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The problem with blaming the gamer

Brad Gallaway's picture

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Screenshot

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 Those are the blind jabs taken by a bloated, outdated, struggling publishing machine that's out of touch with reality.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.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Screenshot

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?

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Screenshot

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.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3  
Developer(s): Ninja Theory  
Genre(s): Adventure/Explore  

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Noble idea, that of pricing

Noble idea, that of pricing games on a system that takes the amount of content into consideration, but the cynic in me sees only bad things happening with that scenario.

I'm sure publishers would love this plan. A short game like Enslaved would still be $60 bucks, while a longer RPG or game with infinite online replayability would be closer to $100. I'm sure we all like to think the longer games would be $60 and everything else would be less, but does anyone really believe it would play out that way? Look at DLC games -- they're already cracking the $15 mark.

I'd also guess that they'd respond with the point that while a shorter game like Enslaved might not cost as much to make as a Fallout: New Vegas, it's still pricey -- and that at $60 they have a chance at getting a better return on investment than they do with the longer games.

This industry has been in a weird spot for a long time and its business model seems fairly outdated given the current economic climate. I'm sure most people can't afford to buy a game a month at $60, which makes you think the industry would turn around and say "okay, we need to make this hobby a little more affordable so that everyone benefits." Unfortunately, that would require an amount of foresight and business savvy that we know the execs in this industry simply do not possess.

Brad, 2 problems with your argument:

1- the industry model is based around manufacturing abstractions, not quality. Same reason a SyFy channel dvd release costs the same as a new hit movie. New DVD, 20$.. after release date, retailers can set prices as they see fit, based on their own crazy values. Wal-Mart is notorious for selling day one prices for videogames years later, but that's Wal-Mart. Using Enslaved as an example, it's current retail price on Amazon is hovering between 25-35$, which I think is an appropriate cost, and it was released, what? A month ago? The market corrects for quality, if you're not in a hurry to pay for something on day one. Day one is a consumer abstraction that also has no value. Imposing a standard on any of these ideas would be seen as giving the consumer less freedom, imo. I bought a used copy of Enslaved for 38$ because that was the coincide of price and waiting for it to drop that I could handle. I may be dissatisfied I could have got it for less, but I'm also realistic about my own impatience about these things.

2- perception of quality. Price a game for 30$, and educated consumers will avoid it because they will feel the manufacturer is admitting that the title is 'not that good'. That's retail stigma, and it's deadly to introduce into the market. If a title is a platinum hit, yes.. 'greatest hit'. That's sensible.

I want it and I want it now is what the market sells on. I'm willing to wait for the right price is what the public buys on.

and again: videogames are singularly marketed to mid 20's males --- as long as that is what manufacturer's focus on, videogames will remain in puberty, and won't grow up.

It should work both ways

I believe the problem is not that games are too expensive, the problem is they are not expensive enough. It is precisely because games have reached a ceiling of $60 msrp that we have such a glut of mediocre, padded glitchy titles on the market. I for one would be happy to pay more for a flawless Fallout Las Vegas, for example, if it meant doing without the innumerable bugs. I support your advocacy for flexible price points, Brad, but it should work both ways.

If gamers are asked to pay

If gamers are asked to pay the same price for a 10-hour game as for a 100-hour game, then they should also expect the 10-hour game to offer ten times better quality. I would much rather buy a shorter but fun game than a title that's pouring hundreds of hours of boredom upon me.

This never happens -- most AAA games offer the same mixture of high visual fidelity, subpar narrative and tried and proven gameplay formulas as the next title. In this context your call for differentiating price points based on the amount of content makes sense; yet I would much rather live in a world where a 10-hour game is so f*cking good it really deserves its $60 price tag.

Sir Rusty, I couldn't

Sir Rusty, I couldn't disagree with you more. It's like saying we should pay more for a ticket at the cinema if we want to see a film without plotholes or without crummy CGI. The consumer shouldn't have to pay a premium to get a product that works as expected.

Interesting article, and the

Interesting article, and the basic economic grounding is sound - price according to value. However, don't think for a second that publishers are so blind that they can't see that a bit more price discrimination wouldn't raise profits.

The $60 is not fixed in time. As RandomRob saliently notes, market forces work to determine the price after release (via sites like Amazon). As prices are adjusted downwards, more and more consumers are captured, specifically consumers that only have the will and means to purchase the game at a price point less than $60. At each price point in the downward trajectory, profits from those marginal consumers -- the consumers that JUST have the will and means to purchase the game at that price -- is maximised.

So you can see that publishers will be fully aware that the game will adjust in price over time, as it does so, maximising profits from specific segments of the consumer market.

The $60 RRP is just an initial price set to maximise profits from those, such as yourself, that have the will and means to purchase specific brand new releases at the full RRP. If they had put out Enslaved at an initial price of $40, they would have lost the extra $20 from consumers such as yourself that **CHOSE** to purchase the game at $60!! On the other hand, those with smaller budgets and/or different preferences would have just waited for the price fall to happen in Amazon.

Having said all this, if these extra profits are passed onto the developers, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Higher developer profits ultimately means better games.

I just did not here subtle

I just did not here subtle hints that the games today are to long and content rich for todays gamers? I am dyeing from the lack of qaulity and content.

Then again that train of thought is correct as most gamers like most film goers do not care about subtle things like qaulity ,pacing or story they are their to get a buzz off the pretty and explosions.... which makes me wonder why The last Air bender did so badly and Transformers did so well..... then again the last air bender was good if not time contrasted to hell and back.... a note to the film industry do not try and put 15+ eps of continuity into a single film, it dose not compute....

PS:Blame the gamer/consumer if they buy it then they as a group have no right to complain if its bad.... least that how things work out ......

Playing Yugos

Mr. Anonymous,
I understand what you are saying, but look at it this way. Let's pretend that every automobile made was priced the same - regardless of quality, equipment, options, etc. What would you end up with? You would have the market flooded with mediocre, cookie cutter autos. Cars that would run, but maybe the heaters don't work, the headlights flicker and the paint jobs are crap. And nobody would bother to build a better car because they aren't going to make any more money for it. This is what has happened to the game industry due to the artificial msrp ceiling of $60. The industry recognizes it is just not worth the cost necessary to make a flawless game (not to mention new IP's). Like Brad, I say set the market free, and allow games to be priced according to their qualities. Otherwise we will always be playing Yugos.

I feel the pain, too. I have

I feel the pain, too. I have a one-game-a-month-policy and the backlog of games I want to play is huge; however, the choice for me usually doesn't come down to how many hours I can get out of a game, but rather do I support the kind of game the publisher has made. I will gladly pay full price for a game take risks, does something different, or strays from the norm. I do not want to pay full price, and sometimes no price, for a game that is derivative or a cheap cash-in sequel (*cough* Bioshock 2 *cough), no matter how many hours I can get out of it.

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