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Length and Pacing in Games

The length of a game is always one of the first topics discussed when a new game comes out.  How long does it take to beat?  How long if you want to do all the extra stuff?  These questions are usually asked under the assumption that the more time it takes to get through a game, the better.  We gamers want the most bang for our buck, no matter what.  No other mass visual media really draws this question like games do.  We have an expectation that a movie is going to be between an hour-and-a-half and three hours.  A TV show lasts either thirty minutes or an hour.  Obviously the difference between games and these other mediums is that games can have such a wide range of lengths.  The differences in length between movies or shows seem rather minimal when contrasted with the wide variety of game lengths.  It’s not uncommon to see two hour video games and it’s not uncommon to see games that last hundreds of hours.

Even more interestingly, a game’s length can be estimated based on its genre, something that isn’t really done with movies or TV shows.  Roleplaying games are expected to last dozens, if not hundreds, of hours.  Shooters, on the other hand, aren’t likely to last more than a dozen hours.

Other variables also change the length of a game.  Because playing a game means a person has to exercise some sort of skill, the player’s ability to overcome the game’s challenges can make a game longer or shorter.  On top of that, a player’s interest in a game’s optional content can extend a game’s length by hours.  And then there are experiences that don’t have a definitive end like Call of Duty‘s multiplayer or Civilization V.

Seriously, this game never ends.  It just draws you in and never lets go.

Seriously, this game never ends. It just draws you in and never lets go.

Yet with all these factors, the question still comes up time and time again: “How long does it take to beat?”  Setting aside monetary concerns for a moment, is knowing the length of a game so important for enjoying its content?  I know I’ve encountered games where I keep expecting them to end, only to have them keep on going and going and going.  Other times, a game will end long before I expect it to.  In both cases, knowing how much longer I had in the game could drastically change the experience I had with it.  It might mean I set the game down, knowing I don’t want to put more time in it if the end is so far off, and it might mean that I’m better prepared for the game’s abrupt ending.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to pacing.  A game shouldn’t feel too long or too short if it’s paced appropriately.  The typical arc of a story is: we’re introduced to our characters, an incident occurs which creates a problem for them to resolve, the characters work to fix the problem encountering increasingly challenging obstacles, the heroes face their biggest challenge in the success/failure, live/die climax of the story, and then the tension is released and we see the ramifications of the story on our characters.

Of course this is a very simple plot arc, one that is effective but not always appropriate. It all depends on the story one wants to tell.

Of course this is a very simple plot arc, one that is effective but not always appropriate. It all depends on the story one wants to tell.

Since games typically start by skipping the introductory part and getting right into the action, and since the gameplay usually ends at the climax leaving a cutscene (or sometimes nothing at all) for the resolution, most of video game stories are largely concerned with the rising action.  This section of the typical plot arc fits perfectly with what players want from a game.  They want to be increasingly challenged in order to test their skills with the game’s mechanics.  So if a game paces itself so that the conflicts in the story and the challenges faced by the player, as well as the characters, get increasingly difficult to overcome then the player can naturally feel when a story is coming to close.  The player can sense that the crescendo is close as they struggle to complete the challenges put in their way and the story threads begin to come together.

Of course the rising action shouldn’t just be a perfectly straight line ramping up conflict and challenge linearly.  It also should have an ebb and flow as tension is built, paid off, relieved, and then built again.  If the game was simply constant challenge and excitement then eventually that excitement becomes meaningless.  It has to be contrasted with quiet, slower moments so that it can have an impact when it does occur.  The ebb and flow within the rising action keeps the action from becoming dull, and the steady increase of tension lets the player know that the game is nearing its conclusion.

Here is a diagram of Star Wars's pacing. The tension is constantly built but tension is constantly applied. There's also room to breath.

Here is a diagram of the pacing in the first Star Wars movie. The tension is constantly built but it isn’t constantly applied. There’s also room to breath.

It should be noted that the length of time for the rising action is unnecessary.  As long as the story’s continuation feels natural and not artificially padded, the tension feels like it is building towards something, and the gameplay keeps iterating on itself, then a game can be as long or as short as it wants and not lose its players’ interest.  This is what all games should and do strive for.  Knowing the length of a game ahead of time shouldn’t be important for properly experiencing it.  Its pacing should naturally lead the player to know when it is nearing its end.

Come back every Tuesday for more and head over to my blog ProtoGeek for more of my thoughts.  Also, follow me on Twitter at @cam_wade37 for tweets like, “If your opinion on a game is different from mine, please change it ASAP.  I will have to instruct you on why you are wrong so you can fix your opinion.  My opinion is correct and I cannot handle hearing a differing one.  It threatens my already shaky sense of self-worth.”

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  1. Mauro says
    December 20, 2013, 6:08 AM

    I think the amount of time a game takes to finish is actually pretty important when choosing a game, because I want to know what kind of investment I’m making. When I play an Avernum game, I know I’m in for several weeks. When I play, say, a Donkey Kong Country game, I’ll be done in a few days. (I know which was cheaper, too!) A game with good pacing will end after an appropriate length of time, such that you’re happy to have finished it but it doesn’t feel like it’s dragging on. Chrono Trigger felt like it was over way too soon. Avernum 2 felt like it was dragging on and on and on. That speaks to the quality of the games. The length of time it takes to play it does not indicate the quality — but it is good to know what your time investment will be!

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