Why Don’t Gamers Finish Games?

For a while now, a figure has been floating around the video game industry: only 10 percent of gamers actually complete the games they purchase. This figure was popularized by a 2011 CNN report, which included a quote from an Activision production contractor: “What I’ve been told as a blanket expectation is that 90% of players who start your game will never see the end of it unless they watch a clip on YouTube.”

10% is a dismal figure; one I find hard to swallow. Worse is the fact that developers have been using it as an excuse to create shorter, shallower games. The foundation of the argument is sound — why create a 20-hour game when most players won’t get to appreciate a significant percentage of the content? However, rather than strive to create a richer experience that will compel gamers to play through to completion, the response has been to provide less content to experience. Has it worked? Do shorter games have greater completion rates?

Let’s find out.

We took a sample of 30 games and analyzed their completion rates as well as the average time required to complete them. If “the industry” is right, we should observe much higher completion rates in shorter games.

Things to note about the data:

  • When discussing completion, we are solely looking at the “campaign” or main story line mode.
  • Completion rates are based on the percentage of people who earned the Steam achievement for finishing a given game’s story/campaign on any difficulty.
  • These data won’t take into account people who play offline, on console, or are otherwise not having their stats tracked on Steam. Steam players should serve as a representative subset of the gaming population.
  • Some of these games have been out longer than others. The longer a game has been released, the more time people have had to complete the campaign, though no correlation was found between release date and completion rate.
  • All completion times are taken from http://howlongtobeat.com/
  • Genres are not equally represented — games selected are a mix of the better-known releases of the last two years and some of the most played games on Steam.
  • The results include people who own a game but have never played it, as these individuals could rarely be factored out via analysis.

Contrary to the touted 10%, these data show that, on average, about a third of gamers complete any given game, and it takes approximately 12 hours to do so. 35% still isn’t a figure to be proud of, but it at least leans closer to “sad” rather than “abysmal.”

It’s worth nothing that none of these games have a completion rate of 55% or greater, and that the titles with the highest completion rates are those whose campaigns took about 6-8 hours to complete: Portal 2, Prototype 2, The Darkness 2, and just to ensure we don’t get the idea that any game that ends with a “2″ is guaranteed 50% completion, Spec Ops: The Line. Does that prove “the industry” right? Not a chance.

Yes, the games with the highest completion rates have short campaigns, but there is no appreciable trend in the data across the 30 titles to suggest that game completion rises as campaign duration falls. Some short games have low completion rates. Some long games have relatively high completion rates.

Let’s gets a sense of how these data are distributed to see if a significant portion of games fall into a certain range of completion or length by looking at some histograms:

What we see is that, for most games, we can expect 35-45% of their players to complete the campaign, and that the grouping is fairly tight — we don’t see wildly divergent results. When looking at a list of a game’s achievements ordered by the percentage of players that attained them, more often than not, the campaign completion achievement sits at around 35%.

Only 4 titles have less than 25% completion: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, L.A. Noire, Red Faction: Armageddon, and Brink. And guess what? Brink is one of the shortest games, as is Red Faction, clocking in at about 6 and 7.5 hours, respectively.

Most campaigns take 6 to 10 hours to complete. Looking at the titles with longer campaigns, we see names like Skyrim, Borderlands 2, and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning — RPGs and open-world games with multiple paths to completion. On the other hand, that 6-10 hour range is a reflection of the fact that most of the titles examined — and most games released nowadays — are shooters with mostly linear campaigns and a propensity for relying on multiplayer.

Putting These Data Together

Now, the time taken to complete a game’s campaign is by no means a measure of the quality of that campaign — more is never necessarily better. Likewise, a higher completion percentage does not necessarily equal a better campaign — surely, a 35% completion rate for a 25-hour campaign is worth more than a 40% completion rate for a 4-hour campaign, right?

By combining these two statistics, we can compare these 30 titles to judge how relatively “engaging” their campaigns are. For our purposes today, we’ll define “engagement” as a campaign’s ability to retain a player.

