Matt Dreyfus, a father of two from Gaithersburg, Md., has an entire shelf of video games he wants to play.
“I can’t really remember a stretch in my life where there’s just been so many games always coming out,” Dreyfus, 40, said. “I probably had 10 games total for the entire duration of Super Nintendo. Now, at any given moment, I have three times that.”
It’s a golden age for video games. Thousands of titles were released in 2021. Now it’s just a matter of finding the time to play them. Dreyfus, who works for a federal agency, plays games like Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart for a few hours after work once the kids are in bed. But lately, games are often more of a commitment; some single-player titles can take 40 hours or more to complete the main campaign. As the sequels to some of gaming’s most popular franchises continue to take more time to beat — and as some gamers find they have less free time as their responsibilities grow — it’s become harder for people to complete the games they buy.
“There’s a bunch of games this month that are coming out,” Dreyfus said. “I know I’m not going to be able to get to it until months from now.”
Horizon Forbidden West, one of the premier open-world games released this year, has a main storyline over 27 hours long, according to average playtimes gathered by the website How Long To Beat. Elden Ring, a fantasy epic that released a week after Forbidden West, takes more than 46.5 hours to complete its story — but critics who have reviewed the game say it’s one of the longest titles they’ve ever played and made more demanding by its difficulty and lack of cues directing players. Completing all of Elden Ring’s tasks would take 107 hours, according to How Long To Beat.
Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Games are requiring more and more of players’ time. To beat every video game on The Washington Post’s “best of” list for 2021, players would need to devote approximately 200 hours. That’s 25 eight-hour days of nonstop gaming.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020 the average American spent 5.5 hours per day on leisure — exercising, reading, watching TV or playing video games on the computer, for example. If the average American decided to dedicate all their free time to gaming, it would still take 36 days to beat The Post’s “best of” list.
“We’re seeing a huge boom,” said Mat Piscatella, a gaming industry adviser at the market research company NPD Group. “Not only in the number of games available or the content available, but also in the services.”
Every year, new games flood the market. Subscription services, like the Xbox Game Pass, give players access to digital libraries filled with new and old titles to play. Plus, it’s never been easier for a small team of developers to create a title beloved by fans. You don’t even have to spend money on video games nowadays. Some of today’s most popular titles, like Fortnite and Genshin Impact, are free to play and offer an endless stream of content to collect, buy or explore. These aren’t the games found inside a 1980s arcade. They are the arcades; virtual worlds for hanging out with friends.
The lengthiest games for a certain genre, open-world single-player adventures, are as much as four times longer than the original franchise entries released 15 years ago. These open-world games exist in sprawling locations that players can explore at their leisure, like a post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C., or the untamed American West. Chris Plante, the editor in chief and co-founder of the gaming and entertainment site Polygon, said studios originally set out to create immersive worlds that “feel alive.”
“Now we have games where the studios realize it’s less about the game, from a creative vision,” Plante said. “And more of a: ‘How do we, as a company, control your time?’ “
All of this is because the more time someone spends within a game’s world, the more likely they’ll be to spend money in that game, said Brendan Keogh, a researcher at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. The largest game publishers aren’t interested in just selling copies of the games, Keogh said. Instead, these massive studios are interested in holding players’ attention — the one commodity valued by every entertainment empire from Disney to Netflix.
“The general leading business model of the game industry right now is about holding players within a game service for as long as humanly possible,” Keogh said. “You want players to just hang around for as long as possible and not go play something else.”
The increasing scale of virtual worlds
Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series, composed of period dramas that tell the story of a clandestine order of assassins, is just one example. It takes the average player 135 hours to accomplish every task in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, the latest installment from 2020. That makes the game more than four times longer than the original Assassin’s Creed released in 2007.
Ubisoft declined to answer questions regarding the increasing scale of the virtual worlds in the Assassin’s Creed games, but in a recent report to investors, the company boasted players’ “overall engagement” in Valhalla is up when compared to the previous game in the series. It also noted players are spending more money on the game’s additional content. The latest expansion for Valhalla, Dawn of Ragnarok, which released March 10, reportedly has 35 hours of content to explore. That’s longer than some full-size, $70 games. Ubisoft’s addendum to Valhalla costs just $40.
Valhalla isn’t the only open-world game touting a massive update to the in-game world. The two-year-old Cyberpunk 2077 just released an overhaul to the game intended to smooth over the title’s buggy 100 hours of total gameplay. And Destiny 2, the space opera that originally released in 2017 by the creators of Halo, published its fourth major update, The Witch Queen, on Feb. 22.
The developers behind titles like Destiny, Fortnite and Call of Duty’s Warzone are providing these games as a service – meaning players are encouraged to continue to pay for additional content, which can be anything from cosmetic items to entire new chapters of gameplay. It’s a revenue model inspired by the structure of free-to-play mobile games like Clash of Clans or Candy Crush, which encourage players to pay small fees to help them progress through the game.
Epic Games, a $28.7 billion game developer, brought in more than $5 billion in revenue from Fortnite in 2018. Last year, Activision Blizzard, the creator of Call of Duty and owner of the developer behind Candy Crush, earned 74 percent of its revenue from in-game purchases.
Easier to add than to start over
Further fueling the expanded scope of modern video games are advancements in software and technology that allow developers to more easily build on top of an existing virtual world. This makes it more appealing for studios to keep iterating on an existing foundation than to start over from scratch, Piscatella said. Guerrilla Games, makers of Horizon Forbidden West, reuses animation from the original game, for example — and they’re far from the only studio to do so. Sony, which owns Guerrilla Games, declined interview requests for the article.
