From their birth, RPGs have heavily borrowed from fantasy literature. Settings, characters, conflicts–RPGs on the tabletop and the desktop often sought to recreate the vivid immersion of fantasy worlds. In this spirit, RPGs also mirrored one of the structural elements of fantasy literature: length.
Fantasy novels and RPGs in general tend to gravitate toward grand, sprawling narratives. Players visit dozens of towns, slog through multiple dungeons, and progress a plot with often world-ending or universe-ending stakes. As a result of this scope, many RPGs have playtimes clocking in at 40 hours or more. For completionists, the gamers who feel compelled to conquer every challenge and collect every achievement, playtime can easily extend beyond 100 hours for a mainstream RPG.
These titles can be marvels of storytelling and of gameplay, to be sure, but is length a requirement for making an exceptional RPG?
In Operencia, we were deliberate about maximizing the impact of every single dungeon room instead of trying to artificially extend the dungeon experience for the sake of length. (read more here)
Where many players and designers might have defaulted to answering “yes” to that question, the evolution of the games industry in the last 10 years suggests that might no longer be the case. CD Projekt Red, the studio behind the Witcher series, recently said that they were sensitive to the length of their upcoming title Cyberpunk 2077 after hearing from players that Witcher 3 was “too long.” And though it is not an official statement, some reviewers have leveled similar criticism at Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.
The initial response from players to this announcement was one of concern because the idea of a game being shorter naturally means that there is less of it, and getting less of something automatically feels like a bad thing. From a design perspective, however, length can be problematic because it is not necessarily an indicator of quality or a predictor for player experience, as CD Projekt Red discovered with Witcher 3.
In CastleStorm II we knew we hadn’t to do more with the core CastleStorm experience, but we were careful not to bloat the game with mechanics that didn’t benefit the foundation of the fun. (read more here)
As players, we have all experienced the pitfalls of game length. There is that moment in a dungeon where the tension of battle and the excitement of exploration gives way to boredom. We might not be able to identify where exactly the emotion comes from, but we can feel when an area is too long. We have a similar feeling when the boss we just defeated suddenly revives, again, into yet another final form. And we are sensitive to ploys to artificially extend the length of a game through extensive backtracking or dungeons that are poorly disguised reskins of areas you already visited.
Highlighting these problems with length may have given you visceral flashbacks because, well, these are frustrating moments for players. Of course, we want more of the games we love, that is, until we don’t.
At this point in gaming history, we have room for all nature of RPGs, and if we, as players, loosen our idea of how long an RPG should be, we can enable a larger variety of RPG experiences. The solo indie dev working on their dream RPG shouldn’t feel forced to match the scope of a Final Fantasy title. A large studio shouldn’t arbitrarily try to hit a certain gameplay length if it means potentially frustrating players.
An RPG should be as long as it needs to be. No more. No less.