To do so, let’s apply the percentage of completion to the campaign length and compare the figures. For instance, the relative engagement of a campaign with 50% completion at 10 hours duration should be roughly equivalent to a campaign with 25% completion at 20 hours duration.

At first blush, these results are reminiscent of the game completion length results, with Borderlands 2 and Skyrim topping the list with both having the longest campaigns and being the most “engaging.” However, a closer look would reveal that there is movement among the other titles on the list.

L.A. Noire sees the most dramatic difference, moving from the 7th longest campaign to the 26th most “engaging.” The Darkness 2 ranks 28th in terms of length, but it’s the 20th most engaging title. Prototype 2 is the 21st longest game but the 13th most engaging. Spec Ops: The Line is the 26th longest, but the 18th most engaging. Kingdoms of Amalur drops from the 3rd longest title to the 10th most engaging. Red Faction: Armageddon drops from 22nd longest to 29th most engaging.

Again, “engagement” does not define the quality or popularity of a game. A game like Black Ops 2 finds itself near the bottom of the list because it’s a title that relies heavily on its multiplayer component — players could spend dozens, even hundreds or hours fragging their friends online and never complete the campaign. “Engagement” speaks solely to the merits of the campaign.

When a game like Brink, which can be beaten in less than six hours, is only completed by 19 percent of its players, does that suggest that a three hour campaign is the answer? No. Absolutely, unequivocally no.

Why does Skyrim’s campaign manage to retain a relatively high amount of players? Because it delivers an immersive, engrossing experience that keeps its audience engaged for hours upon hours. Rather than point to length as the problem without further thought, developers should analyze why gamers aren’t completing their game. Does it become frustratingly difficult toward the end? Is it clich├ęd and unimaginative? Is the story too complicated to follow? Too simple to be interesting? Are the characters boring? Annoying? Could a 13-year old have come up with the plot?

Treat the disease, not the symptom. The problem isn’t that players aren’t completing your games — it’s that your games aren’t making players want to complete them. We’re not saying that every game needs to be Skyrim, but every game should give your players a reason to stay glued to the screen for hours on end.

Games are more like novels than like movies. They are entertainment mediums that require hours to complete and that the audience can progress through at a pace of their choosing. People call a good book “a real page-turner” when it is so compelling that the reader can’t wait to see what’s on the next page; good games follow that same philosophy — players can’t wait to see what happens next. And once you’ve so captivated a player, it doesn’t matter how long your campaign is.

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19 Comments on Why Don’t Gamers Finish Games?

jacb

On December 14, 2012 at 3:25 pm

I think that it should also take in account the amount of side things to do and if the campaign is noticeable. For example there are some games in which the campaign or so vague or there are so many other things to do that you end up not completing it.

Aedelric

On December 14, 2012 at 3:39 pm

A good article CJ, I agree with your final comments,

The only correlation I see is that people can only put of with crap for so long.

Roughly 8-10 hours of rubbish story telling or gameplay is all that people can take before they give up without caring about what happens in the game. You make a decent game and people will complete it, yes you could make the game ten minutes long so you are guaranteed players complete it, but that does not make it more compelling or enjoyable.

My problem is with big companies that rely on such figures to justify shorter development times to create half-assed short games (DA2, etc), rather than being truthful and admitting that they skimp on content for monetary gain.

I read every Discworld novel on my shelf read each within a few days of purchase, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code has a thick layer of dust on my top shelf forever closed after two chapters and it took me a week to grind my way through each of those horridly written pages.

Derek

On December 14, 2012 at 4:39 pm

I have purchased 25 of the 30 games on this list and only completed 6 of them, but I have completed 4 of those 6 several times each (4 times for skyrim – total 280 hours played). I plan to complete only 4 of the remaining 19 because I recently purchased them (max payne3, xcom, hitman, prototype2). The rest either became (examples) boring (amalur), I lost interest after initial enjoyment (saints row), I never found the game fun(space marine) or was just frustrating(civilization).

