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Myth of the 40 hour game.

I call it "the myth of the 40-hour gamer." Whenever you pick up a narrative adventure game these days, it always comes with this guarantee: This game offers about 40 hours of play.

This is precisely what I was told by Eidos -- and countless game reviewers -- when I picked up Tomb Raider: Legend earlier this year. As I gushed at the time, Legend was the first genuinely superb Lara Croft game in years, with a reinvigorated control system, elegant puzzles, and an epic storyline involving one of Lara's long-vanished colleagues. I was hooked -- and eager to finish the game and solve the mystery. So I shoved it into my PS2, dual-wielded the pistols and began playing ...

... until about four weeks later, when I finally threw in the towel. Why? Because I couldn't get anywhere near the end. I plugged away at the game whenever I could squeeze an hour away from my day job and my family. All told, I spent far more than 40 hours -- but still only got two-thirds through.

At some point, I sadly realized I just couldn't afford any more time. I've got a life to lead: Books to read, a day job, my infant son to hang out with, other games beckoning. That's why I've collected a shockingly large mausoleum of unfinished games over the years. Kingdom Hearts II? Stopped halfway. Kameo? Three-quarters through. Enchanted Arms? Eh -- I'm this close to bailing out.

All of which makes me wonder: Who the heck actually finishes a story-based game in 40 hours? Who are these mythical 40-hour gamers?

They certainly exist. Whenever I wander onto the boards at 1UP or Penny Arcade, they're crammed full of hard-core gamers bitching in all caps about how the games these days are too easy, too sucky and over way too quickly. They have the precise opposite problem as me. Dude, I spanked that game in, like, nine hours. What's your problem?

The problem is we occupy two sides of a howling cultural canyon, with utterly divergent experiences of precisely the same games. The 40-hour gamers are able to play in a way that I used to when I was a teenager, but can't anymore. They devote full evenings and entire weekends to marathon play-sessions. They get into the zone -- that Csikszentmihalyian state of "flow" where all distractions drop away, and you focus with lizard-brain survival intensity on solving the puzzles, leveling up, methodically remounting and remounting dread fights against the bosses until you spy the chink in their armor.

And hell, anyone can lick a game in 40 hours easily if they play like that. What you need is to have very few distractions and commitments. That's why a recent study by the NPD Group showed that hard-core gamers -- those capable of truly monklike devotion -- are, as you'd expect, aged 6 to 17.

In contrast, folks like me -- "soft-core" gamers? -- also crave to play these richly narrative, long-lasting titles. But we can only play in dribs and drabs -- an hour here, an hour there. The unspoken truth of gaming is that this creates a vastly different, and vastly inferior, mental space for game playing. If you're continually loading the game into your mental RAM, only to dump it out again an hour later, you can never concentrate as fully on grokking its internal mechanics. (This is also true of work: When I need to focus really intensely on a project, I start work at 9 a.m. and finish at 4 a.m. the next morning. But I can't afford to play games that way.)

The thing is, finishing a story-based game is an enormously rewarding experience. I'm depressed that I so seldom achieve it. It's like mixing the literary pleasures of finishing War and Peace with the itch-scratching OCD feel of completing The New York Times Sunday crossword. The delights of narrative and problem-solving compress into a single, narcotic burst of endorphins. If you've been hunched over the game for 15 straight hours, so much the better: In a strange way, part of the fun is re-emerging into daylight like a bewildered mole and slowly unkinking your RSI-crippled arms.

The demographic schism over 40-hour gameplay is gradually becoming a big problem for game designers. Their options are unenviable. If they develop a game aimed at the hard-core crowd, a wuss like me will almost certainly never finish it. If they do the opposite, the power cartel will blow through the game in afternoon and feel justifiably ripped off: I paid $50 for this?

Is this a solvable problem? Or will games just continue to develop in schismatic ways? I can't yet tell. A slender few designers of narrative games have tried to split the difference. The guys doing episodic games, as I wrote several months ago, are chopping their games into smaller pieces, in hopes of making them more digestible. And some designers just hit a perfect midpoint: Halo became famous for creating a long narrative game that also offered "30 seconds of fun" over and over again, perfect for short play-sessions.

And as for Legend, I lent it to a friend who's much more hard-core than me. He came back a week later and told me he'd played it straight through the weekend, killed the final boss, and watched the credits roll. "It's awesome," he said, "because you finally ..."

Don't tell me, I interrupted. I can't bear to find out.

Posted by Ed. on September 26.

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