Before I try and make any points about the length of a game affecting the level of satisfaction I think I need to clarify a couple of things. This debate can only exist within the context of similar games. As an example, saying that World of Warcraft is a better game than Defender because it’s longer is an asinine comparison. On the other hand, saying that Galaga is a better game than Defender because it’s longer is a debate that might be worth having. So again, this debate can only exist when comparing like to like.
It’s also worth mentioning that in the context of this discussion, some games simply cannot be classified by length. Arcade games and multiplayer-centric games are both great examples of games that are extremely difficult to categorize by length based on their infinite replayability. What we’re left with then is really a debate about traditional single-player experiences.
When it comes to the typical single-player experience there is no doubt that length does matter to small, but extreme degree. If a typical $60 single-player games comes out and it features a campaign length of 30 minutes, then I would consider that to be a case of length affecting satisfaction. Other than the very rare cases where games are either absurdly short or absurdly long (usually the former) I don’t believe that the satisfaction of a game should be affected by length.
When categorizing the length of a single-player game, the largest factor is really expectation. If there is really any debate to be made about length vs. satisfaction it comes in the form of expectation of length vs. satisfaction. Every modern single-player release falls into two broad categories for me; RPGs, and non-RPGs. With any game that isn’t and RPG I have the expectation of enjoying a campaign somewhere between eight and twenty hours long. With an RPG, I expect at least thirty to forty hours of gameplay. Provided that these games fall somewhere within the expected length, I don’t believe that the length itself really affects satisfaction at all.
Again, in extreme cases length can affect satisfaction, but far more general terms, the expectation of length often times curbs that sense of disappointment. Last year I enjoyed The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite. Both of those games fall very clearly into the category of traditional, campaign-based single-player experiences. Both of those games were relatively short (Bioshock, specifically), but because I knew exactly what type of experience I was paying for, I never felt cheated by the length of the experience.
On the other hand, when I first purchased Skyrim, I was an Elder Scrolls virgin. I expected an RPG experience of thirty to forty hours. At last I checked, Steam claims that I have poured a staggering two hundred and fifty hours into that game. The thing is, I had already determined within the first forty hours that I was satisfied with the game. I could have quit playing it somewhere between the thirty and forty hours and felt like I had gotten what I had expected out of the game.
I can think of a few examples of games being absurdly short, but I don’t believe I’ve ever played a game that began as a satisfying experience and then degraded because of length. If a game is good enough to continue playing, then longer is better. If a game simply isn’t good, then longer or shorter really has no bearing, it simply isn’t a good game.