How I Began to Avoid the “Hours Played” Meta Game
For a hefty chunk of my gaming life, I’ve found myself always wanting to pick up games that I could get immense mileage on. Hundreds of hours, if I really wanted. My first genuine experience with a “forever-lasting” game was probably The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion on the Xbox 360. I think I was 14 at the time. Nothing but time on my hands when I got home from school. Hundreds of hours spent on different character builds trying to get the most out of the game. Even though my access to new titles was considerably better during the Xbox 360 days than any time before, I still didn’t want a game to just… end. I only had so many, and if I liked them, I wanted to be able to experience them over and over without some huge drop-off in excitement and engagement. That was my expectation of the game, whether or not the game itself made those claims. At the very least, I hoped it would have an online component to ensure longevity like most shooters did. It didn’t matter that the questlines in Oblivion never changed or that nothing new was really added between character changes or that money became absolutely useless at about 10 hours in. I wanted my mileage.
I think that concept stuck with me for a long time because I held it so aggressively as a teenager without a lot of money to spend on games, and that reason is precisely why a lot of people adopt the habit in the first place. Cost per hour of entertainment is a ridiculously common metric in many hobbies, so why should gaming be any different? But even when I got my first gaming PC in 2010 and I had miraculous Steam sales to ensure my money was going far if I played the game even once, the play time I could extract from a game still mattered a great deal to me.
According to my Steam library, the Bethesda RPGs (Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, Fallout 4, Oblivion, and Skyrim in this case) cumulatively have a little over 1,200 hours of play time. That doesn’t even count my time with Oblivion and Fallout 3 on the Xbox 360. And I don’t even use mods in my games. Can you imagine 1,200 hours of vanilla Bethesda RPGs? I promise I’ll get to the mods one day, stop throwing the tomatoes. I have all these other games that sit in my library, but sometimes I just wanted something comfortable, something I KNOW I’ll be able to put a bunch of hours into until I feel like getting into another game.
What I internalized only relatively recently (perhaps embarrassingly) is how okay it is to not get hundreds of hours out of a single game. Last year, after being swamped by the hype train on Reddit, I finally got around to playing Return of the Obra Dinn, a fascinating puzzle game about solving the mystery of why a ship, and all its crew and passengers, went missing. I spent $15 on that game on sale and beat the game in about nine hours (though Steam says 11 because I would leave it open when I stepped away from the computer a few times). Compared to so many other games I played, even at a comparable price point, nine hours of play time is very low. Even other games that I played through just once were significantly higher. Obra Dinn felt different though.
The neat thing about Return of the Obra Dinn though is that it managed to captivate me so much between its premise, art style, music, and story progression. I had an absolutely outstanding time engaging with what is nothing short of a gorgeous piece of art, and I likely won’t have that level of engagement with it ever again (the curse of puzzle games in general, admittedly). The style of the puzzles means you either need to be terribly forgetful or need to wait for quite a great passage of time to play it “properly” again. And even then, SOME things will probably still stick with you after you boot it back up. And if I saw on some reviews that the game wasn’t even able to break the 10-hour mark, and scoffed at the wasted cash it would be to play something so short, I never would have had such an amazing game experience.
Return of the Obra Dinn was the game that truly showed me that even if an experience can only be had a single time for a few short hours, in some cases that single time is more than enough. I might have “known” it was fine to not play a game for 1,000 hours somewhere in the back of my head, but I still caught myself watching those hour tickers move up on Steam and it feels like I’m playing a meta game of trying to get that number as high as I can to justify the fact that I spent money on it as much as possible. And I just need to stop doing that. A good game is a good game whether it’s five hours or 50 hours or 500 hours. I think there are fair arguments to be made about what the price points should be with such drastic differences in expected game length, but that’s another topic.
If you are like me and have found yourself in a position of trying to stretch every single game into eternity, to the point where it almost feels like an obligation rather than for actual enjoyment, give yourself a chance to step back and look at something different. It’s okay that you didn’t get all the collectibles in any of the recent Assassin’s Creed games. I sure as heck couldn’t find the willpower to get 100% completion in Mad Max earlier this year.
I would like to also bring up that I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to play a game for a huge amount of time either. The most typical case of “same game forever” comes from strictly multiplayer competitive games, such as League of Legends, Counter Strike, or Overwatch. And as someone who played a lot of Halo and Call of Duty as a teenager, I totally get the constant climb for self-improvement. But I’m going to step away from those and look more into largely single-player experiences.
As an example, I got Minecraft in 2010 right when I first got my PC. Like many early adopters, I played it for an obscene number of hours. Yet it’s barely even the same game anymore with how many content updates there have been for it in the past decade. I don’t play it much anymore, but I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone who still did. The content updates alongside the absolutely monstrous quantities of quality mods out there make Minecraft a sort of amorphous blob (in a good way) of whatever genres you want to stick inside it. You could have been playing that game for a straight decade and none of it would have felt the same. That sort of scope is absolutely magical, and I’m unbelievably impressed by what the team behind it has managed to do.
But the majority of games aren’t quite Minecraft. Most games don’t have a lot of room for expansive developer or community content to inflate a base game beyond its staying power. Plenty of games just have a single narrative that you’re slowly wading through, trying to immerse yourself in the sea of story, and like a good book, when you get to the end, it’s a bittersweet satisfaction to see how everything came together. Perhaps a poor comparison because many people like to read the same books over and over as well, but I’d like to believe you see the point I’m trying to make.
Sometimes an amazing game needs to happen just once. It needs to impact your life just once. It needs to help you see a certain perspective or understand an argument or shatter some grand illusion just once, and it’ll have all been worth it. Sometimes nine hours is all you need to come to a tangible self-realization about how you live your life and enjoy the things you enjoy. But the more time we spend on our nice and cozy favorites playing the “hours played” meta game, the less time we have to find ourselves in some amazingly endearing new experience. That’s something I’m making a promise to myself to focus on much more in the future.