My biggest problem with not finishing games is that many of them ether fail to absorb my attention, or annoy the hell out of me until I quit. I always buy all the top games, not to mention all the good looking indie games, but I rarely have time to finish more than 1 before 5 more are released which I end up purchasing. I can play great games like borderlands 2, skyrim, dishonored, or dragon age origins over and over again. But other big budget games disappointing in just one area will keep me from ever finishing them.

Matchoo

On December 14, 2012 at 9:12 pm

I have found that I too seem to leave a lot of games unfinished. Part of that is due to the game not catching my interest as much as it could, but another thing I like to blame is Steam itself. Back in the pre-Steam days, I would go to the store, spend $50 on a game, and play it over and over until I had saved enough to buy another game. Now with all the sales that Steam has, I will pick up a game sometimes just because it looked interesting in the past and there is a sale on it. I may get around to installing and playing it, but sometimes it is after I have bought and played one or more other games.

jlkawaii

On December 15, 2012 at 2:23 am

This article is spot on. I like finishing game, alas, most are too much (boring, stupid, short or just… buggy)
in fact, i’m like Derek i think…

James Bond

On December 15, 2012 at 4:24 am

Really good article, CJ. To be honest, many of the games I’ve bought in the last few years I’ve barely even started. No engagement whatsoever. The last one I finished was Sleeping Dogs which I found to have really good narrative immersion and characters albeit with poor dialogue and transitions, and ironically enough it was far too short! It ended just as it was getting into full-flow. I saved my best friend, he said he had to think about his future, leading me to think we were entering a decent philosophical final act, and the VERY NEXT MISSION began with him being found hanging dead from a meathook and began the final two missions of the game. I felt shortchanged. Meanwhile, however, I simply haven’t been able to get into a lot of other games. I think I’m to blame for a lot of those as if something doesn’t immediately click with me I can find it difficult to persevere unless I just throw myself completely into it for a few days, but some of them are just not interesting enough to warrant sustained play. Shorter campaigns is not the answer as is an intellectually lazy concept designed to pass the buck onto the player rather than accept the writing might not be up to scratch, as well as further ripping off the customer by giving them even less content while paying increasingly higher prices.

lee

On December 15, 2012 at 9:03 am

I always try to complete every single game I either rent or purchase regardless if the campaign is terrible or not. I guees one of the problems today is the lack of attention span amongst people.

R.J.

On December 15, 2012 at 3:30 pm

@lee

Did you read the article? What CJ was saying was that it’s not about not having the attention span to stick it out, it’s about whether the game is engaging enough to keep people playing. People finished very long game like Skyrim and Bordlands 2 more so than shorter titles, so it doesn’t seem like not being able to pay attention is the issue. You say you try to complete every game you buy/rent even if it’s not very good, but that has nothing to do with being able to pay attention. Personally, if a game isn’t very engaging, I’m not going to waste my time by forcing myself to put several hours into something I don’t enjoy. I don’t feel at all obligated to finish a product meant to entertain if it doesn’t entertain me. I might as well sell it and try to get some money back rather than waste both my money and time playing a game that I don’t enjoy.

psycros

On December 15, 2012 at 6:31 pm

I do agree that games are more like books than movies, but most developers don’t seem to comprehend this. Almost every story that’s delivered primarily through a visual medium has been turned into either a Michael Bay film or some gawdawful mish-mash of The Sopranos and The Walking Dead. That makes it really hard to buy into the narrative and I usually bail on those failures within a couple hours. Then you have the genre staples like the military FPS that are just boring at this point – how many times can you shoot a nonspecific enemy and still care? Sure, give me a great AI and co-op gameplay and I might be up most of the night, but how many shooters offer that nowadays? The console-ization of gaming has also been a major blow to us PC-only folks. Between the bugs and overly arcade-style gameplay a lot of multi-platform titles become too frustrating to be fun. The writing also tends to be simplistic and overly vulgar. Even RPGs are suffering from the industry’s obsession with catering to the ADD energy drink crowd. I can’t take a role-playing game seriously that looks and feels like Assassin’s Creed (one of the most overrated franchises in recent memory). Of course there’s the whole issue of time. Adulthood brings with it a lot of things that get between you and your gaming. That leaves you feeling less connected to the experience and makes it easier to just drift away without completing the adventure. All told, I’d say that too much console influence is what makes me give up on a game the most often. For example, I was really intrigued by Divinity II but the arcade combat drove me away. With Dragon’s Age it was the stupid and utterly broken “NPC programming language” that did it. With Dishonored it was the unfathomable lack of a non-lethal takedown ability that didn’t require either surprise or expensive gear, the broken savegame system and the mashed-up story that seemed to throw in everything but aliens – and had I kept playing I’ve no doubt they would have showed up!

