The Value of a Game

Recently, a handful of game devs, mainly in the indie space, have started speaking out to players who question whether or not a game is worth the price being asked. It’s an interesting discussion, because it starts to expose the otherwise opaque economic workings of game development, and it brings up some issues that have been growing for a while now.

The Value of a Game

The basic gist is that a player might pick up a new indie title for $15 or $20, complete it in two hours or less, and think about a refund on Steam, or complain that the game isn’t worthwhile for the price they paid. It asks the question of how much a game is worth to players, and whether or not that’s enough to keep a game developer afloat. For a lot of indies, it doesn’t appear to be. An impassioned forum response by a Firewatch dev talks about how long it took to develop the game and how that relates to paying themselves minimum wage. A similar reply by a Brigador dev breaks down exactly why their game costs $20, with a surprising amount of transparency.

It’s a discussion that hasn’t come up previously, not between devs and players directly. There’s an expectation of sorts that game devs are imperious, detached, and separate from players. We’ve come to expect an air of mystery, a sense that the devs know things we don’t and are comfortable in their ivory towers, so much so that when a game isn’t taking the direction we want, we’re quick to siege that ivory tower, not realizing that it’s often less a tower than a shack, and less ivory that cardboard and scrap metal.

I’ve spent long enough working in games to know that content is expensive. It costs a lot to make, in time, resources, and manpower. Content creation is a joint effort between multiple different skillsets– art generating assets, tech creating the infrastructure, audio bringing in sound, design pulling it all together, and QA ironing out the bugs– and that’s a bare minimum. Generating an hour’s worth of content can take a month or more of time from start to finish. The more elaborate the content, the longer it takes.

The question becomes, is the return on investment for creating content worth it? We love content, we love consuming it, but by and large we don’t want to pay for it. Games haven’t increased in base cost in a decade– by comparison, the average movie ticket has increased in price by 30% in the last decade. Movie tickets are a decent comparison to games, because they follow a lot of the same rules– they have a brief window of relevance (2 weeks to a month), after which sales drop off immensely, they’re expensive to make, rely on having a lot of people see them, and are content-driven works. Yet, movies have gone up in price 30% on average, whereas games have stayed the same. Why aren’t games $80?

Players, in large part, aren’t willing to pay $80 for a game, regardless of how much it costs to make. Many refuse to buy at the $60 price point, and the existence of services like Steam are invaluable for extending the lifespan of a game much longer than it otherwise would have been– games only survive on store shelves for a few weeks, tops, if they even show up on shelves. The advent of DLC has filled in the gap between the current games price point and the cost of creation, but people balk at this.

Instead, we wait for Steam sales, or pre-sale deals, or Game of the Year editions, or whatever will let us get away with spending less on a game. On the consumer side, the pull is towards cheaper and cheaper games, and on the development side, margins get thinner and the ability to absorb risk drops, with many studios simply not making enough to stay afloat.

It begs the question of whether or not the ROI on content is ultimately worth it. Star Wars: Battlefront has clearly decided that it’s not– there’s no campaign mode, and regardless of the frustration from players at this lack, as of January it was exceeding sales projections. Other games have similarly stopped bothering with story modes and other poor-ROI inclusions; the modern MMO is a lot more like a series of lobbies than an open world, and more and more games are dropping singleplayer entirely, or are purely singleplayer experiences and drop multiplayer entirely.

My big fear is that it isn’t, and what we’ve been seeing with shorter and shorter games is the natural reduction of story content because it’s simply too expensive to produce. It’s not a fast process, but I feel like there’s a pretty clear map of average game length that trends downwards starting in the early-to-mid 2000s and continues trending downward now. Games with a lot of content tend to spread that content very thin, or fill it up with relatively trivial things that are very cheap to produce.

A big problem with all of this is that the inherent instability of the games industry means there isn’t a lot of institutional knowledge over long periods of time to reduce the cost of creating content. Most teams are starting fresh with every new game, and it’s very difficult to see long-term trends on the development side. The studios that manage to stick around and develop institutional knowledge tend to release excellent game after excellent game, but getting there is very rare, and often requires being in the right place at the right time, with a lucky release.

This is what’s currently swirling around in my head from a “future of gaming” standpoint. There aren’t that many examples of content creation to draw from as a direction for games to go to stabilize and become less luck-driven, and the trend for consumers continues to be to pay less and less for content. Now, this trend is squeezing games that don’t have the margins to absorb it, and don’t have the resources to recoup the costs elsewhere (via DLC or otherwise). I’m interested to see where it goes, because I’m not sure how it resolves.

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