Insomnia | Commentary

On "Values" for "Monies"

By Alex Kierkegaard / February 26, 2008

One of the things that never fail to infuriate me about game reviews is the way reviewers handle the subject of game pricing. In short, whenever you see the price of a game mentioned in a review, it's a sure sign its author has little understanding of the game in question, and even less of the genre it belongs to. There are exceptions to this rule (my review of Ketsui, for example, being one of them, and for obvious reasons -- I mentioned the historical trends of its price in order to help the reader understand how the game is viewed in the STG community, not as grounds on which to praise it or condemn it), but they're so few and far between they're hardly even worth mentioning.

To put it another way, the price of a game is a subject which, when all is said and done, has no place in a review -- assuming, of course, the reviewer wants it to be relevant for longer than a couple of days. But I am sure I've lost most people by this point, so let's back up, slow down, and examine each of the relevant issues here one by one.

The first question to ask is, "Why is the subject of pricing brought up in game reviews?" Invariably, it's because the reviewer is attempting to assess how "good value for money" the game in question is. But this assessment is doomed to failure from the start, because the apparent value of money (which is what the reviewer is comparing against the game's price in order to arrive at his assessment) varies wildly depending on the person. In plain words: The more dollars in one's bank account, the less valuable each individual dollar seems to be. To the heir of a Middle Eastern kingdom, 10,000+ dollars for the super deluxe version of After Burner Climax will doubtless seem like chump change, whilst the Darfur refugee, who barely managed to scrape together the Sudanese pound equivalent of five bucks by scavenging the corpses of his fellow villagers after they were massacred by rampaging bandits, would no doubt balk at the thought of spending it all to download Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved. These are of course extreme examples, but the point is that all of us lie at different points somewhere between them, and therefore the arbitrary assessment of a complete stranger who has no idea of our financial situation is in no way helpful to any of us (not even to the mythical "average gamer", who, if he exists at all, is doubtless in the minority). What at the end of the day a reader expects (or should expect) from a reviewer, is not an assessment of a game's price but of its quality compared to other games in the same genre; once he has it, he can then contrast his bank balance and his desire to play the game against the publisher's asking price, and make his decision.

But don't assume that all I am trying to do here is defend expensive games, because that's only part my intention -- I am also attacking cheap ones. Because for every rubbish review that slams a great game for being too expensive, there's another one praising a shitty one for being too cheap. For what does it matter to us if the latest "indie sensation" only costs three bucks, if all it does is copy ideas that were done much better decades ago, and with much more style and flair? And why should I take time out of my day to play a cheap (in every sense of the word) imitation of something I played decades ago, or recommend such an inferior game to my readers? To give a pat on the back to its amateur designers? Surely that is a job for their mothers and their schoolteachers, not for a critic who has even the slightest amount of respect for himself, and for the time of his readers.

But even if one tried to disentangle the subject of a game's price from the main body of a review, perhaps placing it under a separate "value for money" heading, that effort would still end in failure. For how could a modern action game ever compete in the "value for money" stakes with something like a chess game -- or Sid Meier's Civilization? And what would be the point of us pitting them against each other anyway? Is an hour-long game of basketball more worthwhile than a one-minute long skydive, simply because it lasts longer? Would you like some apples with your oranges, sir? Have you ever had an orgasm? But even if we restrict ourselves to comparing "values for money" in the context of individual genres, we'll still end up praising inferior games and trashing superior ones; we'd still end up talking nonsense, and compelling designers to pad their games with shit in order to make them seem like "better deals" to the poor and the feebleminded. I never tire of bringing up the example of Tomonobu Itagaki, who, in an interview regarding Ninja Gaiden long before its release, stated that if it was up to him he'd have made the game two hours long instead of twenty. Can you even begin to imagine the possibilities of such a design choice? (meaning a two-hour game made with the budget of a twenty-hour one). I certainly can, and no doubt Itagaki, yet half a decade later and still no one has dared explore them!

It is important to note here that there's nothing wrong with the mere mention of a game's price in a review (in a little box placed beside it, for example, alongside other Wikipedia-worthy factoids, such as the date of publication, the hardware required, etc.), but only with its use as a factor in assessing the game's quality. This is, after all, what always ends up happening, as if the symbols on a sticker on a box could possibly affect the quality of whatever's contained within it!

I guess an example is in order here, to make this last statement crystal clear.

Imagine that someone released tomorrow an FPS that's a decade ahead of anything else on the market, and decided to charge for it A MILLION DOLLARS -- what would that fact tell us about the quality of the game? Of course no one would buy it, but it would still be awesome, it would still be a decade ahead of anything else, and all fans of the genre would still be frothing at the thought of having a go at it at the first available opportunity, and if the following day the publisher slashed the price to $9.99 none of these facts would be affected, except perhaps the number of copies sold per day. This is of course another extreme example, but one that illustrates my point all the more clearly, that point being that all games start out at some arbitrary price, a price set by the publishers -- not according to the quality of each game or to how much money and effort was required to make it, but according to how much they think they can get away with given current market conditions -- and a price which then follows a generally downward trend before eventually hitting rock bottom.

It is at that point that the issue of "value for money" disappears to be replaced by that of "value for time", even for the feebleminded (for the intelligent person it had always been thus), for when all games cost nothing the only question left to ask is whether any of them are worth anything. This is the timeless, the eternal question -- it is the only question worth answering, and it is that which every review that wants to remain relevant after it has fallen off the frontpage must ask -- and answer. And why shouldn't all reviews be written with this goal in mind? Well I say, if only gamers and game reviewers weren't so foolish, they doubtless would be.