$1 or $60: How Much is Too Much For a Game?

When the video game industry was young, development "teams" for individual games were tiny, as were budgets. For example, Pac-Man was mainly developed by just one person, and I'm sure that there wasn't an enormous project management office, legal team, or other high-dollar overhead team specifically backing him up. Of course, as hardware has become more capable, consumers have grown more demanding, and development teams have become full of people who grew up playing those earlier games. Things have changed dramatically. Just last year, over 1,000 people combined to release Grand Theft Auto IV, a game that reportedly cost $100,000,000 dollars to make.

On the other hand, a quick search of the internet can easily find games that were developed by just one person in under a week, with the only development cost being that person's time and maybe the delivery of a few pizzas. This dichotomy has given rise to a gaming "ecosystem" with a huge range of experiences and a huge range of costs, both to the consumer and to companies looking to make a buck. But what does it all mean to us as gamers? Do we appreciate what is being offered to us?

For the purposes of this article, I really want to ignore hardware cost as much as possible, but it would be silly not to mention it. After all, it does make a difference in what people buy and in what they expect from their games. For example, PC gaming has been the most expensive way to participate in our hobby for as long as I can remember (and I remember punch cards, although mostly as something daddy brought home from work). There was a long period where most gamers felt it was worth the effort and expense of upgrading hardware and drivers every time a new, hot title came out, but that period has been over for years. There's still a die-hard fanbase out there who feels that way, but they haven't been "most gamers" since somewhere during the PS2 administration, if not earlier. For any of the consoles, home or portable, those expectations are somewhat tempered by their additional capabilities (I bought my PS3 mostly to watch movies) or by the fact that many gamers receive them as presents, although the latter is certainly more true of something like a DS than of an Xbox 360. Still, the fact that I spent $400 on a 64 Gb iPod Touch definitely factors into what I'm hoping to get out of it.

With that out of the way, let's look at the games themselves. Brutal Legend (pardon the lack of umlaut) is a typical title for the Xbox 360 or PS3 in that it retails for $60, and it's the most recent game I bought, so I feel pretty qualified to comment on the value for a buck. (Oh, and if you'll agree not to quibble over the difference between $59.99 and $60, I'll agree not to argue back about sales tax.) I'm the kind of gamer who doesn't rush through things unless forced to, so I scoured the landscape in Brutal Legend, looking for every bound dragon statue, every spark plug jump, etc. I'm also the kind of gamer who doesn't touch multiplayer. Ever. I learned my lesson years ago with Diablo II. That means that any game where online play is the main (or only) mode is wasted on me. I spent a few weekends with Brutal Legend, and probably put somewhere between 20 and 40 hours into it. I didn't play any multiplayer, but if I could be said to have blown cash on that part of the game, I tried to make up for it by being a completionist in the single player campaign. Work out the dollars/hour ratio there, and I'm looking at somewhere between $3.00 and $1.50 for each hour of entertainment I got from the game. If I'd spent that money taking my wife for dinner and a movie, which we'll put at a generous 4 hours, my $6 - $12 wouldn't have gotten me very far into the evening. Probably not past glasses of water, an appetizer, and a tip for the waiter. Not much of a date, I think you'll agree. So I'm very happy with what I got for my money.

At the other end of the extreme, we find iPhone/iPod Touch games. They range in price from free to $10 or so. I don't believe there's an official cap, but my impression from talking to friends and reading online comments is that if a game is priced at $5 or more, people expect a lot for their money. I recently bought (and reviewed) Dungeon Hunter for $5, so let's compare it to what I got from Brutal Legend. I would estimate that a single playthrough of Dungeon Hunter took me about 15 hours. Assuming that I never played the game again, Dungeon Hunter would cost me $0.33 an hour. Using my date comparison, I've now got $1.33, about enough cash for gas to drive my Prius up to the canyon and back at 50 miles to the gallon. If you're into hiking, that's not a bad time, but you'll still have to bring water bottles and snacks from home.

It's worth noting that I've also gotten hours of fun from free games like Tap Defense, although as those are ad supported, I'm going to consider them equal to a cheap game. I may have gotten hours of fun out of something free, but I got at least a few bucks' worth of annoyance from the ads. I recognize that ad-supported games are like listening to the radio: I pay for what I'm getting through ads rather than my wallet. This, of course, is the main reason why high dollar games with a ton of ads really annoy me, but that's a topic for another editorial.

No matter how you slice it, I think it's fair to say that I got my money's worth out of both my $60 game and my $5 game. Going by the numbers, Dungeon Hunter was clearly the better "value" in terms of playtime per dollar for me, but the disparity probably would be a lot less if I took advantage of the multiplayer fun that Brutal Legend offered me. Let's look at it another way, though. If you read my Dungeon Hunter review, you'll see that I gave it a respectable score, even though there were some things that bothered me. One notable problem is that there's no minimap, so it was easy to get lost in larger levels. I docked the game for that, but not much, because after all, what did I expect? I only paid $5 for it! If Brutal Legend hadn't had a map, though, it would have really bothered me. That's a standard element of open world games, and for $60, I expect to at least get the standard stuff.

Of course, the other element to all of this is the development studio. Whether they go for a big budget and a higher price or a smaller budget for a cheap game, there's a risk/reward ratio involved. Go big, and you'd better sell enough copies to make your money back. You hope, of course, that the higher price gets you more profit per copy, but there's a mighty significant chunk of that $60 that never makes it back to the development studio or even the publishers. Go cheap, and you don't have as much to make back, but you're not going to make much money for each copy you sell. However, it's entirely likely that the decreased overhead of selling a game through the iTunes App Store vs. putting a plastic box on the shelves at Wal-Mart means more raw profit per dollar, but that's something I don't know enough about to comment on. (If anyone reads this and does know, please feel free to enlighten me on the forums or via email - it's a topic I'm really interested in.)

It's likely that I could ramble on for quite a while on this topic (Lord, I was born a ramblin' man), but since I'm just trying to explore the topic, not convince you of something, let me look back and summarize instead. What it comes down to for me is this: there's a place for all kinds of games, be they expensive or cheap, and I'll keep buying them all as long as they're fun. If someone provides me with a really great value for my money, I'm going to keep buying their games, but the amount of leeway I'll give them on the things they get wrong will go up as the price goes down. It's harder than most gamers realize for a developer to make a buck, so I hope we continue seeing the $60 games as well as the free ones for a long time to come.

P.S. I mentioned my basic standard of comparison for the value I'm looking for in my entertainment dollar: a movie (I added dinner here because they wouldn't even let me in the theater door for $1.50 an hour). What's your standard? I'd love to read about it in the forums - reviewers always secretly wonder just how representative of their readers we actually are.

- John Tucker


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