Is Telling Players How Long a Video Game Takes to Beat a Bad Idea?

Microsoft is integrating the website HowLongToBeat into its Xbox app on Windows, making us wonder what it'd be like if such a feature were everywhere.

The complexities of adulthood, combined with the unending crunch of parenting, means I’m constantly seeking to maximize my limited free time. It also means I’m regularly checking the ever-resourceful website HowLongToBeat, which does exactly what it says: tells you how long it’ll take to beat a video game. It’s a beloved resource, and interestingly, one that Microsoft has now integrated into the Game Pass section of its Xbox app on Windows.

An image of the Xbox app in Windows showing how long it takes to beat a game. Image courtesy of Microsoft

The nice part about HowLongToBeat is that it takes into account the different ways people play video games, whether it’s mainlining the story, playing the story and dipping into the side quests, or doing literally everything possible and exhausting the entire video game.

Immediately, the obvious idea came to mind that other storefronts should integrate this. There’s a Chrome extension that adds, among other things, HowLongToBeat data onto the web version of Steam, but beyond that, we’re left to Google searches, and hoping this idea catches on. When I proposed the idea on Twitter, the feedback was mixed from developers. 

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“As a dev I hate this,” said Cook Serve Delicious series designer David Galindo, whose first game takes roughly 18 hours to beat, but the latest sequel takes about 46 hours. “I understand wanting to know this kind of stuff but it puts more of a focus on length and tying that into worth/value. Seeing people down on Cult of the Lamb for ‘only’ being 12 hours long hurt a lot.”

The designer on 'Cook, Serve, Delicious' worries about players obsessing over a game's length. Image courtesy of Vertigo Gaming

(Cult of the Lamb kicks ass.)

To be clear, this feature is not currently part of the PC Xbox app where you buy games, it’s part of Game Pass, which means you’ve already paid for a subscription. You cannot refund or pass on purchasing a game, because the sub bundles it together. To that end, it makes sense, because you have access to a ton of games and time is the consideration, not price. 

But in a world where this was extended beyond Game Pass, the implications are bigger.

“I understand why some devs would be worried about ppl associating length with value and opting out of short games,” said Possibility Space visual director Jane Ng, who previously worked on Half-Life: Alyx and Firewatch, “but I think there are a lot of ppl who explicitly look for shorter/no-filler experiences who just ain’t loud on the internet who are underserved.”

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Ng also noted that she personally uses HowLongToBeat when researching what games to play, noting “if a game tells me it has a compelling story arc but then also like it's 60 hours, it ain't for me,” before joking that “unless I can romance 10 characters then back to yes.”

“I understand wanting to know this kind of stuff but it puts more of a focus on length and tying that into worth/value. Seeing people down on Cult of the Lamb for ‘only’ being 12 hours long hurt a lot.”

Much of this is an extension of an ongoing debate about the place of shorter games in the modern video game ecosystem, where some games are regularly knocked by critics for being bloated and too long, while then praised by players for providing enormous value. This became a focal point of discussion when Steam implemented its liberal refund policy, which generally allows for people to successfully request a refund for any game they’ve played for less than two hours, because there are many independent games that aren’t two hours long.

“I don't mind this [idea],” said Gloomwood developer Nate Berens. “The games I've self-published are quite short (<2 hrs) and I explicitly mention their length in the description. I can't say whether this had a positive or negative effect on sales, but it does seem to have curbed the number of people who refunded.”

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Berens’ points scratches at a central tension: does the mere existence of the Steam refund system encourage people to buy games, dislike them, and quickly refund them, or would providing more information about the kind of experiences they’re in for curb such actions?

“I don't think most developers are looking to trick players into buying something by hiding the length,” said Double Fine designer Ben Johnson, who previously worked on Psychonauts 2 and Dead Space. “But if you think about somebody coming with the intention of buying, seeing a small number near the Buy button probably costs more sales than a large number.”

'Cult of the Lamb' was a smash hit, but some players expected dozens of hours from the game, which is much shorter. Image courtesy of Devolver

“And I think that means that it causes a disproportionately worse effect on sales for small developers than large ones,” continued Johnson, “or else it means you have to start adding mechanics to inexpensively juke that stat so you can stay in business, which messes up your use-case.”

Johnson proposed one way to help shift the way we think about video games and time investment would be to look at how movie and television shows are framed, i.e. “1 -hour games, 10-hour games, 100-hour games, etc., the way folks talk about half-hour comedies, hour dramas, 90-minute features, 3-hour sagas, etc.” In this world, it’s about contextualizing what the game is aiming for, instead of treating length as a value that’s desirable when high.

BioWare technical artist Ryan DowlingSaka, not a fan of my proposal, wondered if we could even further abstract the sense of time, i.e. “short and sweet” instead of “short game.”

For the moment, it’s all theoretical, because Microsoft’s HowLongToBeat integration is only available on the PC, and even there, only for people who’ve already paid for a Game Pass subscription. In theory, it could impact what games people play within Game Pass, but it’s just a theory. In a blog post announcing the feature, it made no mention of further expansion.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

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