ion the winter of 1996, I almost lost my job because of the acclaimed management sim Civilization II. I was supposed to be reviewing it for the video game magazine Edge, where I was a fledgling staff writer. But I got so hooked, playing it was all I did for three weeks. During that period I ate, slept and drank Civilization II. At the end, I handed in my extremely thorough two-page review: the only thing I had submitted for the entire issue. I was supposed to be writing 25 pages a month. My editor was … displeased.
On Saturday evening, video game publisher Techland proudly tweeted that if players hoped to fully complete its forthcoming apocalyptic adventure Dying Light 2, they would need around 500 hours – “almost as long as it would take you to walk from Warsaw to Madrid”. The message immediately provoked a storm of controversy. Many respondents were critical, complaining that there wasn’t a chance they’d be able to find enough time for such a challenge. Writer Andy Kelly summed up it up by tweeting: “How not to market a game to anyone over 30 years old.”
For players with demanding jobs, families and other interests, the prospect of having to put aside 500 hours to finish a game about slaughtering zombies seemed too exhausting to contemplate. Other commentators saw it as a symbol of unhealthy games industry practices, in which developers burn themselves out through years of crunch to deliver gigantic games, setting impossibly high targets – only for the game to fall short, requiring months of bug-chasing. “Easily the most toxic and damaging way to market and set expectations for video games," twittato Luke Plunkett of games site Kotaku. “Well done to everyone involved.”
Techland immediately clarified its original post. “Note: It’s about 100% completion rate,” the company explained, giving an estimate of 80-100 hours for most players to finish the main story and all the side-quests. But by then the 500-hour figure had stuck.
The thing is, as my Civilization experience taught me, there are many players who do value spending many hundreds of hours with a game, immersing themselves in the world and its community for months or even years. In your teens and 20s, when you have few responsibilities, absolutely burying yourself in a sprawling adventure is a genuine treat, like getting lost in a vast fantasy novel. Nowadays, games such as Minecraft and Fortnite completely lack definitive endings and are more like social platforms than games; a huge percentage of fans will be spending thousands of hours in those virtual getaways. Ask players what games (or series) they’ve spent the most time on, and the answers range from endless multiplayer sci-fi shooter Destiny to the 16-year-old multiplayer RPG World of Warcraft to Fifa.
Other players are just fundamentally not willing or capable of playing a single game for such a long time. “Ever since I was a kid I’ve always played games until I’ve either finished the story or gotten bored, and then moved on,” says the Guardian’s games editor Keza MacDonald. “I almost never replay a game, either – I know a lot of people who’ve gone through a huge RPG like Skyrim three or four times, but I’ve never been able to see the point. Even if I didn’t have small children, I’d be a 10 to 20-hour kind of player, and I find the continual expansion of playtimes in modern games to be pretty exhausting. An Assassin’s Creed game used to take you 30 ore; now it’s more like 100 and I always bail before the end.
“There are a few exceptions, anche se. If you added up all the hours I’ve spent over the course of my life playing various versions of Guitar Hero, Tetris, Animal Crossing or Monster Hunter, you’d definitely end up in the hundreds.”
The most important thing, when it comes to investing so much time into a game, is what you get out of it. “The most wholesome I’ve felt about having played a game for a long time would be The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” says game designer Sam Barlow. “My save file for that game is in the hundreds of hours. Unlike games that pad out their game time with filler content and arduous checklists, Breath of the Wild is a game I’ve spent so much time in because of the simple joy of walking in its world, exploring without the pressures of busywork. It’s a game that my kids and I like to return to just to hang out in and enjoy on a sensory level. If from time to time we come across one of the many [collectible] Korok seeds we’ve yet to stumble across, fine, but that’s not why we’re there.”
Whether it’s time with friends or constant new discoveries, if a game (or indeed anything) is going to ask for hundreds of your precious hours on this Earth, it’s got to be giving you something you really enjoy. Have you ever spent that long with a video game? And more importantly, did it feel like time well spent?