Does the Size of a Video Game’s World Really Matter?

It seems like not very many years ago that critics — and they represent the opinion of everyday gamers, right? — were complaining that triple-A games were too short. There was a period around 2010 when just about every tent pole game clocked in at a dozen hours or less, including Batman: Arkham Asylum, Bayonetta, Metal Gear Solid 4, God of War 3, Uncharted 2, Modern Warfare 2, all of which had single player main campaigns that could be completed in one or two long play sessions. All of these games had ways of extending their lives past the campaign and for some of them, the campaign was an afterthought to a robust multiplayer experience. Still, the opinion was often expressed that consumers were being cheated by games that were too brief.

Fast forward to 2015, and nearly every game that is riding high on the end of the year “top” lists is huge, at least in terms of game world and the time commitment to see it through. Fallout 4, Xenoblade Chronicles X, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Metal Gear Solid 5, Destiny, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, and The Witcher 3 could each potentially suck up dozens and dozens of hours.

Xenoblade Chronicles X has one of the largest worlds in any game
Xenoblade Chronicles X has one of the largest worlds in any game

According to recent data, the “average” gamer (who is 34 years old and has been gaming for 14 years) plays approximately 22 hours per week, those hours spread across PC, console and mobile games. In 2005, data showed the average gamer played 20 hours a week. Despite the proliferation of gaming devices and delivery methods and the fact the gaming is now a mainstream media industry, gamers are still playing about the same amount of time as they were ten years ago. It would take an average gamer over a month of just playing Fallout 4 to see and experience most — but not all — of that game’s content.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate reduced the number of collectibles but completionists could spend hours finding them all
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate reduced the number of collectibles but completionists could spend hours finding them all

Whether it’s due to processing power and speed, the general availability of cheaper and bigger systems and broadband, or the perceived desire of consumers, developers are creating games with huge open worlds that are simultaneously impressive and intimidating. Even tightly plotted, character-driven games like Rise of the Tomb Raider pack hours and hours of exploration, secondary quests, crafting, and optional areas on top of the main story missions, almost guaranteeing that none but the most persistent player will see more than a fraction of the content. It provides added value for the consumer, but would anyone mind 20 less hours of extra “stuff” if it meant the core game was even better?

Until Dawn was a short experience that could be played multiple times

Value or feature bloat? Too much of a good thing or a golden age of games really coming into their own by building comprehensive worlds? Would Xenoblade Chronicles X’s immense open environment of planet Mira be less impressive if the story were tighter and there was less meandering? Ditto Fallout 4. Some games — Until Dawn is a great example — solve the equation by providing shorter campaigns that can be played through multiple times with different results, and some games –like Legacy of the Void –have satisfying single player campaigns and theoretically endless replayability in multiplayer.

2015 was a great year for games, but it was also a year of games that felt undisciplined and big just for the sake of it. What do you think?


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Mark Steighner

The author Mark Steighner

Mark Steighner is a composer, playwright, teacher, musician, and videogamer from the Pacific Northwest. He’s also a grandfather and older than the rest of the EB staff combined. Just goes to show that one can put off actual maturity for a really long time.