Recently, I read an editorial written by Tae Kim over at GamePro. Basically Tae (and a few others) are saying the same thing that I've been saying for years—most games are too long without the content to support such length, and that story-driven games in particular would benefit from being tighter and more focused.
I'm glad to see that this idea is starting to pop up more and more, because it's true. However, there's a bit of a spin to Tae's piece, and this little twist is something I have an issue with.
Here's the opening of the article:
In this week's editorial, we present an argument for the idea that games, especially those that feature a narrative story arc, need to be shorter, and that gamers need to stop making overall game length a priority when they make their purchasing decisions.
It seems to make sense, so what's the problem?
The problem is that while critics like Tae, myself, and others are saying openly that bigger does not always equal better, asking the player to make purchasing decisions that ignore financial realities and perceived value comes off as a purely one-sided proposition. Asking players to modify their standards and expectations makes sense, but that's only half the battle. Where's the compromise on the part of the publisher?
Before going on, let me be absolutely clear: I'm not trying to criticize Tae or GamePro specifically, nor do I have a beef with them. Honestly, I agree with almost everything Tae says in his editorial, and his thinking is correct—it simply lacks a critical piece of the equation. It's not just Tae, though. It's uncommon to see anyone in the review sphere or the industry in general call for changes on any part except the consumer's.
All the ongoing shrieks of "piracy" and this friendly little war on used games that's been happening? Those are the blind jabs taken by a bloated, outdated, struggling publishing machine that's out of touch with reality.
Fact: Nearly every game hits retail at the one-price-fits-all of $60 regardless of length, modes, features or extras. For example, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West launched at the same price as Fallout: New Vegas, which launched at the same price as Call of Duty: Black Ops, yet there's a significant difference in the amount of content and perceived value in each of these titles… yet they all cost exactly the same?
Following that line of thinking, here's another place where Tae's editorial stumbles for me:
But my point here is that it is possible to also have a meal that isn't nearly as substantial, but the quality of the food is so good, and the dining experience is so memorable, that you don't think twice about how much you have to leave on the table when you get up.
What this says to me is that players are supposed to get over the price tag and support "quality" regardless of the cost or how much they actually receive. I understand what's being said, but really… no suggestion that publishers need to change unsustainable business models, and not even a moment taken to call out the nonsense in the idea of one-price-fits-all?
In the real world, $60 is a lot of money to most, and buying every interesting title isn't a possibility when the price is steep for just one. A gamer pinching pennies wants to get the most bang for their buck, so if a person can only afford to buy one brand-new game a month, are they going to choose the eight-hour art-house narrative experience, the 100-hour open-world game, or the infinitely-replayable multiplayer FPS?
If I could only choose one game, I know what I'd pick—and as much as it pains me to say, it wouldn't be the eight-hour experience. As much as I might enjoy the art-house title, I'd either rent it or pick up a used or heavily-discounted copy six months later.
(What's that sound? I'm not sure, but it might be the sound of studios going under…)
As a critic who's been writing for years about wanting concise games, supporting smaller titles and cheerleading fringe projects, the "rent or buy used" statement may seem like a contradictory one to make. However, when financial realities enter the picture, priorities change—teenagers with tons of disposable income become parents with kids. The economy is in bad shape and jobs are scarce. People have rent to pay and the interest rate on credit cards is no joke. When money gets tight, luxuries like $60 brand-new games are the first thing to go.
To use Enslaved as an example again, it was a high-quality title with great characters, solid gameplay, and attractive graphics. It was quite an enjoyable single-player experience, but there was precious little replay value once credits rolled. It also lacked any multiplayer to help extend the life of the game, so its estimated lifespan to the average player was somewhere in the neighborhood of eight hours.
Now, I'm not saying that Enslaved was built on a flawed model of game design, nor am I saying that it should have had ill-fitting multiplayer or more pointless collectibles to pad the playtime. No, Enslaved was just fine as it was, but the problem with it (and others like it) is that the publisher priced it exactly the same as competing titles that were both lengthier and more substantial.
Based on this fact, I had a very hard time personally recommending Enslaved to anyone because $60 is a lot to ask for a once-and-done experience, regardless of quality. More often, I found myself saying that it would be a must-buy at $30, or that interested parties should rent or wait until it's on sale. The game-buying public seemed to agree—general consensus was that it was a good title, but sales were clearly disappointing.
Retail let-downs that happen to great titles like Enslaved make me wonder why publishers don't price their games more accordingly. I can't help but think that more people would have been inclined to pick up Enslaved or others like it, if only the MSRP had been more reasonable. In this case, let's say $30 or even $40. I'd imagine this kind of aggressive new-release price would even serve to cut a chunk out of the used games market as well. After all, why wait two weeks to save $5 when it's already quite affordable?
One possible explanation for this general adherence to the $60 price point? It's been mentioned that all games launch at $60 since consumers assume that anything less means the product is going to be a poor-quality game—essentially, an ingrained, long-term consumer bias. This supposed bias might actually be true in some cases, but so is the opposite—there are plenty of games that aren't worth nearly that much.
Honestly, I fail to see how supporting this conceptual fallacy of "high price = quality" benefits anyone or why it even continues to be upheld. Gamers regularly get suckered into paying for titles that don't justify the price tag, and good games that might be worthwhile end up stagnating at retail because there's too much competition. There's simply no way that consumers can buy as many $60 games as the industry (in its current incarnation) needs them to, so studios turning out perfectly decent (or better) titles are going under left and right. I think that in this situation, it's pretty clear to see why.
Rather than perpetuating this "good game = $60" myth, here's a wild idea: let's change it. If you ask me, it wouldn't be hard. If the industry took a few genuinely high-quality games and positioned them at a lower price point while marketing correctly, I'm confident that the target audiences would lose that $60 expectation in a hurry. I think the industry knows it, too.
…In fact, it might even become so popular that gamers would soon come to expect top-quality software at the new, lower price point, and why would publishers want to earn $30 less for each game than they do now? Ordinarily they wouldn't, but in the face of current economic realities, there may not be much choice. Isn't it better to sell more units at a lower asking price than to sell a mere handful at $60?
I could certainly go on since there are many, many cogs in this retail-fail machine (and thank you very much for reading if you've made it this far) but my point is that it's not entirely correct or even appropriate to say that players need to be satisfied with less content, or that they should support low-replay games while everything is still one-price-fits-all. I think a more proper way to make that argument is to say that players should support those types of games if and when publishers begin to recognize that one price is not appropriate for every title.
Consumers alone aren't the answer to the industry's woes. They don't have enough disposable income to keep this lopsided beast lurching forward, and asking them to foot the bill for things that aren't worth their hard-earned money is ignoring the other half of the equation. Give the player a true approximation of their money's worth, and they'll respond. Keep moving ahead with the current system of one-price-fits-all, and the only result will be more of what we've got now: an utterly unbalanced system where a handful of million-dollar blockbusters sell truckloads, and everything else continues to fall by the wayside.
My sincere thanks to Mr. P and Ms. A for their assistance with this article.