The value argument: A reprise

The offhand remark I made the other day about my dislike of reviews that critique games based on their price attracted a lot more discussion than I expected. Some of it very angry! Which is kind of why I don’t like to talk about price; money is a very personal matter, and it upsets people. But I do think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about where I’m coming from on this, and some people are mistaking a passing aside as an imperious decree. So let’s sort this out.

First of all, as I stated yesterday in a totally unrelated context, there are no absolutes — sometimes I do comment on a game’s comparative value when the price/content ratio is notably out of alignment. Something like the The Orange Box is such a huge amount of content and variety for the same price as any other game on the market that it merits mention. And certain special editions or packages of a game, distinguished by both their added content and inflated price point, should be evaluated in terms of their relative value, or lack thereof. I’ve also consciously used price/value considerations in 1UP’s iPhone blog to help encourage people to pay money for good apps and fight the constant lowering of the price/quality bar for that particular platform, and because I strongly believe in supporting good designers with cash. But beyond that, I find complaints about pricing in reviews to be tacky, presumptuous, unhelpful, and ultimately futile.

Like I said, money is personal. It’s an uncomfortable subject for me, as it is for a lot of people — I hate talking about it, to the point that I have a couple of former roommates who still owe me considerable money for back rent that I will never collect on, because it would feel so petty to bring it up. But more than that, at least with regard to game reviews, I can’t presume to know how different readers approach money. Like religion and politics and other hot-button topics, economics are a good way to sour any conversation.

Everyone approaches a review from a different perspective, and that absolutely holds true for their finances. I know there are people reading my work who don’t blink at the prospect of dropping $500 a month on games they’ll never play, because they fancy themselves collectors. I also know that there are people reading this site who can barely afford to keep themselves housed and fed, for whom buying a single videogame is a momentous financial decision. I’ve been at both ends of the spectrum myself (tending more toward the latter for the past year or two, though hopefully that won’t always be the case), and I don’t think it’s at all possible to address or reconcile such dramatically different perspectives. A hardcore, financially comfortable collector won’t blink at the $120 price tag attached to the CE of a big game, whereas someone who has to make hard decisions about where their next meal is coming from may well pass up something like Dragon Quest IX because it retails for $35 instead of $30. It seems to me the height of arrogance to presume I can tell you what a videogame is worth in your budget. Only you know that for certain.

Besides that, different people have different priorities — not just financially, but also in terms of what they want from a game. A game that can be completely finished in a single sitting might not seem worth $50 to most gamers, but a handful of shooter fans were eager to plunk down that much cash for Deathsmiles LE. Sure, they can finish the game in an hour, but for them, that’s not the point. Replaying the game, refining their skills, and perfecting their scores is what they want, and it’ll keep them occupied for months. Personally, I was put off by Deathsmiles’ price and the frustrating lack of a more affordable, non-LE edition. I’m not a shooter maniac and couldn’t justify spending $50 on the game, especially when so much of the cost is clearly wrapped up in “bonus” physical goods I have zero use for. But I would never have reviewed it on those terms, because that’s so wholly subjective, and telling people a game like that isn’t worth the cash is a good way to make the people who bought it write you off as an idiot who has no business voicing your opinion. And I get enough of that as it is, thanks.

Alternately, look at something like Modern Warfare 2. Even if I had any interest in the series, I couldn’t really justify paying full price for the game, because I’d only be using it for the six-hour single-player experience and would probably never want to play it again. Someone who’s going to sink hundreds of hours into the multiplayer, on the other hand, is getting a pretty good deal for their investment (even if they pay for all those rapaciously priced map packs). Meanwhile, I’m willing to pay full price for a Halo game, even though I don’t do much multiplayer there, either, because I like the design of the single-player mode enough that I’ll ultimately play through the series’ campaign several times over the years, coming back to revisit it from time to time. So in that sense, a Halo game is worth more to me than a Call of Duty game, but it would be asinine and hopelessly solipsistic to review them as such.

Money is tight for my household these days, and Cat and I don’t have much to spend on entertainment. I pick and choose my purchases very carefully. I make value decisions constantly, and there are a ton of interesting-looking games due in the next few months that I won’t be picking up until they hit discount pricing. If I really want a game, though, I’ll figure out a way to budget for it. I know some people balk at the $5 RPG tax on Dragon Quest IX, but I would happily have paid far more than $35 for it. On the other hand, I still haven’t gotten around to playing Fallout 3, so I can’t really justify dropping $60 on New Vegas. Both DQIX and New Vegas are content-rich, open-ended RPGs. Some people would happily pay more for DQIX because of its social elements, or its portability, or its legacy; others would balk at seeing it priced on par with New Vegas, because of its lower graphical fidelity, or its lack of Achievements, or its… uh, legacy, I guess.

