Extending Play Time: How the goal of a game is to take more of your time.

his may sound a bit odd, but one of the unspoken goals of game design is to take as much of the player’s time as possible, or to put it another way, there is an in-built quest for efficiency with games regarding time.

Sometimes, they advertise this by claiming the game has “a hundred hours of content,” or some such. As I’ve said before, not all time is well-spent. A boring 100-hour game is inferior to a game that is shorter but interesting all the way through. One hundred hours of really fun content sounds like a great deal, but it’s very, very rare. The truth is that most games, regardless of length, use design elements whose effect is to take more of your time; not necessarily waste it, but to lengthen the time the player must spend in the game.

There are multiple reasons for this and multiple ways to accomplish this, but mostly it’s about efficiency, that is, getting the most gameplay out of the smallest amount of game.

Think about the arcade origins of gaming. The way a game makes money for the operator is to collect quarters. The better the game is at collecting quarters, the more operators will buy it. Thus, the best-designed game from this perspective will be one that forces players to pay in but doesn’t push them to quit. That means balancing all the aspects of a game to that end: the challenge of gameplay, the aesthetic experience, and the payoff for progress. Length of time playing isn’t the goal per se, but it ends up congruent with the goal of revenue because it overlaps almost exactly. Even slot machines will use this principle—take a player’s money too quickly, and they will quit because they feel like they are losing too much.

From there, it is easy to see how games transitioned into the home console space with time as the main quantifiable goal of a successful game.

Now, there are several ways to increase the time a player spends in a game:

  1. Increase the quantity content (levels or stages, etc.)
  2. Increase the repetition of content (make the player do levels and stages several times)

If you are questing for efficiency, your main focus will be the second path. Making more content requires more work and resources, and if that extra content isn’t good, the player may get bored and quit. Getting a player to enjoy repeating content is also difficult because if it isn’t fun enough, the player may get annoyed, if it’s too difficult, they may get too frustrated, and if they see it too many times, they may get bored.

So how do you get the player to repeat content? Several ways:

  1. Game Challenge
  2. “Neutral time”
  3. Variable rewards
  4. Variety within repetition
  5. Collectables and meta-rewards

Game Challenge

Challenge was the first and primary way that games increased content repetition and was essentially a transfer or arcade design to home systems. It works like this:

A player has a set number of lives.

When the player runs out of lives, he has to start the game over from the beginning or a set checkpoint that is some point further behind his overall progress.

Thus, he has to repeat the stages he has already cleared in order to get back to where he was and go further in the game.

In arcades, machines made money by offering the player a chance to try again for another quarter; thus most of their money-making potential was built around the challenge. This is why the NES, SNES, and Genesis had such tough games in their libraries. They were building on arcade game design.

As an example, let’s look at the original Super Mario Bros. game released for the Famicom and NES. It had 32 stages. The player is given three “lives”—he can fail three times before the game ends, and he must start again. To beat the game, he will likely have to make many attempts, increasing his skill at the game each time and finding ways to increase his “lives” until he is able to finish the final stage. He’s forced to repeat content each time. Those early stages, in particular, may become too easy, even boring, but he takes the time to do them because he must in order to progress.

The main failure penalty for such a game is time, and so time spent playing is increased by making the game challenging rather than adding more stages. Challenge also becomes its own end because it is satisfying to overcome challenges.

This sort of design is alive and well today, exemplified by From Software’s Souls series and its similar off-shoots. Even Nintendo still uses it, especially within the New Super Mario Bros. franchise, though there are often “softer” game-over penalties than in days of yore. From a design perspective, making this approach work is dependent on balancing the challenge along with making the content interesting enough that repetition is either fun or becomes manageable.

There is also “speedrunning,” which, though not mainstream for most gamers, is an area that can make even very old games (retro games are usually the most popular) interesting to play and (more importantly) to watch. That extreme level of challenge is usually just reserved for a few players, but it can certainly keep the interest in an old game alive well after the usual waning of relevance with time.

Neutral Time

I don’t know of a better term for this, but I’m sure somebody has a valid one for what I am describing. “Neutral Time” is time that the player must spend in the game not engaging in active gameplay.

A perfect example would be the time a player must spend traveling to reach an objective. We’ll use the classic Mechwarrior 2:

The player begins a mission (stage)

The first objective is at a nav point. The player begins walking his mech there. It takes some time to walk across the landscape.

As the player approaches the objective, enemy targets power-up, and then the primary gameplay (mech combat) happens.

After clearing the first objective, the player begins walking to the next one.

A large part of the game time is taken up by time which is neutral. There is really no failure state at risk when traveling. Properly used, travel time can enhance the overall simulation experience, like in Mechwarrior, or can make a game feel bigger more immersive, like with MMORPGs, Zelda games, or the Elder Scrolls series.

In games like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV, you pick up a quest, you walk to the objective, you do it, you walk back and get your reward, and the time spent traveling (or having encounters on the way) serves the fantasy that you are in a real, dangerous world. Likewise, walking across the map in Skyrim to get to the next part of a quest, getting distracted, and exploring a tomb or thief den, reinforces the feeling that you are exploring a place full of adventure and your own adventure is novel within it. It wouldn’t be nearly as fun if you just picked dungeons from a list and teleported to them.

