Hour Counts, and the desire to be able to measure enjoyment of a game

I continue to think about just how needlessly big AAA games have become in recent years, and I always wonder a part of why games are getting so big beyond the obvious is because one of the few quantifiable ways to measure how much somebody “”“enjoys”"" a game is the amount of hours played.

Steam prominently displays how many hours you’ve played a game right underneath the games title. People constantly add “I played the game x hours” when detailing how much they enjoy a game. I know when I love a game, I want to quantify that love somehow, whether it’s making an ordered list of games, or just viewing my hour counts with a game. But I feel in trying to put numbers to how much I enjoyed something, I miss the point and become more invested in measuring my enjoyment then… just enjoying the thing. I should be able to see my hour count in Destiny 2 and realize “Glorgu, your hour count in this has little to do with your enjoyment of the game and more your enjoyment of hanging out with friends and having something to do while you listen to basketball podcasts.” - and I do - but I still have a desire to measure my enjoyment with something, and hours is the most obvious.

And I’m curious, does this play a part in why games are so dang big now? Obviously that isn’t the only reason, or possibly even a reason publishers care about (after all, capitalism), but I do wonder if hours being one of the few ways we quantify “enjoyment” of a game plays into games getting decidedly larger.

Anyways questions I’m curious about:

  • Do you think hours being a quantifiable way to measure enjoyment plays a sizable role in why games keep getting bigger?
  • Where do you think the desire to measure enjoyment comes from?
  • Are there any papers I should be reading on this?
  • How should I measure my enjoyment of a game?
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Hour counts are driven, in my opinion, by the fact that video games cost a lot of money to the average person. To purchase a new non-indie game at launch will cost me $90 CAD for the standard edition. That means if I only buy one new game a month I’d have spent $1,080 in a year at minimum, and that doesn’t include the hardware to run the dang things. From that perspective, I’d feel pretty crummy experiencing 5-10 hours of entertainment if I spent all that money. Is it fair to the hard work devs do? No. Is it a mentality that drives forward the medium artistically? Hell no. But for the average person who seeks games as a joyful oasis in the grind of modern life, I can’t begrudge them for considering time played versus value.

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I feel like designers don’t appreciate the embarrassment one can feel at an hour count that seems too long; there’s a reason why I don’t use a stopwatch when I read a book. Meanwhile, Steam hour counts feel of a piece with all the other ways Valve tries to gamify consumption.

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Definitely not qualified to answer #3. #4 is up to you - enjoyment is such a subjective thing and can come from so many different areas that it’s really hard to measure.

#2 and #1 are related, I think. I feel like folks like to measure their enjoyment because there are only so many hours in the day and so many dollars in the wallet. I would much rather play a tight 5.5 hour Titanfall campaign than drop 160 hours into an Assassin’s Creed game because I have other things to do with my time. But for some folks, they would rather drop the $60 for Assassin’s Creed over Titanfall because they don’t necessarily have the cash to justify dropping $60 for something that might not keep them occupied for a while.

I don’t have any real insight into the whys of the game development process, but I’m sure that the hours-per-dollar measurement is something that comes up when scoping a game. The other reason I imagine games get so big (this might not be applicable everywhere, but Ubisoft is front-of-mind here) is that it’s possible to create an ecosystem that can be monetized. If you’re going to be sticking around for 100 hours, it’s a lot easier to upsell you on stuff.

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I have thoughts about this: I don’t think it’s unrelated that I’ve bought fewer games as the length of game has increased. In fact, I actively avoid any game where the selling point is that there are 41 billion hours of gameplay. Conversely, I find that, especially with narratively-scoped games, there’s a soft limit as to how long I will stay with a game before doing something else - even, say, Disco Elysium, which I loved, I’m slowly slipping away from less than 50% of the way into my second playthrough, less than 40 hours in.

