I was reading the Gone Home thread on SA and I noticed that a lot of the complaints about the game are “it’s not worth $20.” My initial reaction to that statement was: fuck you, people worked on that game who need to fucking EAT, god damn the crumbling standards of the game industry and these fucking newbs who play games on iOS and expect everything to be 0.99, get the fuck off my lawn! but then I calmed down and started thinking about it a bit differently.
I am thirty years old (fuck). When I was a wee sprout, my mother bought my father a NES for Christmas one year and we decided to play it while he was at work to get better than him at the games. That was my introduction to video games and I haven’t really put them down since. But back in the before time, when digital downloads weren’t a thing and game distribution was far more expensive, if not impossible, for independent developers than it is now, a video game cost about sixty dollars, which is probably more in today-dollars. Games were not cheap. If you were poor, like me, you rented a lot. Also if you were lucky, like me, you knew a guy up the street whose parents owned a rental place and he could just grab you a game to play for a few days, fuck yeah. NES games were, for the most part, not very long – hardware constraints seriously limited the length of gameplay – and the time involved was usually directly correlated to the difficulty of the game, which itself was probably related to how janky the controls were and/or being Ninja Gaiden III. Fuck birds.
But people still paid sixty dollars for their games. I remember getting The Little Mermaid on NES for my birthday and beating it the same day. The game was not particularly long or particularly challenging. The main thing that I liked about it was the licensed characters from my beloved Disney movie. Was it worth sixty dollars? It’s hard to answer that question about something someone else bought for you. At the time I enjoyed the game quite a bit, but did I play it again after beating it? I sure didn’t. Would I buy that same game now, today, for sixty dollars? Fuck no. Even if it was a high-definition remake with added content? Still no.
The expected value of games has changed so much in the last twenty-five years. Digital distribution has made it easier for even one-man game studios to create a little time-waster (not meant as a pejorative) and put it on Steam or iOS or Android, or even just sell it through a website, for a few bucks. In many cases, because the individual creating the game just wants people to play it, to be noticed, they charge a dollar or five dollars or ten dollars. Sometimes an indie game comes out for fifteen bucks, and people still wait for the Steam sale to get it for seven-fifty. Sometimes it feels like “indie game” has become the “we can’t pay you, but think of the exposure!” of video games.
I almost never buy a title at launch anymore. Mostly because I’m poor. Partly because I have an enormous backlog of unplayed games and the guilt that I feel paying fifty to sixty dollars for a new game when those are all still unfinished is sufficient to keep me from clicking that “buy” button. But there are plenty of folks out there who will eagerly dish out their money to get day 1 AAA releases. Even folks who don’t have a lot of money.
Part of the problem in trying to measure the worth of a game in dollars is that dollar-value is relative to everyone. Yes, the dollar has an agreed-upon monetary value – fucking literalist – my point is that to a person who has a 400 dollar paycheck, ten bucks is worth more than it is to the person with a 2000 dollar paycheck. And it’s not as cut and dried as that, either; someone who is passionately in love with a particular franchise or genre and has a 400 dollar paycheck will be more willing to spend their money on the thing they love and eat ramen noodles for a month or two than the person with the 400 dollar paycheck who isn’t super into that same franchise or genre.
What this means is, it’s difficult if not totally unrealistic to factor a game’s price into an objective value assessment, which game reviews theoretically are (but they’re not). Entertainment itself, in any form, is difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate objectively. Craftsmanship can be objectively evaluated, but the final impact of that craft really can’t. Its value will be different for almost everyone who experiences it – and the stated opinions of the people experiencing it may be influenced by other factors: concern about the way others perceive their evaluation, rewards offered for positive feedback, disincentives for negative feedback.
Gone Home is an interestingly polarizing game. I haven’t played it yet – I would like to, at some point, but the aforementioned money and backlog issues are keeping me from doing so. But everything I’ve read about it seems to stick people pretty firmly on one side or the other – I don’t see a lot of “eh, it was alright” reactions. I suppose that could be because the “alright” folks don’t feel the need to talk about it on the internet. It is interesting, though, that most of the negative reviews I see specifically mention that the game isn’t worth twenty dollars. As if the problems that people have with the game would be less problematic if the game was five dollars instead. I feel that it is not relevant to include price in the assessment of a game. If the game has flaws, those flaws remain the same whether you pay five or fifty dollars for the game. If a game has merits, the same applies. When reviewing a game, I think maybe a better way to go about it is simply to showcase the merits and flaws that attracted your notice, and allow the buyer to decide, based on those flaws and merits, whether the price point is appropriate for them to purchase the game.
did you notice that i love commas and run-on sentences because i do