Obviously, it would be stupid for me to insert those subjective, personal value judgments into reviews. Start throwing around numbers and you’re going to alienate one audience or another. I have no business telling you that Castlevania is worth $10 but not $15, because I have no idea what $5 of Castlevania is worth to you. So, I guess what I’m saying is that I believe everyone has to make their own value judgments when it comes to buying games. It’s neither my job nor my place to say, “This game is barely worth $60, but this one totally is!” If I’m doing my job right, you should be able to come to that conclusion on your own based on the review text without the need to have it stated explicitly. I don’t know what your finances are like, or what you want from your games, but you do. My role is simply to help you make that decision on your own.

Anyway, that’s what I meant. (It was punchier the way I said it before, but admittedly a bit less clear.) You may now resume telling me how I’m an arrogant, presumptuous asshole for trying to avoid being an arrogant, presumptuous asshole.

32 thoughts on “The value argument: A reprise

  1. Any aspect of a game review is going to be subjective on the part of the reviewer. Saying a game like Castlevania on XBLA has beautiful graphics might be laughed at by someone who only likes fully rendered 3D environments. That doesn’t render your opinion invalid, it just means that your preferences are different. Any commentary on price should be taken the same way.

  2. Actually, I pretty much completely agree with the way you phrased things this time. I kind of had a feeling towards the end of our previous exchange that we were both trying to make the same point, just in somewhat different fashions. I, too, feel that in general reviewers should not be making value judgments on games based on price. I think the comparison you made between Modern Warfare and Halo, where both games contain about the same amount of content but will likely be valued very differently by certain consumers, was a really good one. I think the point I had been hung up on before was something you addressed this time when you discussed how in the case of something like the Orange Box, where the consumer is getting a substantial amount of content for the standard retail price, you would make mention of the value. All I had been saying was, while not necessarily a common occurrence, there are times where it is acceptable for a reviewer to mention price, such as in the case of the Orange Box. Similarly, if a game is re-released or ported to another platform and is priced markedly higher than it was previously without any content being added, I would expect a reviewer to point out the fact that consumers are not necessarily getting the best value. Like I said, it’s not something I see happening all that often, but I think it is reasonable in certain situations.

  3. I don’t think money should play into judging a game because it’s like judging any other art/entertainment: they all come in different prices, PLUS you may be reviewing something that is old (much cheaper now than it used to be) or in a different format. Plus you should judge it in a way that will hold up for the future, regardless of what it costs then. Ideally, the price of something really has nothing to say on its artistic value. (Yes, even if it’s very cheap).

  4. I agree with Jet Pilot. Subjectivity is pretty much inevitable when you’re giving an account of your personal playtime with a video game.

    The Orange Box argument doesn’t really work, because every game can potentially offer an equal amount of playability. I bought the Orange Box, and didn’t do much besides play through Portal. Was it worth it? Not really. Portal is fun, but that’s $60 for a few hours of gaming. In any case, the same could be said for anything – what makes the Orange Box qualified for a price value judgement and not, say, a Final Fantasy game?

    Either way, game prices are ridiculous, and I’ve found that VERY few games are worth full price, to me personally, so it’s not something I really care about in a review. But I still think price value judgements should be fair game in reviews; a discerning reader will know if it’s relevant to him/her or not.

  5. “But beyond that, I find complaints about pricing in reviews to be tacky, presumptuous, unhelpful, and ultimately futile.”

    I agree with your position, but have to admit personally I find the opposite of this satement to also be true. Not only are complaints all of the above, but replacing the word with compliments also feels the same. Praising the value of The Orange Box is a great example. While I would argue the value is great at first blush, on consoles (the REAL Orange Boxes) it hasn’t lasted. It was presumed that the value would hold up, but it has not. The PS3 release was universally derided for being a lackluster port of its Xbox 360 brother, and both releases have a ghost town for servers of Team Fortress 2 because of the lack of updates.

    I just want to urge caution about complimenting value if you aren’t also willing to criticize the value of others.