However, yes, I do think that there’s a tendency for game development costs, gameplay durations, and game prices, to all influence each other, and this isn’t sustainable with increased graphical (etc) fidelity costs. It’s the AAA Movie effect, but even stronger, as no-one will watch a movie for 100 hours [although, what’s the total run-time of the MCU?]. It makes it easier to justify development costs if your game “lasts longer”, on a simple bean-counting headline number metric - and I suspect that the dollars-per-hour-of-game-to-develop metric amortizes (as you can reuse assets across a game’s plot, so making a longer game “costs less per hour”).

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My read on this is the same w/r/t the continued existence of rank-order Top 10 lists: people tend to like quantifying their subjective experiences. With hour counts, I think it can serve as tangible evidence for what would otherwise exist only as qualitative data, even if I (and I’m sure other folks here) view such quantifications as spurious at best (and irrelevant more often than not). I get the temptation though. Saying you have 1,000 hours in DOTA can serve as a means to describe just how much you might have enjoyed your time with it when adjectives and adverbs can only do so much. But for me, as someone with around 100 hours in DOTA, I hate that game. The hours I put into that (X) don’t correlate with any enjoyment (Y) over a similar length of time that I put into, say, Monster Hunter World – a game I also played for around 100 hours and am still finding a lot of fun in. I’d try to plot X and Y on a graph to demonstrate what I mean, but I can’t. Because X and Y are two completely different types of data. If you wanted to attempt quantifying Y here, you’d have to find some other metric: perhaps through a standardized survey that makes extensive use of Lickert Scales; or maybe through discourse analysis where a participant discusses their thoughts on a game and a researcher then quantifies the frequency of pre-coded words/phrases. Qualitative research is hard, and expressing the significance of it can be even harder. The same goes for describing personal experiences. So it only makes sense then that there’s a tendency in some folks to conflate those X and Y variables in such a way that seems to codify their mental/emotional experiences in a tangible, more easily digestible form.

And to be clear, this isn’t necessarily limited to video games either. You can make a similar case for how revered particularly long movies are, or 1,000+ page novels, or even expensive bottles of wine. The enjoyment any of those experiences bring to the participant shouldn’t necessarily be tied directly with their respective barriers to entry, yet conveying such can be a very attractive means to better express the magnitude of what they felt to others.

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For many years, the amount of time I could spend playing a single game mattered to me solely because I was poor. Its one of the reason I loved Bethesda games like Skyrim and Fallout so much despite the multitude of problems I have with those games. Now that Im more financially secure I’ve found Im able to branch out to shorter experiences without worrying about dollar to game-play ratio.

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Games one can play for 100+ hours because they are endlessly replayable (eg. many 4X strategy games) or are a finely balanced competitive multiplayer game: :+1:

Games one can play for 100+ hours because they have copy-pasted a lot of super, super similar content spread across a big empty map: :-1:

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I think what plays a sizable role in why games are getting bigger is the long tail success of sizable games. Publishers look at successes like Grand Theft Auto, Elder Scrolls, Final Fantasy, etc and say “I want that.” Those games sell millions in the years following their release, their remakes sell millions. These publishers then try to figure what makes them popular like that and come up with the conclusion that it’s the time to dollars value proposition that consumers like. I think it usually has more to do with innovation, timing, luck and history. The time to dollars ratio doesn’t hurt them either though.

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I tend to not worry about hour counts for the most part. I don’t buy full priced games too frequently, however. On my Switch, I have a handful of full-priced games (Splatoon 2, ARMS, Pokemon, Smash Bros Ultimate, Mario Odyssey) that I’ve played a varying number of hours. The 900 hours I’ve put into Splatoon 2 don’t make me somehow regret only putting 20 hours into ARMS. Putting over 100 hours into Tetris 99, a “free” game doesn’t ever make me feel like buying a full price game and putting 15 hours into it not worthwhile. Growing up when I couldn’t afford many games, I didn’t play a lot of games, but I played games a lot. This behaviour has continued into my adulthood, where I will play the same few games for hundreds to thousands of hours and then pick up whatever catches my fancy on the side.

