This week on Cold Take, Frost explains why he doesn’t discuss the worth or value of a video game.
Why I Don’t Talk About a Video Game’s Worth Transcript
I tell ya, we wouldn’t have to have this conversation if Pizza Hut had just kept making those demo discs.
I grew up as a poor immigrant in rural Virginia during the recession and the housing market collapse, in a place where you had to drive out 30 minutes to a town called Bland for entertainment. That is where I learned that video game quality and affordability are two different conversations–but if we have the conversation now I never have to have it again. I learned hard truths in the boonies. Pre-ordering a game didn’t make it taste better. The longest girthiest games aren’t necessarily the most enjoyable. It doesn’t matter that I bought Jumper: Griffin’s Story for a dollar at GameStop, I would’ve gotten more joy from eating the dollar instead. So why am I bringing this up?
Because from time to time, I have the pleasure of reviewing a game of exceptional quality, but of short length and minimal replayability. The conversation inevitably turns from “how good do I think the game is?” to “how much do I think the game is worth?” That’s a question for an accountant. It’s an easy question but the answer won’t make you many friends. How much do I think a game is worth? Well, how much money do you make? I ain’t here to make assumptions about anyone’s tax bracket. Money makes subjective opinions even more volatile. It pushes the foolishness of trying to quantify the unquantifiable to another level. But I grew up in a town that was so poor it couldn’t afford a drug problem, so even I say developers and publishers should take into account their customers’ spending habits and communicate accordingly.
I was pretty good at maths in school but I don’t think a parabola exists that can calculate bang-for-buck when it comes to games. However, if we assume that game length and replayability offset the cost of purchase then that would mean online free-to-play games are the most quality games. The cost is zero and, so long as the server hamster stays fed, the length and replayability are virtually infinite. If we continue to follow this logic then the greatest game ever created would be an online free-to-play game that makes you money for playing. I’m not sure I want to live in a world where League of Legends is the best game in the world so long as I’m the best professional player in the world. I’m not a size queen, there’s more to games than just length.
But let’s continue, Pythagoras. Where do sales and discounts fit into this equation we’re making? Maybe Stray could’ve beaten Elden Ring for Game of the Year if Stray had a 200% off fire sale. Factorio’s a game of legend. Maybe you’ve never played it, but if you’re into gaming you’ve heard stories, or know of someone who’s heard stories, about the addictive base builder’s automation paradise that can take hold of someone for hundreds, if not thousands, of hours. Factorio’s Alpha price was $15. When it was released in early access the price went up to $20. In 2018 the price increased to $30 in anticipation of its full release. And at the start of 2023 the price was bumped up once more to $35. From $15 to $35 that’s a 133% increase in price, and it’s never gone on sale. Even if that did mean that Factorio became 133% worse, you still have to finish your equation by factoring everything that’s happened over the years in relation to the price hike like continued development, inflation, studio size, horoscope sign… it gets sloppy.
Impractical at best and impossible at worst. I don’t even like using numbers to rate video games, because it fails to capture the nuance of an opinion. I mean…I’ll do it, but you won’t like it. “So Dredge, by Black Salt Games, is a fishy fishing game. It started me off as a tepid 5.5, nothing special but nothing too offensive, and it gets the automatic half point for being a fishing game. The visual novel elements knocked off half a point– I’m not here for reading. But it it was pleasantly short and sweet so I gave it back. The tutorial got me excited to a 6, the fishing bumped it up to a 7, another quarter point for Tetris, and the first creepy fish I caught spiked me to a 13. And then it went back down to an 8 cause adrenaline naturally fades over time… Final tally averages out to a 9.281 out of 10, but that’s before I’ve taken into account the $25 price tag, the fact that it’s only made by four people from New Zealand, gas prices are up, and the average college student has negative 10 dollars in their bank account.
That’s where the question of value always spins its wheels. Money. You don’t need any of these algorithms and logarithms if you make too much money for the price of a game to make a dent in your income, or if you have so little money that buying games is out of the question. Money may not buy you happiness but it can buy you a lot of video games without question. Ultimately, video games are a want not a need, a luxury item. And if you have to ask for the price of a luxury item then you probably can’t afford it. Do I think Storyteller is a great game? Oh yea. Lovely music, gorgeous aesthetic, and thoroughly enjoyable visual puzzles from start to finish. Do I think at 2 hours of gameplay for 100% completion it’s worth $15? I think you should ask your boss for a raise–or do you want me to ask for you, cause I will.
Reviews can’t be objective, but I can try and eliminate as much bias as possible while remembering that I am human. It’s a conundrum because I don’t have to worry about paying for games, which means my thoughts of a game aren’t competing with the thoughts of my rent, but that means my opinions are less likely to relate to those who have bills on the brain. I won’t undersell a game because it’s failed to take my mind off of lingering debt long enough, nor do I sunk cost fallacy myself into giving a better opinion because it’s the only game I bought this year and I worked triple overtime in a mine shaft to afford it. My opinions aren’t better or worse, they’re just not about finances.
But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed to see that a game like Lone Ruin advertised itself as a roguelike, a genre known for its replayability, and felt finished after about 15 minutes (not hours. Minutes.) of gameplay. The issue there isn’t game length, replayability, quality, or federal minimum wage. The problem is the failure to communicate. It presents itself as “highly replayable” on the Steam page, so that’s exactly what I based my review on. Is it too much to ask for games to sell what they tell? The lines can blur like in the case of Tera-nil, a lovely little reverse base builder game that’s getting negative reviews for being too short. Similar to rogues, base builders are kinda known for replayability. So is it their fault for not mentioning length? Is it our fault for assuming? Maybe things would’ve gone over better if they did the Gamepass thing that shows various estimated levels of completion. I don’t particularly like that system. It feels like I’m buying health insurance, but I think it’s a nice compromise that I would’ve liked growing up.
I’m not surprised people are concerned with getting the most value for their dollar. Doing a quick Google investigation, I see the median household income in America is around $30,000 a year. Searching for how much the average gamer spends per month for their hobby, I find a range of $20 to $70. The federal minimum wage here is $7.25 per hour. No, the quality of the game is not decided by its asking price. But the sales correlate with the perceived value, and for a lot of people value is relative to their cost of living. Indie games in particular have a harder time selling without a proven track record to back them up and their marketing can’t compete with bigger game studios. Maybe a lower price is a reasonable cost to pay to make up for the lack of marketing. Or, in the case of Dredge, perhaps it’s best to stay the course. Maybe not everyone will see a game as affordable, and that is an important conversation to have. But maybe the conversation of quality will be louder.
Here’s what I think we should do. Help out the conversation of affordability. Give it some room. Give it some space. Take Steam, for example. Let’s move past this draconic thumbs up and thumbs down system on Steam. Who do I look like to you, Commodus? Let’s expand on that. Give me a middle finger icon for truly horrendous games. Give me a chef’s kiss for the crem de la creme. Give me a dollar sign for the bargain-bin-bangers. Take Game Pass’s time system. Our math ain’t good enough to calculate the value of a game, so let’s expand our language instead. That way we can get away from asking how much a game is worth, and focus on all the fun stuff.
Imagine a world where game makers and game players could reach a perfect price point by talking to one another. You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. Until then, ask me about game quality. Don’t ask me about game value, because I’m just gonna tell you library cards are free.