How Long Should an RPG Be?

There’s an interesting discussion about game play length taking place over at the BioWare Social Network. Rather than post several hundred words (the dreaded Wall of Text) there, I thought I’d post my thoughts here.

I see complaints with, to me, ridiculously small total hours into BioWare’s games. Most of my Dragon Age: Origins plays end up about 90 hours. I do my best to find all gifts, max out conversations with companions, and have an essentially empty quest journal when I head into the final string of battles. I wander around towns and talk to random NPCs, read some codex entries, click on everything that lights up, and generally act like my completionist self.

The Mass Effect games are, indeed, shorter than the Dragon Age games. For the most part, that’s just fine. It imparts a greater sense of urgency, to me. I imagine Shepard pacing around the Normandy, willing it to move between star systems faster as every moment ticks past and the Reapers get closer. Yet even then I drive the Mako over every square inch, mine every element, hunt down every lost ship or mysterious asteroid in the galaxy before I finish.

That’s how I play every game. Much as I love being Master Chief (or Master Cheese, as we affectionately refer to him), the Halo games leave a great deal to be desired in story mode in this respect. I remember when Halo 2 was released. Hubby and I sat down and played it for seven hours straight and then, to our immense disappointment, the credits rolled. Now that was too short. Yet it wasn’t the story or the characters in it that were the problem. You didn’t get to make choices that affected the world and your exploration options were severely limited, skull hunting aside.

RPGs in general—and BioWare’s games in particular—offer so much else to do without requiring you to play against other people. Sure, Forge World in Halo can be endlessly entertaining but the ultimate goal is to get others into the set you create so that you can kill them.

In RPGs people try to kill you as part of a story and they never, ever teabag. As a bonus, your companions only team-kill for really good story reasons, not because they’re random 12-year-olds with whom you’ve been paired for twenty minutes of shooting at one another.

I’ve wandered far afield of my point, here. That’s why I didn’t want to post this on the forum in the first place: it’s a pretty wide-ranging question.

What I meant to say was that the best RPGs allow you to explore and find side quests, easter eggs, goofy or intriguing characters, and the occasional dead end that mocks you with the length of maze-like corridor down which you have to jog back down because you reasoned that they wouldn’t put in half a mile of useless hallway. I choose to walk down those paths every time, and to wander across any open land I can, eschewing roads for checking to see if some sneaky dev hid an epic chest under a tree in the middle of nowhere just for us snoopers.

You can certainly choose to follow the main trail from quest to quest. You can interact with people only when you need to get or turn in a quest. You’re free to employ your laser-like focus. That certainly must be quicker than my preferred play style.

To me, however, you’re missing out on what puts the RP in RPG: involving yourself in the world of the game to play the role of someone who lives there and truly cares about what happens. Even the most dedicated hero needs to take a few minutes to smell the roses or check behind a few tapestries.

If it takes fifty hours to finish a given RPG, great. If it takes a hundred and I’m enjoying every one of them that’s even better. And if the game only gives you twenty hours of in-depth story and engaging characters, that’s fine with me, too, greedy though I may be. Quality trumps quantity every time.

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