  6. I don’t even like the implication that value is a function of cost and time (as with the Halo/MW2 comparison). I would much rather have a 30-hour RPG than a 60-hour RPG for the same price, because I place a high “value” on finishing games and I’m much more likely to finish it in 30 hours. I suppose mathematically it *is* a function of time, just not one that uniformly increases. So I’m all for not including a subjective “value” in a review.

  7. From your last post, I don’t agree that video games aren’t commodities, but so are other forms of media. We don’t review movies based on price. We don’t review albums, books, comics, etc. on price either. We review movies based on how well they function as movies, and so on forth. Video games should be the same way.

    You know what we review based on price? Cell phones. TVs. Computers. Hardware. Just something to think about.

  8. Not to mention that it dates your review horribly if/when the game does drop in price.

  9. Obviously reviews are subjective. However, the difference between the game’s quality and the amount you’re willing to pay for a game is that one factor derives internally from the game itself, while the other is of external origin. A review is always stronger if its subjectivity is built around the former.

    As for The Orange Box, the long-term failings of the different versions would have been impossible for any reviewer to predict. There’s no real way to account for that without either posting the review six months after launch or simply making a blanket assumption that all games relying on continued dev support will fail.

  10. “You know what we review based on price? Cell phones. TVs. Computers. Hardware. Just something to think about.”

    You’re touching on something interesting here, sort of tangential to the topic at hand, and sort of getting into the “Are videogames art?” debate: that reviewers (and gamers) routinely refer to videogames as, for example, “broken” — which is a term you might use for a television set but not a painting — really suggests the fact that we do look at videogames as “things” and almost like an extension of the hardware they’re played on.

  11. Parish, you are an arrogant, presumptuous asshole for trying to avoid being an arrogant, presumptuous asshole.

    Just thought I would get back to calling you that, haha.

  12. “Not to mention that it dates your review horribly if/when the game does drop in price.”

    This. The quality of the game does not vary over time. The price varies greatly, sometimes within a few weeks of release. Discussing price in a review is thus a ticking time bomb.

  13. Then again, as a friend of mine has said, pertaining to this issue:

    “Let’s say Atari releases Pong on a disc for $60. Just Pong. No special features. For $60. Do you mention in the review that it’s a huge ripoff?”

  14. A friend of mine mentioned that with a game released somewhat recently that I can’t actually mention, but fits the “pong at 60 dollars” description pretty accurately. I thought about it for a while, and my response was “If you do your job as a reviewer, good game or not, most reasonable people should be able to see that price and say that’s way too much.” Price may be subjective to everyone, but some opinions can reach a wide consensus.

  15. I agree with ASandoval. As the reviewer, I think it would be pretty easy to be able to inform someone that they’re being ripped off without bringing price into it. That said, I personally don’t mind when price is brought up in a review. What I really can’t stand is when the reviewer tells me I NEED to buy something. I can’t stand being told that I should buy a 60 dollar game that I know will be marked down in a month anyway. Another pet peeve is when a reviewer writes about buying a game just to support it, even if the quality of said game isn’t so hot to begin with (IGN sort of had a habit of this during the early Wii days for example).

  16. … or you could just point out that Pong is not a game worth buying today, period, with how many other games offer a similar but vastly more entertaining experience. Also- the “games can be called ‘broken’ argument really doesn’t hold up since, you know, A- Statues can be broken too, paintings and books would be but we say ripped instead due to the materials, and more importantly B- “Broken” as generally refers to games, is a completely different usage of the verb than for damaged objects, referring to the designers doing a terrible job at balancing some aspect of gameplay, much like a story’s plot being full of holes isn’t really the same thing as a car’s tire being full of holes.

  17. It’s no revelation that you can undermine most general rules of thumb by proposing ridiculous extreme contingencies that fly in the face of all reason and likelihood. This post was mindfully written without abusing preposterous impossibilities to make points; it would be great if the subsequent discussion could be held to the same ideal.

  18. @Kohler haha, okay, but what does it matter if a videogame review is “dated”? They’re meant to be dated in the sense that they’re really only relevant at the time a game’s released. They’re disposable.

    @Googleshng I wasn’t talking about being “broken” as in physically damaged, but of course ONLY as in being “of low quality” (though the suggestion of real, physical damage is inherent). It’s a matter of semantics, but I’m just saying, I think it betrays something about how gamers really think (some of them): you wouldn’t say a painting you don’t like is “broken”.