I basically always spend full price on Nintendo games because 1) when they go on sale it’s usually not significant (33% off is pretty common these days though), and 2) I’m probably gonna enjoy them a lot. I likely won’t spend full price on a game that I might have passing interest in, but usually I won’t ever have to since I’m almost never in a rush to play them day 1. For example, when I eventually pick up Jedi Fallen Order, it’ll probably be at 30-50% off. Not because I don’t think it’s worth full price, just because I’m not presently in a rush to play it, and when I do get around to having the time to, a steam/origin sale is probably around the corner.

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  • Do you think hours being a quantifiable way to measure enjoyment plays a sizable role in why games keep getting bigger?

I honestly think games are generally getting shorter at least in the AAA space save some notable exceptions. The latest CoD game’s campaign clocks in significantly shorter than something like Half-Life or Turok 2. I think we saw a dip in game length and now a slow, gradual climb upwords, and part of me wonders if it’s tied to an increasing access and improvement in automated content creation. I think there are fewer super long authored games out there in the nature of Baldur’s Gate or FFVII, but I think that has more to do with style preference than anything else.

  • Where do you think the desire to measure enjoyment comes from?

Ready to get super dark? Mortality. Even in a world with unlimited funds, I still tend to default towards safe choices that will bring me the most pleasure. It’s why I still look for articles about authors and books or fall back to known quantities when I go to the library. It literally costs me nothing except time, but I’m not just going to blindly grab something random off the shelf and bring it home because I still only have so much leisure time to use.

  • Are there any papers I should be reading on this?

Wrong person to ask sadly, I don’t really have any advice in this regard.

  • How should I measure my enjoyment of a game?

However you want to. Hour counts as a quantifiable number don’t interest me beyond idle curiosity. I think that enjoyment of a game is separate from value. I can really enjoy something I felt I overpaid for and hate something that was a good bargain. Time really only matters to me in terms of enjoying my games if I felt that the time I spent playing was enjoyable or not.

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This is a thing I didn’t touch on in my reply, but was thinking about:

@Glorgu 's original post seems to be more about “games with many hours of unique content / stuff to do before the narrative completes”; which I think are increasingly uninteresting to me because of “time commitment overload” once you get much above 40 hours. (Looking on Steam as a check, the longest playtimes I have on record for story based games are 63 hrs for XCOM2 (which includes playing the DLC again in it), 55 hrs for Mass Effect, which I ditched before completing it because I had other things to do with my life really, and 53 hrs for Deus Ex Human Revolution (and I was happy to get to the ending when I did) - the next highest is Disco Elysium, which has only 30 hrs [less than I expected], and I’m not sure if I’m going to complete this second playthrough.)

On the other hand: I have 52 hours in Spelunky, and still feel the need to go back and play it again sometimes, and my most-played game tracked by Steam is Stellaris with 78 hrs. I’ve probably got more than 50 hours in a bunch of “arcadey” games that I don’t have on Steam and hence don’t have tracking for. Games where the experience is just fun [and there’s no requirement to commit tons of time to “get the ending”] are something I am happy to have spent, potentially, 100s of hours on.

  1. Yes, especially given the the industrial nature of a lot of game development. Keeping players engaged is a metric, look at the games as service boom.
  2. Human nature to want to quantify everything, or maybe it isn’t and this is just the reality we find ourselves in, only able to perceive the definable.
  3. can’t help you
  4. Maybe try and resist the urge to measure and define your pleasures, seems self defeating. Or not, if it gives you enjoyment to map your enjoyment, who’s to say? I’m as guilty as anyone, love making best of lists. Usually for my best of the year stuff I try and go with gut reactions, memories with the most intense positive emotions.

I’m personally less a fan of a game that takes me a huge amount of time to complete. But I love a game that I log a huge amount of time in cause I complete it over and over again.
Rogue-like/rogue-lite shit is my jam.

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This section from this George Weidman video still sums up this problem really concisely, I think.

The reason people continue to argue about game length is the same reason people argue about review scores. It’s easy. It’s just about a number. That number breaks down all the complicated, subjective highs, lows and uncertainties of the experience into just one or two digits. It’s a number that’s going to mean incredibly different things to different people. Which is why we remember that a game’s length is just one of many, many factors that can determine its quality or its success.

