Opinion – Getting What You Pay For: Quality And Value In Gaming

by Joe Juba on Feb 19, 2015 at 12:09 PM

Leading up to The Order: 1886, a complete playthrough appeared on YouTube that clocked in at approximately five hours. This relatively short completion time sparked skepticism and outrage among many gamers who insisted that a $60 title needs to be longer. Setting aside the concerns about The Order specifically, the situation highlights the bizarre relationship between quality and value in the world of gaming.

When it comes to buying games, we expect certain things in terms of how much content we get in exchange for our money. However, those base expectations change over time. I remember buying some NES and SNES games (costing between $50 and $70) that I easily beat in a few hours, and those were generally linear action games with practically no incentive to replay them. Unless you were into role-playing games, spending 30-plus hours on a single playthrough was rare.

These days, the landscape is different. When a $60 game sits on the shelf beside the likes of Skyrim and Red Dead Redemption, it has a higher bar to clear. Not every game needs to be a sprawling open world or offer endless hours of multiplayer matches, but the general trend has shifted in that direction, which makes it harder to entice gamers to buy a title that offers less content – regardless of how good that more compact experience may be.

Another change over the years is the increasing variety in price points. Platforms like Steam and mobile app stores give gamers more choices at lower costs. Short indie games and breezy endless runners aren’t scrutinized as much by consumers because of the lower cost of entry. This shift in expectations has made consumers today more value-conscious; a game being short wasn’t always a major issue. For instance, Mirror’s Edge (now a cult classic) is about as long as The Order. Though the fact came up at the time, it wasn’t met with the “Seven hours? No sale” indignation that we have seen surrounding The Order.

This presents publishers with a problem. By staying at $60, they invite backlash when the community sees that a game is short. On the other hand, if they want to maintain the perception (and budget) of a triple-A, full-featured experience, they can’t drop down to lower price points. This makes it tough to set appropriate expectations while still keeping people excited. Konami experienced this dilemma last year surrounding the release of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, wrestling with criticism regarding the game’s cost relative to length (which eventually led to an appeasing price drop).

This is the publishers’ problem to sort out, of course. From a gamer’s perspective, all that matters is enjoying the final product. When you don’t feel like you’re getting what you paid for, you feel ripped off. You get angry at the game (or the developer/publisher), tell your friends, and share your opinion online. Here’s the problem: You may not feel like you’re getting what you paid for, and you have every right to complain about the value proposition, but that doesn’t mean the game is bad.

Let’s say that a $60 game gets a score of 8 out of 10. Then, a few weeks later, that game goes on sale (or gets a permanent price cut, or becomes free with PlayStation Plus). Does the score go up? No. The game itself has not changed, so it isn’t suddenly a 10 out of 10 because it’s cheaper. Whether you view games as art or just consumer entertainment products, what ultimately matters is your experience with the game once it is in your hands, regardless of how much it cost to get there. Is it fun? Is the gameplay interesting? Is the story told well? Those are the real concerns.

For example, my overall opinion of The Order: 1886 would not change if it only cost $1. Would it be a better value? Yes, the dollar-to-entertainment ratio would be more attractive. But would it be a better game as a whole? No. The length is not a primary – or even significant – factor in my opinion of The Order (and the same holds true for Matt Miller in his review for GI). I have no problem with short games; years ago, I even wrote a separate editorial defending them.

A great book is what it is, regardless of price. If you only pay $100 for an $800 washing machine, it doesn’t make your clothes any cleaner – but you’re definitely getting a better deal. This division between quality and value is tricky, because they both influence whether you buy a game. However, games are good or bad on their own merits, no matter the price tag.

I am not suggesting that value is not important. Gamers deserve to get the most for their money, and with so many games filled with tons of great content, there are more excellent options than ever. Weigh the quality of the game against what you’re willing to pay for, but remember that it won’t be any better or worse after the transaction is complete.