  19. I agree with everything else you say here, but how can you use the word “rapacious” describing the MW2 map pack pricing in an article that decries making value judgments based on price? If I’m putting tens or even hundreds of hours into the multiplayer, how is that not getting my money’s worth? As you say, it’s up to the individual to make that judgment call FOR THEM. I don’t see how the MW2 map pack price is any different than the example you cite about the Deathsmiles LE. For the people that are into that game and will derive value from the package, it’s worth the money. The people that aren’t interested are free to continue not caring or spending their money on it.

  20. Price is certainly a tricky issue in games, but I can without a doubt say that I hate people who use quantity of gameplay as a metric for quality. I’d rather have an excellent 25ish hour game that I loved and want to replay versus a slog of an 80 hour game. This is one of the reasons why I like Mass Effect 1 and 2 more than any other BioWare game other than the original KOTOR.

  21. @Kohler: Actually, when the later Resident Evil ports came out for the GameCube, at least one EGM reviewer DID say that since they full-priced enhanced ports, instead of full remakes like the first GameCube RE, they were ripoffs. And then he stated that he couldn’t recommend them on that basis even if they were good ports of good games.

  22. Two reasons not to consider price in reviews. The first is simple — the price is a known quantity. The reviewers job is to reveal what’s unknown to the general public about the game so that they can make an informed choice. If you clearly explain the merits and flaws in a game (including length, say), then the customer can easily weigh those against the cost. It can be assumed that the critic is evaluating the quality of the product in relation to comparably priced products, barring some extreme price outlier (as in, a free game that’s significantly better than the paid product).

    The one tricky point about games is that they straddle the line between books/movies/music and luxury goods. Cost for the first category is never an issue — a book is only ever evaluated on its literary worth, as all books cost roughly the same (not that much). With a wine, reviews frequently center on the quality of the wine compared to other wines at that price point. A game reviewer has to look at the game as if it were a book, in one sense, but the fact remains that the player may find a comparable, or even better experience, on another platform for significantly less money. This is especially true with, say, football games, which can be almost identical but for quality.

    I can think of one other good reason not to consider price: A game’s price often reflects economic factors outside of the designer’s control. Insofar as a game design team is an “artist,” it’s unfair to burden their work with economic considerations. As Jeremy mentions, iPhone game and app pricing is lower than it should be, and keeps getting lower. I regularly read reviews that question a $5 price point for a game, which is absurd given the pricing on other platforms. Conversely, a designer may be able to push more units on a lower budget on the iPhone, which means a $5 game is still profitable, whereas an Xbox 360 developer creating a niche title may have to charge $60 to break even. Is it fair to compare them? It’s an open question, but in general it seems best to avoid.

  23. I say mention length and/or value if a game is really short or particularly content-rich and let people decide based on the review, which is basically what you do.

    Obviously, people get really upset when someone mentions that a game is either “too expensive” or “too difficult”. That’s something that’s totally subjective. Back when I cared about what other people thought about my favorite games, I remember getting upset at EGM for bashing my beloved F-Zero GX. Game is great, but it’s too hard. 7/10. Whatever, man.

    I really hate numbered reviews altogether, but that’s another story.

  24. Albums, books, etc tend to not have price mentione din their reviews because there’s generally a very small point of variation for the price, and generally a very fixed quantity of the product. The same applies to movies, really. However, when any of these mediums go outside the norm, such as the special edition with collectibles, or Deluxe 9-Disc Box Set, the price is usually mentioned and judged.

    In the event of video games, the length and quantity of content covers a very wide-spectrum, and the price-range is pushing up into the range people can get stingy about. I’m sure we’d see price listed in most album reviews if they oft cost $60, and had from 4 to 20 tracks each. So, I think the insertion of a personal opinion (weighted with some thought of the gaming values of others) of the price is understandable in a game review.

  25. Excellent article, Jeremy. Price really is subjective.

    In my case, funny how $60 for six awesome hours (Ico) was better than $15 for forty, kind of cool but kind of chore-like, hours (Okami).

  26. Good for you, Jeremy.
    I work as a sales associate at a well-known video game retailer (I won’t say which, but let’s say it rhymes with, uh, EB James). At least a few times a day I have a customer turn to me holding a case, face contorted, asking if the game they’re holding is worth that $69.99 price tag. I always find myself at a loss on what to say. Most of the time I ask them what they’re looking for in a game, and move on from there.

  27. Hello there, your friendly neighborhood moron here chiming in again.

    I’m not quite sure what triggered the point about price in the recent Castlevania entry. Maybe I missed a reference to the game getting slammed over its cost. Whatever. The follow up comment, however, hammered your point home. I have no regrets over what I said… The topic isn’t upsetting in the slightest, how you’re handling it is.

