Years ago, the “$1 = 1 hour of gameplay” formula began to spread online. Basically, some gamers started to argue that a game should offer you about 1 hour of gameplay for every dollar that game costs. So, if a game costs $60, you should be able to play it for at least 60 hours.
To be clear, that “formula” most likely began as at least a half-joke. As is typically the case with the internet, though, the joke became twisted over time. Even those who didn’t subscribe to that exact formula began to have more arguments about what kind of formula can determine how much a game should cost based on how many hours of gameplay it offers.
At the heart of those debates is the simple, painful fact that gaming can be a very expensive hobby. Mind you, that debate started when the average price of a game was $60. The average price has now crept up to $70, and that’s before you account for the extra you have to pay if you want to get in on those increasingly popular Early Access periods. In some ways, people are just looking to make sure the products they buy are worth the money they spend on them. It’s what smart shoppers do.
Yet, the idea that a game’s value can be measured by how many hours of content it offers sometimes feels like it has negatively impacted the game design process. Video game worlds are getting bigger, sidequests are becoming more abundant, and campaigns have gone from 10-12 hour jaunts to 30+ hour epic adventures. Sometimes, that can be a good thing. Other times, we end up with unnecessary season passes, tacked-on multiplayer modes, stories that overstay their welcome, and a host of other questionable design decisions that, in their own ways, seem to acknowledge that the “$1 = 1 hour of gameplay” crowd might be on to something.
It often feels like more and more gamers are demanding to know how long it will take to beat an upcoming title. If that number dips too low, even otherwise rational gamers may start to entertain arguments about whether it’s really worth its price. At least that’s what happened to two of the year’s biggest recent releases: Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 and Alan Wake 2. When it was revealed that both games could seemingly be beaten (even if not at 100%) in less than 20 hours…well, the conversations about both were suddenly dominated by that topic.
I sympathize with anyone who worries that they may be spending what is, for many, quite a lot of money on a game that won’t last them long. I also feel obligated to say that I often receive review codes for games as part of my job, which allows me to play many of the major games released in a given year without spending any of my own money. Obviously, that kind of luxury will impact your perspective. It’s almost certainly impacted mine in ways that I’m likely not even entirely aware of.
Yet, as someone who is privileged enough to play all those games, I can tell you that Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 and Alan Wake 2 are two of the best games I’ve played in 2023 by a significant distance. Both will easily be in contention for our 2023 “Game of the Year” award. Of course, the same can be said for much longer games like Baldur’s Gate 3 and The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.
What you probably won’t hear us talking about come award season are the games that are really responsible for this argument: those that artificially inflate their value by incorporating often superfluous (or lazy) content in the name of justifying their high price tags and/or microtransactions.
Without naming too many names, I can tell you that more and more years are being filled with games that offer a theoretically longer playtime but inherently don’t appreciate the value of the time that you put into them. They are games that seem more than happy with abiding by the “$1 = 1 hour of gameplay” rule because that’s pretty much all they have to offer in the first place.
What we too often lose in this modern era of “hours=value” are games that are trying to offer an intended experience rather than an endless experience. In this case, I’m specifically referring again to Spider-Man 2 and Alan Wake 2. Both offer side activities and distractions (Spider-Man 2 certainly features many of both), and both will receive DLC expansions in the future. However, the heart of both experiences is a 20-hour or less interactive and narrative adventure.
Those games aren’t that “short” because the studios held something back for DLC, a sequel, or because they just felt like screwing you out of your money. They’re that long because that’s how long it takes for those intended experiences to play out. Neither overstays their welcome, and both value your time by not trying to waste it by padding their lengths with half-hearted mechanics that only nod to ideas found in truly deep games.
For as strange as it seems to praise a game for telling its story, doing it well, and then bowing out, that’s just the strange point where at. Too many games aren’t afforded the luxury to be able to do that because there is an increasingly popular belief that too many gamers can’t afford to play such titles in the first place. Instead, we often make peace with games that aspire to hit yet another metric in an age where metrics are increasingly relied on to cut through often necessary ambiguities. Box office = quality, sales = culture, and time to beat = value. It all makes sense so long as you don’t think about it, and it all exists so you don’t have to think about it.
Nothing is that simple, though. We live in strange, often tough times when it seems like more and more people are trying to get you to focus on the wrong thing so that they can pick your pocket. It’s natural to want to protect yourself from even the possibility that you might be getting robbed. The same is true of something as seemingly simple as buying a new game.
For whatever it’s worth to you, though, I’ll say that you’ll have a hard time finding better 20-ish hours in many 35-50-hour games than the 20-ish hours you’ll find in Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 and Alan Wake 2.