If you check out the comments for my review of Alan Wake, you’ll find a number of people expressing dismay over the thought of paying full price for a game that’s relatively short. It’s easy to understand their point: $60 is not an insignificant sum for most folks, and the game’s story-intensive aesthetic and lack of multiplayer means that it’s pretty much a one-shot experience. You play it, you finish it, you put it on a shelf and quite probably never pick it up again. Which brings us to the very uncomfortable question of how much is a game actually worth?
It’s an uncomfortable question because it’s impossible to answer definitively. For the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that Alan Wake will cost you $60 US and your total time with it from start to finish is twelve hours. It makes the math nice and easy, and brings the cost per hour of Wakeian entertainment to $5. Is that a good value? That depends not only on the relative value of five bucks, but on the nebulous concept of “fun.” We might be able to come to some sort of agreement on how much you should reasonably expect to receive in exchange for five dollars – though your opinion is quite likely to change the more money you have – but there’s simply no way we can come to any kind of accord as to how much enjoyment a game owes us. I might want nothing other than an hour of solid escapism, while you might want some replay or multiplayer for your finsky. We’re both right, because it’s our money, and only we can determine what we need to receive in order to consider that five well spent.
It’s a truth that keeps game designers up at night, I imagine. Think about the frustration: You release a well-crafted single-player game, one with a sophisticated, absorbing narrative, and you’re immediately bashed over the head with cries of “It’s not long enough!” The only thing more galling than the fact that these people are some of the same ones who regularly complain that games all feel the same these days is the fact that you can understand why they want more game time for their money. Why spend $60 on twelve hours of gameplay when you can spend the same amount of money and get 100? Why is one game’s version of fun worth more per hour than another game’s?
It isn’t, of course. Except for the people who think it is.
Games are difficult to evaluate because they don’t provide a convenient yardstick for measurement and comparison. You might list Mass Effect 2 and Tempest as two of your all-time favorite games, but did you enjoy them the same amount? How would you even know? Given that “enjoyment” is a sliding scale, it’s not all that surprising that we tend to fixate on the one element of gaming that we can quantify: time spent playing. It’s a metric not entirely without merit; after all, if you spend a big fat chunk of your free time devoted to a particular game, odds are pretty good that you like it a lot. Except all games are not created equal. Title A might be a huge, sprawling epic RPG with hundreds of hours of gameplay at your disposal, Title B might be an addictive arcade game that you play in short bursts, and Title C is a story-driven game that, like Alan Wake or Heavy Rain, you’ll have little cause to revisit once you’ve finished it. Going solely by time spent, those three games have vastly different values, but going by fun factor, they might all be equal.
It’s a wonder more game designers don’t just throw their hands up in the air and stomp away from their computers, taking a break from cursing our existence only long enough to vow never to make another game again. We’re asking them to do the impossible – make something everyone will find worth their time and money, a moving target if ever there was one – and yelling at them when they fail. Hell, I don’t even know what I’m going to want from one day to the next, how is someone else supposed to figure it out?
When it comes to a game’s value, I think the best thing to remember is that “worth” is a deeply personal concept. I’ve paid full price for game that I never even finished, yet still felt completely satisfied with, and I’ve picked up games for less than the price of lunch and felt utterly cheated. I’m guessing you’ve had the exact same experiences, just with different games. Or maybe even the same ones…if, you know, it was Thursday, you were in a good mood, and happened to have some birthday money you needed to spend.
Susan Arendt has bought two separate games four times each. Can you guess what they are?