Dan Miler

On December 15, 2012 at 9:24 pm

Love the “relative campaign engagement” score!

Of the games on here, I bought 7 and completed 6, the loser being Dishonored which I found unengaging and wildly overrated. Skyrim took many, many hours of my life. Played it on a 100 inch projector with surround sound. So yeah, that was amazing.

Hide N City

On December 16, 2012 at 8:05 am

lee
“I always try to complete every single game I either rent or purchase regardless if the campaign is terrible or not. I guees one of the problems today is the lack of attention span amongst people.”

How ironic – it’s blatantly obvious that you didn’t even have the attention span to finish reading the damn article. If you had done, you’d have seen the fatuous “games are too long for today’s goldfish market” was completely debunked with things called ‘facts.’ Still, why let evidence get in the way of an unfounded superiority complex?

lee

On December 16, 2012 at 8:43 am

@R.J. Yes I did read the article, I am just the type of person that when I start something I am going to try my best to finish it.

lee

On December 16, 2012 at 8:49 am

@Hide N City Considering how many books I’ve read and wrote I must have a terrible attention span. I am so SORRY that I just said that I like to complete video games. I’ll be sure to say something pleasing to your ear the next time I post a commet.

Skeff

On December 16, 2012 at 1:54 pm

I think DLC is another factor, or at least for me. A game that comes with no DLC is going to have me play the entire thing because I know more pieces of the story aren’t going to be shoved into game later. It leaves me being able to still continue playing rather than feeling like I need to start again. (As well, if I finish a game before the DLC comes out, I won’t ever buy the DLC.)

Sonny

On December 16, 2012 at 6:10 pm

lee – you didn’t read the article. Simple as. If you had, you’d know the issue of attention span was dealt with evidentially and theoretically. It’s got nothing to do with personal preference. You screwed up. Just admit to your mistake and move on.

lee

On December 17, 2012 at 8:01 am

You know what Im done. It obvious you won’t let this crap go. Just trying to have a opinion here but every %&$&@$% time I try to have one everybody has to shoot me down. I was trying to develop my own theory about the subject, that’s all. Hope you love reading my comments because this will be that last one I will write for a long time maybe forever. I once loved gamefront because this was a beacon of free speech but the trolls have taken over. Congragulation you’re just as bad as IGN.

Kakyo01

On December 17, 2012 at 11:28 am

I own 3 games from the list and finished the campaign from all of them.

I’m one of those players who grind though a story just to see the end of it… but there are exceptions to my playstyle.

if a game becomes punishing difficult for no other reason than being difficult it starts to frusttrate me and I might drop the game for good… but out of 153 singleplayer games it happened only 6 times so I’m probly one of the more insane/stupid gamers who like to punish themselfs :p

Cheese

On March 27, 2013 at 5:14 am

Amusing looking back at lee’s comments about “the trolls have taken over” when he was clearly trolling by making a point that was point-blank dismissed in the article while not even acknowledging this fact.

cerealkeller

On September 28, 2013 at 11:51 pm

If game devs are seriosly using that excuse to make games shorter, then they need to be shot. I almost always complete a game I start unless I hate it. That’s the thing, if you release a crappy game, people won’t want to spend time playing through the entire story. Here’s what they should be doing, make better games you idiots!