The Hundred Hours Fallacy

No, the hundred hours fallacy isn’t new.  The fans of Japanese turn-based role-playing games and MMORPGs have been using it for a long time, arguing that you can’t judge the games unless you’ve sucked in the entire story or played through the endgame content.  But since the whole “e-Sports” thing is out of control, there are people who have invested thousands of hours into a single multiplayer game setting up the rules for discussion.  And with it, articles such as Purge’s “Welcome to Dota, You Suck” embrace and echo an increasingly common sentiment, placing the bar for “basic understanding” of a game like Dota 2 at roughly a hundred hours.*  Whether the number is fifty hours or a hundred hours or a thousand hours, they all have one thing in common: It’s complete bullshit.

When someone tells you that their game can only be judged after some ridiculous number of hours, they’re probably saying two things.  The first is the easy one: The game has failed to pace itself and is stretching its content too thin.  And while this fits the MMORPG to a tee, it also applies to many of today’s action games, which may only show their entire hand—and reveal the “real game”—in the final hour or two.  Quite simply, these games are going to compare unfavorably with the games that demonstrate a density and complexity of concepts, the games which rapidly introduce new toys and don’t insult their audience by holding them back.  It’s best demonstrated by the arcade and console action games which quickly stack the action to keep the best players entertained and the body of game history shows that it works.

The second issue is the bigger one: The game lacks the cursory hook that is supposed to hold the player’s interest as they become familiar with the intricacies.  And we know how crucial this is, because videogames emerged through an arcade format where they had to quickly and forcefully demonstrate that they were worth playing at the expense of other games.  So even if you were simply learning all of the characters in Street Fighter II, and even if you didn’t know all of the moves, there were plenty of things to hold your interest.  After all, you’re playing as one of multiple world-class martial artists—all with instantly recognizable diversity in playstyles and personalities—throwing fireballs or hammering dudes with spinning piledrivers.  All of the moves, characters, and environments were wonderfully and elegantly animated, all conceptually interesting, all bound to a tight and well-designed control scheme.  The game had things to keep the player interested and engaged as he slowly peeled back the subtleties that give the Street Fighter series its lasting appeal.

If your game has entirely failed to capture my attention during the first few hours, then in all likelihood, it means that the game sucks.  The things which failed to capture my attention during that feeling-out period—whether a sloppy control scheme, lousy graphics, poorly-designed game systems, or a fundamentally bankrupt notion of what a game should be—are going to exist no matter how good that I get at the game, and no matter how many matches that I play.  It’s not like I become the best player in the world, the designer of the game knocks on my door, and hands me the improved version of the game with better controls, graphics, and mechanics.  A game like Street Fighter IV is always going to feel slower and sloppier than its predecessors, and I don’t need to be the best in the world—or even good at the game—in order to recognize that.  It’s a reality which exists for the players playing the game at every level.

The argument that you must pour time and energy into a game is most commonly a matter of seeing whether a game that passes the initial scrutiny lives up to that potential.  Everything feels good, there’s no grievous flaws, now let’s see how it holds up.  The vanilla iteration of Supreme Commander is an excellent example, where players will slowly realize that the massive range of choices, excellent visuals, and liberating premise eventually yield a slow, plodding game that inevitably encourages turtling at the expense of everything else.  Whereas the expansion pack Forged Alliance entirely fulfills the promise of that well-designed foundation to reveal a deliciously agressive and complex standard that the genre should be judged by.  In these circumstances, whether I choose to spend more than a couple of hours with a game comes down to whether it has demonstrated that it is worth my time at all.

But the fallacy asserts that knowledge and expertise on the matter of a single videogame can only be acquired by playing that game.  When, of course, good game criticism is an accumulation and demonstration of prior knowledge.  A review of a game does not exist in an bubble, because to say something is “good” or “bad” will require you to compare it with other relevant works.  So if I spend an hour with a game call it a joke, that “review” is not confined to one hour of expertise.  It is a reflection on the twenty-five-plus years that I have been playing videogames, and is my way of saying there is something so entirely offensive about the design of the game—when compared to the countless other games that I’ve played—that it is entirely worth dropping at first sight.  And if that’s an opinion that I can put in writing and defend to the death, then I’ll damn sure do it.

In addition, the fallacy argues that the burden of proof is on the player, and that the player must conclude beyond a shadow of a doubt that the developer has not done their due diligence.  Fuck.  That.  I don’t care whether the journalists handed out their “universal acclaim” and I don’t care whether the “pros” say it’s good.  It is my absolute fucking right to ditch your game, call it what it is, and move on to something else.  It is not my job to spend hundreds of hours playing a game in order to comment on it.  I can go play any number of games which will be more immediately appealing, with better graphics, controls, mechanics, all adding up to a better premise.  And because those games are demonstrating a degree of excellence as the layers are pulled back, they are more likely to achieve a greater peak for excellence than the “deep game” which fails at the fundamentals.  Period.

Of course, the genius of the fallacy is that if you ever meet the time requirement, then this will prove that the game is better than you’re letting on to.  After all, why would you spend all that time playing a game you didn’t like?  You must have liked something about it!  And that’s the real aim of the argument.  The fallacy is not about credentials or qualifications.  Much in the way that win percentage and rank are used to dismiss dissenting opinions, it’s about creating a system in which only those who have met a certain threshold for time played—and in all likelihood enjoy the game—are qualified to comment on it.  And if you’re pouring thousands of hours into a single game, and inevitably doing this at the expense of other excellent games, then it becomes awfully appealing to set up barriers that protect your emotional investment in that game.

Anyone who does this is probably an idiot, and as I have hopefully shown, they can either be ignored or crushed when the moment is right.  Time and skill are merely tools that the player has at his disposal for understanding how a game works.  In the end, all that matters is whether or not you know what the hell you’re talking about.  If I give up on a game too early, and what I have to say about the game is incorrect or inaccurate, then other players should demonstrate why it was bad to drop that game early.  And since we will all have highly divergent ideas on what should be the moment of no return, these conversations are most certainly worth having.  But the amount of time and energy you have poured into a game does not become this magical gated barrier unto itself.  And if you have been paying attention, it should have only taken you a couple of minutes to figure it out.  Keep up the good work.