Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Problem With Blaming The Gamer  

Games: Recently, I read an editorial written by Tae Kim over at GamePro. Here's the link, but 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?

Consumers vs. Publishers - Whose side carries more weight?

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 Those are the blind jabs taken by a bloated, outdated, struggling publishing machine that’s out of touch with reality.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

It might taste fantastic, but would you really be happy paying full price for this?

What this says to me is that players are supposed to get over the pricetag 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.

Why didn't we launch at $30? WHY?!?

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 singleplayer 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.

A brighter tomorrow?

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.


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7 comments: to “ The Problem With Blaming The Gamer


    Something kind of interesting is Enslaved only took 2-3 weeks to get down to that price; Amazon had two sales where it was $25 each (I picked it up for that price) and I think GameStop had one as well. Just a minor point. I definitely agree with your whole post, I just found the marketing of Enslaved really fascinating because they immediately cut the price by half before the month mark.

  • Anonymous


    Interesting and well presented article. I remember feeling very, very angry after buying Limbo - a reasonably good game, but it was priced at around $5 an hour with no replay value to talk of.

    On the other hand, Fallout NV was as buggy as games come (though enjoyable despite itself) and Black Ops feels almost exactly the same as Modern Warfare 2 online with a really poor single player mode. Given the choice I'd rather opt for something fresh.

    $30 for Enslaved sounds good. One of my friends loves the game, says it's one of the most memorable and enjoyable games he's played in years and we rarely disagree on such things. The problem is, as you say, it'd be much like buying another Limbo.


    Hey Ashelia!

    Yes, I agree that is a very interesting point. What it seems to suggest (to me anyway) is that the forces of the universe recognized pretty quickly that the game wasn't going to fly at $60.

    As you said, there were some sales and the price dropped about a month or so after it hit retail. I've also heard reports that copies were being traded back into GameStop at a pretty good clip once those who took the plunge went through it and realized that it wasn't going to tide them over any longer.

    So basically, anybody who bought it brand-new got snookered since the price dropped quickly, and anyone who held out got a great game for something more closely approximating its true value to the consumer.

    One thing I'd really like to know: how was the developer affected with all of Enslaved’s ups and downs?

    Anonymous> Thanks for the comment!

  • Anonymous


    Yo Brad.

    You're making a mistake. You suggest a change in the industry, for the benefit of all. You make a suggestion to make the (gaming) world a better place.

    The problem is, that the gaming industry, has no interest (anymore) in a better gamingworld, or better games, let alone fairer prices. There only interest is: €€€ MONEY €€€!!!!!

    So, even though I agree with your basic idea, price difference, you are being a little naive. (no disrespect here!)

    Perhaps I am too European, too much of a "socialist"! But let's face it, the gaming industry is focused on money, and will only change if it benefits that goal, and that goal only.

    Think about it. FF1,2,3,4,5,6,AC1,2,3,4,HALO1,2,3,CoD1,2,3,4,5,6 and so on. It's like the movie industry, same old stories, just new faces. It's like bad popsongs, it's basicly all the same!

    Why not invent new games? Why always make-over old games? Like Rockstar with their same GTA, RDR, engine, it's a one trick pony. Why? Becuase it't the easiest way of making money with as little cost possible.

    That's also why there are a million Harry Potter movies. I'd say: a maximum of 3 games per series. A 3logy, and after that mandatory rethinking. Forbidden to make more than 3 games in a franchise, per console.

    Talking bout money. How about games you cannot play, because they are only brought out on closed systems. They call it with a positive term "exclusives", but they should call it, limited play possibility game.

    Imagine buying a movie but you can only play it either system A or B. In other words, PS3 or XBOX.

    I have only a PS3. Can't play ME1. Totally crazy if you ask me. The reason behind all this? It generates the most money for the Corporations.

    On topic again, though it is all related. The gaming industry will never let their prices drop, because the way the system is working now, is simply generating the most money. It's working the best. For them! That is also why GameCritics is a rare thing. A critical opinionated site, with real and honest reviews.

    But people don't get that. They don't see the ture value of honesty. That is also why people write that you are stupid, 4 example, that you didn't really liked or "understood" Infamous, even- "though all other sites did".

    That is why gamecritics, I assume, is a relatively small site, with little impact. Or do I underestimate people here? Looking at the direction major games are going to, I fear I am right.

    Anyway, keep up the good work though. And drop me a line and let me know you appreciate me appreciating you;-) At least you make people thinking... That's a start!



    Hey J,

    >>The problem is, that the gaming industry, has no interest (anymore) in a better gaming world, or better games, let alone fairer prices. There only interest is: €€€ MONEY €€€!!!!!

    I totally agree that money is the primary concern, but that's exactly why the publishers should be more willing to be flexible. Like I said, if there are only a handful of games that actually sell a significant amount of copies for $60, that means that publishers are losing their investment on all of the games that don't sell.

    They are so hung up on the $60 price point and unwilling to let it go, that they are refusing to understand that people simply do not have the amount of money it takes to keep their business going the way it is structured now. It's been reported several times that only a small fraction of new releases actually recoup their development costs or make a profit, so if I was a publisher, it would make sense to me to restructure my business in order to make a profit.

  • Anonymous


    The reason for keeping prices up is 2fold.

    1. A higher price gives consumers a feeling of buying something exclusive. Products are mainly sold on feelings. Like a nice pair of Nike shoes, if those exist at all, cost I dunno, say 100$. Production costs is a fraction of that. I dunno if the same goes for games, but that price tag is all about exclusivity.

    2. If the industry introduces cheaper games, than consumers will get used to lower prices, and after a while will start question why certain games must cost/are really worth more than 30$, especially while other games are still 60$. It would be the start of lower prices throughout the whole industry for eventually all games in general, and would decrease profit. I think about FIFA11 which is nothing more than a small update, but makes millions of dollars. Same goes for CoD Black ops... Is it worth 60$? No! But if we are willing to pay 60$ for it, why then would they lower the prices? Your assumption that they will sell more games when they lower prices for certain games I think is wrong. People buy games when they expect to like 'm. Pricetags are (then) relatively irrelevant.

    3 people buy a 30$ game= 90$
    2 people buy a 60$ game= 120$
    You do the math;-)

    Prices need to stay at a certain higher level, otherwise people will stop being willing to pay... It's psychology.

    I agree however that the industry should introduce price differences. They might give priority though to fighting the 2nd hand market. I love games, movies, music and so on, though most CEO's and managers of those same companies are jerks who have no eye for consumer interests, only for their own bonuses. Otherwise they wouldn't bring out bugged games, sequels and overpriced games.

  • Anonymous