During the creation of aquatic masterpiece, BioShock, Irrational Studios couldn't figure out how long their game was going to be. Creepy little girls? Check. Violent oafs in diving suits? Check. The number of gameplay hours? Um...
Developers find it easy to predict the length of a shooter, as the genre's linear. But BioShock's more open nature was far more troublesome.
"When we started focus testing, there was a huge time variance from one player to another," says Bill Gardner, lead level designer on the game. "Our concerns mostly came from people who were taking too long rather than people ploughing through, so we had to find ways to guide players along without holding their hands too much. This scared the shit out of us at first."
BioShock ended up with around 15+ hours of gameplay - at least, it did for people who ogled the Art Deco eye candy and rifled through the pockets of cadavers - but some players were pissed off with its brevity.
BioShock represents a wider trend in PC games, as 30+ hour extravaganzas appear to have become things of the past. Condemned clocked in at around seven hours, F.E.A.R. was a couple more, and Call of Duty 4 and BlackSite are shorter than Danny DeVito.
Then there are RPGs: sprawling goliaths of gaming, historically. And yet, Fable took less than 15 hours to complete, Morrowind was way longer than Oblivion, and Fallout 3's main quest will last a mere 20 hours. Are we being short-changed?
Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima series and new third-person shooter MMO Tabula Rasa, says not: "The average game may have shortened a bit, but in the old days, few ever saw the latter half of a game's content, which was a waste, so investing in the quality of a shorter experience is often a good investment."
Garriott, who's taking a rocket into space in October 2008 (no joke, he's becoming the sixth space tourist), estimates that his early Ultima games had from 40 to 100 hours of content. But in the '80s, when PC games were made from volcanic rock and buffalo hide, developers didn't even discuss lengths. They had a 'we'll see how long it is when we're done' attitude. "Now we plan our initial play time early in the process," says Garriott.
The length of a game gives the developer insight into its requirements, from soundtrack to level assets, voice-acting to script. According to Joe Falke, game designer behind Clive Barker's Jericho, different factors came into play when deciding on Jericho's length - team size, development time, and budget.
"We measured those factors against Clive's original vision for the game," he says.
"Another contributing factor was how much story we could pack into 45 minutes of cutscenes. After making all these projections, we sat down with Clive and plotted out the story with these constraints in mind." The finished result: seven hours, or so, of content.
But there are unsavoury reasons for shorter games. Explorations into new technologies, cross-platform constraints, and tight deadlines, can all reduce a game from a giant haystack to a weeping willow. Cost counts too, says Falke. "Every extra 10 minutes you throw into a game costs more money, man hours and design. Someone has to sit and generate the assets for a new section of level. Subsidiary costs also rise: every extra 10 minutes must also be sent through QA."
On the whole shorter games are less a product of tight-fisted accountants, and more due to consumer demand. These days, games are considered much like movies or books - most people don't want to spend three months toiling over a shooter. Valve released stats showing that only half of players finished Episode One, and that's only five hours long.