    You’re right Jeremy, price IS subjective. $60 doesn’t have the same meaning for everyone, but that doesn’t render it a non-issue.

    What I am reading in this entry is trademark sophistry. You’re taking something very simple to understand and you’re complicating it so goddamn much hoping it makes your BS sound plausible. Its not working. You sound out of touch. Price isn’t PERSONAL for normal people. Its OK to talk about it. In this crap economy combined with how rapidly new releases drop in price, if I were to hear a reviewer say “this is a good game, but not $60 good. Wait for price drop” or “short game short; rent” or even “make own judgement call; try demo” I wouldn’t fault them on it. Part of your job is to advise people how to spend their money wisely even if the review makes no mention of $. Your argument is ignorant and off base, I’m wondering if Toastyfrog has been replaced with professional Pakistani doppleganger and ID thief Jeremy Pareesh.

    I realize your profession doesn’t have much journalistic integrity anymore. Game corporations consider you part of their commercial division. Something that would effect their sales, they would take personally. You don’t have full freedom of expression so long as your employer relies on corporates for the money they pay you to put food on your table. Tell me I’m wrong. Go ahead. I’d like to introduce you to Jeff Gerstmann. He got fired for calling a bad game bad (ugh, it really is too) in lieu of Eidos paying Gamespot lots of money to skin the site with said game’s advertisements.

    I’m calling you on your BS. You know what else is “subjective” and “personal”, Jeremy? Taste. Opinions. What you do for a living, in other words! Shouldn’t that make your purpose futile, Mr. “I spend money on games! I really do! Money is important to me, and I’m always looking to get the most out of it! Look at this shelf containing every single Astromech droid Mattel made in the past 10 years! Look at all the manga I have!”??? Honestly.

    What’s most bullshit about this is I really liked the arrogant pompous asshole Jeremy Parish. The one that probably wears a black turtleneck sweater and a beret. Performs his reviews in a seedy night club while snapping his fingers to bad jazz music droning on in the background. A half smoked fag smolders away in an empty coffee cup before him as he begins speaking of Xenogears. A game he didn’t like and wasn’t afraid to say so. Being so bold as to make a pic of a crucified Chu-chu as testament to his disdain. Hard not to respect someone willing to do that amidst a flood of idiot fanboys that praise a game they consider a gift from God himself. This NEW Jeremy Parish sounds like he works for Fascist Italy or Soviet Pravda in a ‘I’M DICTATING TO A CULTURE I DON’T UNDERSTAND ANYMORE! OH FUCK STOP DISAGREEING WITH ME, I AM AN EXPERT. WE COMPARE RIDDICK TO UNRELATED GAMES LIKE KOTOR HERE’ way. You can argue your point all you like bro, but you sound stupid and out of touch. You really do. Its offensive to be talked down to and told what to think by someone who doesn’t understand you. This one particular issue would have best handled if it were never brought up. You really got yourself in a War Games style catch 22 on this one, and trying to dig yourself out is only digging a deeper hole.

  28. So, in a nutshell: You feel you have the right to dictate the nature of my job and how I’m allowed to do it; in your opinion, I do not have the flexibility to approach my work on my own terms. I am to provide a Consumer Reports for videogames, and anything straying from that is pretentious and disingenuous. At the same time, I’m expected to break the mold and express true “journalistic integrity.” That seems like a mixed message, you know?

  29. “but how can you use the word “rapacious” describing the MW2 map pack pricing in an article that decries making value judgments based on price?”

    Oh, there’s a huge difference between my offhandedly saying “these cost too much” and my incorporating that statement into a formal review — I still have opinions, you know. I haven’t suggested that no one should ever make judgments comparing cost to content; the point I was making is that those judgments are best left to individuals rather than the decrees of reviewers writing to incredibly broad audiences. I often make cost judgments! But they’re a personal decision, and I avoid making them a part of my reviews, because… well, for all the reasons above, plus a few that other commenters have noted.

  30. @parish Fair enough, good sir. I just would always get upset about everyone bitching about the price of those when they came out and I guess that part of me came out for a little bit. My bad for not realizing that, especially since your article was you saying, “Yo, here’s my opinion on the matter.” I guess my whole point with those packs was that I think it’s a fair price for the content you get, PROVIDED THAT you play the multiplayer frequently.

    Anyway, all that aside, very good article.

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