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We’re all about tightening our belts and pinching pennies this week here at The Escapist – how to game on the cheap in today’s crap-tacular economy. If you browse the comments on almost any major gaming news site when it posts a story about almost any major MMOG, there’s always at least on person who brings up the same old tired argument: “Sorry, but I’m never going to play a game with a monthly subscription.” Though I’ve previously examined the virtues of some alternate pay models, this mindset has never made sense to me, because if you look at the actual numbers? MMOGs – even subscription-based games – are the cheapest form of entertainment on the market, hands down.

Let’s look at the numbers, shall we? The standard monthly fee for an MMOG is $15, and while some offer cheaper options, let’s go with that for the time being. Now, on its own, $15 isn’t all that much – that’s what, three morning coffees? A dinner at a moderately-priced restaurant? – but let’s compare that $15 to other forms of entertainment.

Without any snacks or refreshments, let’s say that an average movie ticket costs $8 for – being charitable – two hours worth of cinematic entertainment. So that comes down to $4 an hour, which in an MMOG would mean about four hours’ worth of gameplay. If you spend one hour every weekend in any given month playing online, you’ve equaled your cost-to-time ratio for going to the movies.

Now, the standard game price these days is $60 – yes, you can always buy used games or wait until they drop in price, but for consistency’s sake, let’s just go with this for now. Do you buy more than three games in a year? If so, then you’re already paying more for your gaming than someone with an MMOG subscription, but let’s look at this the same way as before.

I’ll be extremely charitable here, and say that every game has 30 hours’ worth of gameplay in it, which means that it costs you $2 per hour to play this game in question – eight hours of your MMOG. All that means is two hours a week (or one particularly game-heavy weekend), and you’ve gotten more time for your dollar in an MMOG than you have in your other game.

Still don’t believe these numbers? That’s okay – these are all hypotheticals, after all. So, let’s look at something exact. After a year-long break from WoW, I renewed my subscription in January 2008, and started a new character (the Night Elf Druid referred to here), and have been playing that character ever since. How much money have I dropped on WoW since then? Well, buying WoW and Burning Crusade set me back a combined total of $90, with last November’s Wrath of the Lich King driving that up to $130, before you count subscription fees.

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It’s now September, so a year and nine months of World of Warcraft, at $15 a pop (well, it’s a bit cheaper since I buy multiple months at once, but let’s just be consistent) means I’ve spent $315 in subscription fees. Plus the cost of the games, and that’s $445 over two years. That sounds like quite a bit of money – and it is – but then, let’s look at how much time I’ve spent in-game.

The /played command on my Druid tells me that since creating her back in January ’08, I’ve logged 68 days and 6 hours traipsing through Azeroth, getting my Feral on (and Resto, and Balance). That’s… well, okay, that’s kind of sobering on the one hand, but purely mathematically, this means that my $445 has gotten me a total of 1638 hours of playtime: approximately 3.68 hours of play per dollar.

That’s pretty damn cheap. If this same price point applied to movies, we’d be paying $0.54 for a two-hour flick, and $8.15 for a 30-hour game. If you’re the type of person who looks at an MMOG and waves off the $15 monthly fee, then you damn well better be demanding that your $60 games have 220 hours worth of content in them, or you’re getting the raw end of the deal.

“But wait!” I can hear you argue. “That’s just for a hardcore gamer who’s signed his life away to the game!” While I’m not going to argue that a good portion of those 21 months were spent living a lifestyle perhaps not as healthy as it ought to have been, even these days, playing WoW for maybe three hours, two nights a week nets me 24 hours of gameplay for $15 every month. So on this model (1.6 hours per dollar), I only need to demand a mere 96 hours of gameplay from my $60 game. That’s much more reasonable, don’t you think? And yet, I haven’t clocked that much yet in Team Fortress 2 (a combined total of just over 74 hours) one of the most replayable non-MMOGs in recent memory.

Freshness is a concern, but here’s the thing about many MMOGs – because they’re multiplayer, the content always feels a bit varied. It’s the same principle behind why I can push along the cart in TF2‘s Goldrush map and still have a good time even if I’ve done the map a hundred times by now. Beyond that, most MMOGs are continually updated: In the 21 months since I started my Druid, WoW has seen an expansion, four major content updates, and countless other minor additions. So I guess if it really made you feel better, you could just think of it as a game with lots and lots of extra DLC.

To be fair, it does come down to a question of value. If you fork over $60 for BioShock and only get 15 hours of play out of it, but they were the most mindblowing 15 hours in your life, then maybe it was worth it for you. Even so, the next time you find yourself about to vehemently swear you’ll never pay monthly for a game, stop for a moment and think it over. Ask yourself, when was the last time you got 96 hours worth of gameplay out of a $60 game, and if you can’t remember? Well, maybe you’ve been getting the short end of the stick after all.

John Funk doesn’t want to add up his complete /played time since January 2005.

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