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This is definitely where I fall on this discussion. Time is arguably one of the most valuable things and knowing that for $X you got Y hours of entertainment is a thing people will do. There is an argument to be made for sure about quality vs quantity but I really do not think those need to be competing values and in fact most of the time they are not, it’s a balancing act. It’s also going to always be a really hard metric because value in a game is different from person to person.

I think Super Hot is a really good game but I also think it’s too short for $25. Without trying to rush through the game I beat it around 2 hours. I had fun but I also felt like I did not get $25 worth of enjoyment out of it.

This is part of the reason I really like the subscription model for games as a consumer. I can pay a monthly fee and not worry about how much money I spent to play through a short game or not even finish a game. I started Frostpunk because it recently got added to Xbox Game Pass got 3 hours in and realized I didn’t really like it so I stopped. If this was a few years ago in college I would have forced myself through because I spent money on it.

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I think hour counts can be used to communicate aspects of a game besides “this is how long it can distract you,” and people usually mean more by it than they say. For example: I’ve spent dozens of hours with Copy Kitty because of its fun chaotic combat and the deep veins of surprises that kept putting a grin on my face all the way through new game +. I’ve spent even more time with Doom because of how its simple but robust design has been reconfigured a million different ways by a creative and long-lived community. I played Mad Max for about a full day because it takes that long to beat.

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I don’t think hour counts necessarily communicate how much anyone enjoys any given game, because there’s no shortage of people who will put themselves through absolutely miserable experiences to 100% a game, or to grab an achievement, or get a certain trophy or score on a level. There are some people who enjoy that sort of thing, but I can’t say I’ve ever had as much fun perusing something like that than I have playing a game. Consider this: On my Steam account, I have about 175 hours in Fallout 3. I like that game. I’ve had fun in it, even if I’ve never finished it. I have 10 hours in Bastion. I love that game so much I bought it on Switch and have replayed it 3 times. I consider it overall a better game than Fallout 3 and am far more likely to have a long conversation about that game, its characters, its themes and its mechanics.

However, Wazanator is right when they talk about how time is a valuable commodity, and Navster is right about how games tend to cost a lot of dosh. However, whether or not a game is worth the money and the time you put into it is pretty much entirely subjective. I paid probably the same price for Bastion that I did for Fallout 3, considering I bought the latter on sale. However, I consider the quality of play I experienced in Bastion to be heads and tails above what I experienced in Fallout 3, even though on release, the latter was more expensive.

I think that a lot of AAA games lean toward pumping as much into their games as possible–especially if their games are open world and open play–because they want the person buying them to feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth. That’s not a wrong way to go about things, just a way. Personally, I don’t play much in the way of open world games anymore because I no longer feel I have the time to sink into them, and most of the time, I find a linear story someone wants to tell me more personal and more satisfying. That isn’t to say that open world time sinks don’t have their place in my heart, but I’d usually rather pay the equivalent of $7-$45CAD for an experience I find more enjoyable.

Or in the case of FFXIV, $45 every 2 years and $17 a month for a constant stream of story and content.

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I kind of like seeing the number myself because it shows me just how much I’ve become invested in a game on some level. However, games being designed mainly to make that playtime number big are usually slogs because the games I have the most hours in make me want to replay them a lot. Only a very small handful of dense RPGs have ever been worth that much time investment, and even then, I haven’t finished as many as I would have liked (a lot of PS2 JRPGs still on the docket I got very far in and suddenly dropped).

People who use length of the game as a major critical criteria are people with free time and therefore either children or people who don’t have to work for a living. I like it when I can make progress in a game without it wasting my time with monotony myself.

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As a pure technical bit of info about games I launched once and played some and didn’t enjoy that much like Hypnospace outlaw, easy to see I spent an hour on that game then bailed.I appreciate knowing I have about 3000 hours in WoW. This is more information for a user of the service that I think in general people would appreciate on any platform.