantity” could save producers a helluva lot of time and money.
It’s Difficult to Replay Long Games
Don’t get me wrong — longer games, more than most, have tremendous replay value. Because there is so much to do, you can typically vary up your playstyle more and have each experience by wildly different. The problem? Once the game reaches a certain scale, it just becomes impractical to replay it in the first place.
I don’t just speak for myself — I speak for everyone who struggles to balance video games with their other various grown-up responsibilities. Many other players and I would love to experience gems like The Witcher III and Breath of the Wild in a whole new light, but more often than not, it’s more practical to have one “master file” over the lifetime of the game, since starting over just demands too much time.
I have many fond memories replaying my favorite Zelda games, most of which can be finished in less than 30 hours. Each playthrough made me appreciate the game more and more, but with a game like Breath of the Wild, it’s simply too massive to visit over and over again. In this respect, length and scale is a blessing and a curse. BOTW’s scope is one of the reasons why it’s such a great game, but after one master playthrough where I did pretty much everything that it offers, I’ve found that I’m much less motivated to come back to it.
Long Games Monopolize Your Gaming Time
There are more games now to be experienced than ever before, and they just keep coming. And yet, I experience hardly any of them anymore because I only have so much gaming time. With the hottest releases being so huge in scale, I’ve found that the overwhelming majority of my gaming time is monopolized by a single title at a time — often for weeks or months.
Red Dead Redemption 2 comes to mind. When it came out, I couldn’t have been more excited to enjoy this masterpiece of a game, but I dreaded the fact that it would literally take months to complete given my allotted gaming hours. Even now, I haven’t beaten the campaign, because other titles that I couldn’t resist have since then come out. When most new releases demand hundreds of hours of your time, it means you either have to pass other games by completely, or end up walking away from them to fit new ones into your schedule.
It’s certainly not realistic to be able to play every new game that comes out, but with extremely long games combined with a busy life as a working adult, I find myself playing fewer than ever before.
Long Games Are More Vulnerable to Grinding and Predatory Mechanics
First, I want to clarify that short games aren’t immune from the sleazy nickel-and-diming that has become so common in the industry. But long games are a prime target for these kinds of mechanics, and we’re already seeing how many games are inflated just to accommodate garbage microtransactions.
Remember the Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey debacle from last year? It’s a perfect example. The game launched to mostly critical success, save for one major flaw — the game had a grinding problem. Critics noted how the progression of the game was needlessly slow, encouraging you to spend mindless hours leveling up. It’s very convenient, then, that Ubisoft provided a panacea for this problem: a permanent XP Boost in the store for $10. It’s almost unanimously agreed upon that the game is far better with this boost — too bad for all those suckers out there who don’t want to fork out more cash.
If you believe that the game’s grindiness wasn’t by design, you’re fooling yourself. This is a practice that originated in free-to-play mobile games, and is slowly infecting console releases. Developers design the game to be an unimaginably grindy bore, and then charge for “bonuses” that fix the problem. My beef with a lot of games is that they don’t need to be long, but they are because it allows developers to create an addiction loop which continually sends players to their microtransaction store.
So, What’s the Solution?
If you’ve stuck with me up to this point, you may be thinking, “Alright, genius, what’s the solution then? I like my long games.” And you’re not wrong. I don’t have all the answers, and this is a subjective thing that is a burden to some players and a blessing to others. For every player like me who has an hour or two tops for gaming each day, there’s another who has twelve. And, of course, some games are defined by the sheer size and scope of their narrative and/or open world.
I don’t think that long games need to go away, but I do think developers and players should be more open to the fact that sometimes less is more. I fully expect some games to be massive hundred-hour-long experiences because that’s their thing. But not every game needs to do that — if anything, a video game should know its identity and stay true to it.
Just Don’t Force It
The Elder Scrolls shouldn’t be shrunken down into a linear 15-hour adventure, because that goes against its core fundamentals. And on the other hand, Halo shouldn’t arbitrarily transform into a 300+ hour-long open-world experience because that’s not what Halo is about. We’ve been spoiled with some incredible Titanic-sized games, but these should be the exception, not the rule, because when every game is outrageously huge, it becomes sustainable for both players and developers.
Just because the Lord of the Rings movies did well doesn’t mean that every movie should try to exceed three hours in running time. The movie industry understood this well, and I hope that the gaming industry can learn it too. On behalf of busy gamers like myself and the poor developers who go through crunch hell to complete these ambitious projects, let’s acknowledge that it’s not a bad thing for a game to be short.