You can think of the overworld in a Zelda game as one large stage the player must play through many times in the form of walking between dungeons or exploring. The time spent there quickly becomes neutral as the enemies in the overworld are usually not as challenging as in dungeons, and as the game progresses, the player gains more tools to defeat them efficiently.

Like with anything, there is a balancing act when it comes to satisfying the player. If he becomes aware that he is being forced to walk through some empty space without any particular benefit, he might get bored and quit. Indeed, I think this can be a big problem with open-world “Mudgenre” games as it becomes obvious the neutral time is being put in place to make it seem like there is more active content than there is.

World of Warcraft balanced this with flight masters in its first iteration, which were NPCs that could fly you to a town very quickly, as long as you had already been there. Final Fantasy XIV has crystals that you attune to, which allow instant teleportation, again if you have already visited the location. The point was that the neutral time gets softer the more you play, and the barriers between active play become easier to overcome. The player doesn’t feel like his time is being wasted, seeing as he has already had the exploration experience.

Both of these games have, in my opinion, gone too far by enabling extra-fast flying mounts, which remove so much of the neutral time that the fantasy of a large, dangerous world disappears. They have also enabled a dungeon grouping system that essentially transports the player directly to the active content. The world becomes a small and almost irrelevant thing, a vessel to hold the active content together in a coherent way rather than something to be engaged with meaningfully.

WoW’s Warlords of Draenor expansion ended up being very boring partly because of the elimination of neutral time. Virtually everything could be done inside the player’s instanced garrison, including gathering and even leveling if you were a class that could get instant dungeon queues. When they introduced Mythic dungeons, most players (myself included) had to learn where the dungeons were actually located because we had never traveled to them when leveling. All of the spontaneous content that happens because of the nature of the MMO was eliminated, and it became all the more obvious how little “endgame” content there actually was for the expansion. It was a pity, too, because the world of Draenor was quite beautiful and filled with many details that were ignored or never even seen due to the lack of neutral time.

Smaller-scale titles also use neutral time, particularly the 2D “Metroidvania” genre of games, which feature large maps with lots of exploration and backtracking. Having to go back through previously explored areas, especially when your character is at a higher level (as with Symphony of the Night and its derivatives), is essentially neutral as the monsters there no longer pose a challenge. That time returning to old areas extends time with the game, but it also makes what would essentially be a linear 2D experience into something more epic, where searching for secrets and the next way forward become rewarding obstacles in themselves.

Variable rewards

How many times did you beat Street Fighter 2? I know I bothered to beat the game with every character at one point. Why? Because I got to watch a different ending each time I defeated M. Bison. The payoff to completion was different each time, which made me replay all the content multiple times to get those different rewards.

Some games have “good endings” and “bad endings” depending on what you do prior to finishing, how much time you take, etc. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night has what amounts to an entire second game when you discover the “real” ending. Quite the reward!

Variable reward systems have also been used in a more direct way in the form of random rewards for content completion. MMOs are a perfect example of this. “Endgame” usually consists of doing the same challenging PVE content every week where the loot dropped by bosses is random from a set pool of items. Thus, the player has to farm it for weeks or months to get all the items he needs to progress to the next raid tier or difficulty level.

Random reinforcement is also very powerful, hence why gambling can be so addictive, so its use in game design is debatable as a matter of ethics, but we should differentiate random loot in an RPG from random “pulls” in gacha games. In MMOs, you get rewards for completing content. In gacha games, you have to get random rewards in order to access the content, as the difficulty will (not early on, but eventually) be set so as to require the high-power rewards found in the random “pulls.”

In an Elder Scrolls game, you might end up exploring a dungeon that isn’t particularly interesting on its own, or may even be the same layout as some other one, but the rewards in the final chest could be anything, so it feels worthwhile to do the content.

Variety within repetition

Ever wonder how League of Legends can get hoards of consistent players dropping hundreds of hours (and dollars) into the game while having only one map? It’s because that one map can provide such an extreme amount of variety that people don’t care that the “content” part of the game (the map, the graphics, etc.) is the same each time. In this case, the variety comes from the PVP experience. Every opponent plays slightly differently from the others, producing a different gameplay experience.

It’s a bit like chess. The pieces and the board are always the same, but how each game plays out can be very different. This same principle kept people interested in WoW PVP for years. It had limited maps, but every match played out a little differently. The way the world works also produces variable experiences. One time, the mobs might all be dead from some other player, or they might respawn on top of you. Another player could decide to attack you, or there could be a fight over a random chest spawn (with random loot). Just playing the game delivers a fair amount of variety without needing lots of new zones or quests.

Another way to produce variety is to make the content itself different. Games like Diablo and Torchlight, which assemble the content into new layouts using “procedural generation,” produce unique experiences every time the game is played. The same art assets and the same monsters can be re-assembled in a multitude of new ways to get the most out of them. The player has to explore on each replay because the world and the dungeons are laid out in unfamiliar ways every time. Diablo 3  also used random assembly with the monsters themselves, spawning elites that would have several different abilities that combined in unique and, in some cases, very challenging ways.

