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MassDebate: Should full price retail promise play time?

4:00 PM on 11.29.2011 // Sean Daisy

Welcome to MassDebate! We take a controversial topic, form a proposition, and set two contenders the challenge of stating their case in favor of and in opposition to the proposition. After which, users may vote to decide which contender they support. Rules for voting are at the bottom of the blog, but it is recommended that you read the contenders' cases before you cast your vote. 

The proposition: Full price retail releases should promise a certain amount of play time. 

 Daniel Starkey argues in favor of the proposition: 

Gamers, fellow members of the Dtoid Army, lend me your ears! For how long have we had to put up with 5-8 hour games at $50-60 per title? We accept less and less and shell out more and more. I for one have had enough. We have a right to games that take more than a day to finish; we deserve value, we deserve replayability, and we deserve more than just bullshit, tacked-on multiplayer. 

I’m here to back the gamers on a budget; the people who can’t afford more than one or two new games per month. I am more than willing to wager that the majority of gamers are in this precocious position. I know I am. I'm aware that trying to tell other people what to charge and such is a bit presumptuous, but my proposal is simple: Developers should adjust prices based on the expected length of a game, as well as replayability, multiplayer, etc.

I’d like to begin by looking at Portal 2, widely regarded as one of the best written, funniest games in recent history. There was a tremendous amount of hype built up around its release. It was a sequel to one of the best games of ’07, it had a massive ARG to promote it, and the full support of Valve, instead of a small secondary team as they had for the first one. I, like pretty much everyone else I knew, pre-loaded Portal 2 and started collecting potatoes. When it finally launched on the evening of April 18th, I tore into it. 

I finished the game before sunrise. 

I paid $50 for around six hours of playtime. I was really disappointed, but I thought; “Well, maybe the Co-op will keep me going for a while longer”. So the next night, I got my friend Ian to play with me, and again, we were done in a few hours. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Portal 2, but I got barely more gameplay than Portal, for more than twice the cost. It wouldn’t even be that big of a deal, if it wasn’t for the fact that it had exceptionally low replay value. We aren’t talking Marvel vs Capcom 3 here. I only played it once all the way through and have had no inclination to replay it at all. 

I contrast this with Fallout 3. I bought it on launch day for the PC with all the pre-order bonuses for around $130. I got the Pip-boy and the lunch box and the bobble-head and all of that good stuff. I then proceeded to buy it again for the 360. I spent over $200 on that game if you consider the double DLC purchases too. However, I have played it for over 300 hours total, (I know, I have a problem) so it came out to less than $0.66/hour of game. Compare that to Portal 2’s $5/hour. One could make the argument that quality can balance that out. And I’d usually agree, but Fallout 3 had such a glorious mixture of poignant, hilarious, and totally fucking badass moments that I think it wins there too. 

I know that ultimately, these arguments come down to a combination of taste and personal circumstance. Therefore I have a couple of simple, perfectly reasonable solutions. First, as I mentioned earlier, I think prices could be adjusted based on how much playtime the average player can likely get out of it. This could very well increase the number of people purchasing the games new and help offset the lost revenue from price reduction. For example, I have never had any interest in the Call of Duty multiplayer. If the single-player campaign was available for around 15 dollars though, I’d happily pick that up. Everybody wins: The developers get a few more dollars, I don’t tax anyone’s servers, and I get to play through another mediocre jingoistic campaign. 

It would take some market research and due diligence on the part of developers and publishers to find a solid equilibrium, but ultimately we’d be expanding the audience for games. Fewer people would feel cheated by the fact that games are getting shorter and shorter, while simultaneously becoming more expensive. Making longevity a value marker will actually net more cash for the developers that deserve it, and allow more folk to legitimately enjoy what modern, no expense spared gaming has to offer. That can only be seen as a good thing for all parties.

 Isay Isay argues against the proposition: 

It’s funny that when I was younger and had more time to spend on games, I would relish expansive timesinks. Now, with more responsibilities and less time for gaming, I see the premium in a shorter, more focused experience. I also understand that a short, focused game is not by definition any cheaper to make. If developers start to shoehorn in fluff to meet some mythical target length, I’d rather spend that unnecessary extra time on something else. I don’t want some arbitrary play time requirement to be forced on every game. 

The length of a game should only be a bullet point. Rarely should it be one of the most important features. Games like Skyrim or competitive multiplayer experiences such as the military shooter/fighting games du jour are acceptable exceptions; their goal is theoretically infinite play time. However, a benefit to some can be a deterrent to others. Some games marketing sees fit to publicize an impressive chunk of time on a box. The larger it is, the more hesitant I am to believe that I’ll actually enjoy all those hours they are touting. 

Once you start making promises about how long a game should be and all of a sudden it falls short of that, you give customers reason to complain. There are some developers who can keep their vision going for an extended period of time, but there are far more who can’t sustain that focus to tell the story they desire. We are all painfully aware of the tropes we see as a result of those who can’t keep it going: 

Oh hey, there are these things that you didn’t know about that are totally important, but luckily they are all over the places you’ve already been. Go back and get them in order to advance further. 

Oh, this action sequence that started to drag after 5 minutes? Let’s bump that up to 15 minutes and duplicate it a few more times. 

You are level 15 and now all enemies are level 20! Grind grind grind grind grind grind grind grind. 

Etc, etc… 

Consider the Portal series. The original Portal is lauded as one of the best examples of gaming ever. It is a simple, well-paced gem that was quick to finish (unless you’re Samit), but provided ample opportunity to experiment and play around if you wanted to. However, it was packed in with 3 other more expansive titles, famously dubbed The Orange Box and generally considered one of the best value packages in modern gaming. 

Four years later; enter Portal 2, a standalone, full priced retail sequel. The environments and puzzles were more refined. New mechanics were introduced and seamlessly integrated into the game’s established formula. Overall, pacing was good, but I could see where some could complain the second act dragged. It took me around 8 hours to complete the single player game. Does that then simply equate that my game cost $7.50 per hour? Is that a fair way to calculate market value for a game? Who orchestrates this minimum play time requirement? Will the nebulous game length committee issue the Time Commandments so I can make sure I got the best bang for my buck? 

Time is a finite and precious resource. When I purchase a game, I only have two expectations; that it works and that it will entertain me. The more I feel I’m not making any relevant progress in a game as a result of any of the design decisions, the more likely I’ll wish I had spent that time on a different (hopefully more intriguing) game. 

Is it not better that I evaluate my time spent with Portal 2 based on how much I enjoyed the experience in total? Could those 8 hours have been better used on another game? I do not think so, but that is the dilemma you run into when you expect XX hours from every game you buy. Gamers will vote with their feet if they feel they are getting ripped off. We don't need to watch the clock to find that out.

Many thanks to Daniel Starkey and Isay Isay for their contributions. 

The vote total will be accumulated and the results given on Mon 5th December. Ensure you get your vote in by Sun 4th December.

Sean Daisy,
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