Posted on December 14, 2012, CJ Miozzi 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 clichéd 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.