Of course, there is also variety in playstyle. One of the reasons playing through Street Fighter 2 a dozen times was fun was seeking the ending, but the process was also fun because each character (minus Ken and Ryu) had unique attacks and special moves, and I had to adapt to a new style of play. Similarly, playing different classes in an RPG can change the experience and give players the option of replaying content in new ways. Odin Sphere used this effectively, shuffling the player through a variety of classes attached to characters, each one with their own build progression and story, which kept the power curve from becoming stale and kept the (mostly similar) encounters feeling new since they had to be approached in new ways.

Collectibles and Meta-rewards

Collectibles are items in a game that a player is encouraged to find and acquire, and meta-rewards are things like trophies and achievements given to players as an acknowledgment (and perhaps bragging rights) for them doing something special in the game.

Collectibles have a long history stretching back into the 16-bit era or even prior, where a player has the option of collecting items in various levels to do things like unlock additional content or get advantages in play (like power-ups and extra lives). Collectibles can also be used as an additional content gate, as in the case of various Mario games. A player has to get 70 stars to be able to finally beat Bowser in Mario 64, so if he has been rushing through the levels, he might be unable to get up the endless stairs; He also can continue to collect stars (up to 120) if he chooses. In Super Mario 3D Land, the player is regularly required to get a certain number of large coins to unlock the next level, which means going back and replaying older stages to find the collectibles he has missed.

For lots of people, this sort of gating or reward is not an annoyance, as long as it is balanced. I had loads of fun trying to find all the stars with my son in Super Mario 3D World to unluck the various extra worlds worth of challenge levels. It gave us something extra to do in a game we enjoyed playing together.This approach to play extension exists in lots of other games, too, from Grand Theft Auto to Spiderman, with various rewards for bothering to find the hidden items.

Hidden objects (or difficult to gather objects) are not the only form of collectible. Various MMOs have used armor as a kind of collectible. Early WoW had tier sets which, when assembled and equipped, often gave desirable power-raising bonuses. WoW followed the lead of other MMOs like Aion in allowing cosmetic alterations, so even as old weapons and armor became obsolete for use in-game, they were still desirable for cosmetic reasons, which gave players a reason to run old raids and dungeons. Some legendary items became desirable for clout alone since even with the obsolete content, they could be incredibly rare or annoying to farm (for instance, Thunderfury).

WoW was also big on Meta-rewards, especially once Blizzard introduced the achievement system and the myriad of unlockable titles, mounts, tabards, and pets within. This was a more formal version of a system that I actually first noticed in Warhammer Online, where performing certain actions could get you certain titles. There was a title in that game just for clicking on a skeleton hand in the Chaos starting area and a title for dying a certain number of times. In WoW, titles carried clout as they often disappeared after a certain date (usually for certain kinds of challenging PvE content), but there were also titles like the Insane, which was earned by maxing a diverse number of obscure faction reputations that to a casual player might seem impossible.

I actually got this title (I didn’t have a lot to do at the time) and was able to watch the entirety of Star Trek Enterprise while I did so (still an underrated show) since it involved hours and hours of Dire Maul grinding to get Goblin and Shen’dralar rep. Talk about extending playtime! Achievements and hidden quests gave players a virtually endless array of things to do in game outside of the usual gear treadmill and, seeing as how people would still comment on the Insane title ten years later, they are actually one of the most evergreen forms of content.

And while I don’t really interact with the trophy system on PSN or Xbox Live (in part because I don’t have active friends on those platforms), I know people who enjoy getting platinum trophies from their favorite games. There is a certain satisfaction from having a tough achievement be acknowledged.

It’s not all the same

I’ve mentioned “balance” several times at this point, so I want to conclude by reiterating that point. Extending game time can be a good thing, an enjoyable thing, but it can be annoying, too. “Hard” Nintendo games from the 1980s were often unfair, and there is at least one entire YouTube channel dedicated to showing that specific point. Gamers can quickly tell when their time is being wasted by added neutral time, pointless mandatory grinds, obnoxiously drop rates, or extreme difficulty jumps. Having the option, but not the obligation, is often the biggest difference between a player enjoying wasting their time and a player feeling like his time is being actively wasted.

Ultra-hard bosses like Algalon the Observer (a special hard-mode boss from WoW’s Ulduar Raid) were entirely optional challenges, as were the various difficulty levels of Yog-Saron, the final boss in the same raid. Had they been mandatory (or all the other hard modes), they would have felt frustratingly out-of-balance, but by making them optional, Blizzard was able to vastly extend the playtime of players during that period. There was always something else you could do that was just a little harder and gave you a little bit more clout.

Compare that to the mandatory Torghast grind from the newest expansion (Shadowlands), where you had to spend hours every week slowly grinding your way through a grey dungeon to upgrade one item and… Hopefully, you get the point. That game advertising 100 hours of content could be giving you 100 hours of fun, or it could be 50 hours of gameplay with 50 hours of repetition and filler, and that repetition and filler could be a waste of your time, or it could be fun. It’s really not all the same.

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