Costs in game development have grown exponentially, Piscatella said. By making use of work that’s already been done, such as by expanding on games through sequels and other downloadable content, studios are finding a way to save money while still making bigger games.
“It’s a heck of a lot cheaper to make those worlds bigger than it is to make a whole new set of tools to make a different world,” Piscatella said. “Adding another 10 hours to an Assassin’s Creed game is a lot less expensive than trying to build the first 10 hours of the next one.”
In the past 15 years, there have been 12 new mainline Assassin’s Creed games. With studios based around the world, Ubisoft can essentially work around the clock building these massive adventures, Keogh said. The publisher has been able to perfect a “production line model of game development,” he added. That model can also be applied to a number of other Ubisoft properties, like the Far Cry franchise, another lengthy series of games set in expansive open worlds.
“Ubisoft games very much feel like Ubisoft games, regardless of what franchise variant it is,” Keogh said. “They clearly have this model down pat that makes it easier to just go bigger.”
A feature, or a flaw?
Developers like Alex Hutchinson, the co-founder of Raccoon Logic in Montreal, point out that there are plenty of consumers who buy one or two games and expect those titles to be their sole source of entertainment. In many ways, studios have simply been attempting to meet player demands by providing adventures that deliver the best “bang for your buck.”
But in January, when Techland, the Polish studio behind the open-world zombie game Dying Light 2, tweeted it will take players “at least 500 hours” to fully complete the game, not everyone saw that as a feature worth flaunting. To some, it sounded like a flaw.
“I would be happy if the game can be completed in 60 hours or 100 at max,” one user tweeted in reply to the studio’s promised 500 hours of content —- which amounts to three months of 9-to-5 play. “I hate games that require so much time.”
Techland later clarified that the main storyline in Dying Light 2 would only require around 20 hours to complete. The 500-hour estimate tallied up all the time it would take to explore every part of the map and find every item.
Philipp Weber, the lead quest designer at CD Projekt Red — the studio behind The Witcher and Cyberpunk 2077 — said there’s “a bit of an arms race” between the studios creating open-world games, but he hopes the competition will “move toward depth and not just width.” Weber said he’s played plenty of games that would have been “genuinely better” if the story was a few hours shorter.
“Just saying a game is long doesn’t work that well anymore,” Weber said. “I also have to give you a reason why it’s long and give you a good explanation of why you should stick with it.”
Tymon Smektala, the lead designer for Dying Light 2, said many players are no longer excited by the idea of an “extremely huge” open-world game. Gamers who used to have more time to spend in these virtual worlds now have jobs and families. Now as adults, they may have more disposable income but they don’t have the same amount of free time, Smektala said.
“To be honest, it’s not that much of a surprise,” Smektala continued. “We have a very limited amount of time on this planet every day, and we have to manage how we want to use that time.”
Smektala doesn’t believe open-world games should continue to get “bigger and bigger.” Instead, he predicts subscription services, like Xbox’s Game Pass, will change how people play video games. Developers will create shorter experiences that players can binge in five or six hours, like a television show on Netflix. Smektala said studios can pivot by creating open worlds with a “limited scope,” like a small town filled with intricate details and a captivating narrative.
“Open-world games are about giving players freedom to express themselves,” Smektala said. “I think it’ll be easier, in a way, to create more realistic, more immersive experiences when it’s smaller in scope but more interactive.”
An opening for smaller developers
Some smaller developers see an opportunity amid all the vast, open-world epics. Hutchinson of Raccoon Logic, the independent development studio in Montreal, said he believes that smaller studios like his can offer games people can actually finish. Hutchinson built his career at Ubisoft Montreal as the creative director for Assassin’s Creed III and Far Cry 4. He said the “big, big franchise games” have become the buffet lunch of the industry — attempting to offer everything to anyone who may want to play.
“I think publishers have lost a little bit of sight of why they’re making them,” Hutchinson said. “They just try to cover all their bases.”
Few people actually beat the video games they buy. One study published in 2019 reviewed the achievements from 725 games on the PC gaming storefront Steam and found just 14 percent of players completed the games they own.
Gregorios Kythreotis, the co-creator of Sable, which released in September of last year, said he intended for his game to be something players can finish and walk away from. In Sable, a game that follows one girl’s coming-of-age story, players need to collect just one mask out of 14 that can be found in the virtual world — how players go about doing that or whether they collect more than one is up to them.
“Not everyone has the free time to sink 50-plus, 100-plus hours into a game,” Kythreotis said. “Some people don’t have that time, but they do want to feel like they had a complete experience. So, we wanted to give players the control of that.”
Kythreotis believes there aren’t enough “high-quality” short games to play. People are left with a litany of longer games that create “choice paralysis,” like when you’re endlessly scrolling through Netflix. It can take the fun out of the game, he added.
“There’s almost so much to do, so much choice, so much variety, so many systems to learn, so many controls to remember that it stops becoming relaxing in a way,” Kythreotis said. “I think that can feel quite overwhelming to more casual players.”
Dreyfus, the father of two trying to balance life’s responsibilities with his weeknight hobby, can relate. In many ways, with all that’s available, it’s never been a better time to be a gamer, he said. Dreyfus also knows he can’t keep up with the number of games released every month and said he finds it daunting when he starts up a game that will require dozens of hours to beat.
“I used to be on the forefront of games coming out,” Dreyfus said. “Now, it’s almost like I have to let go. … I know I’m not going to be able to get to [these games] until months from now.”