Friday, June 1, 2018

Dollars per Hour

There's an old saying that goes "don't judge a book by its cover."  Perhaps a good follow up to this would be "don't judge a book by its thickness either."  Nevertheless, there are avid readers out there who won't touch a novel unless it's a brick of paper by the likes of Stephen King or Michael Crichton.  For some this desire might steam from a place of insecurity (i.e. the need to look smart), but I think most of the time it's simply because these sorts of readers want something they can sink their teeth into.  At this point you might be wondering what any of this has to do with video games...well...more than you might think as of late.

Green Man Gaming, a software distribution website, somewhat similar to Steam or GOG, recently introduced a new analytic feature.  It takes the price of a game and divides it by the number of hours typically needed to complete said game in order to give consumers an idea of how much they're paying for each hour of entertainment.  A lot of people (including Jim Sterling) are decrying this as a meritless piece of statistical data while others are embracing it wholeheartedly and claiming that the magic ratio to live by is one dollar per hour (or one pound if you're in the UK...for some reason).  Personally I'm not buying into either side of the argument.

As much as I like Jim Sterling's work, I think he's exemplifying a problem that I see with a lot of current and former video game reviewers' attitudes toward this metric.  Namely they claim that "average cost per hour" is a worthlessly arbitrary metric and yet somehow review scores are okay.  A buy-wait-skip system of evaluation is fine, I think, as is a simple thumbs up or thumbs down.  The problem with 1 to 10 scales is that the numbers don't equate to anything and inevitably lead to score comparisons, apples vs oranges arguments, and petty bickering.  Sterling rightly pointed out the contradiction between accepting review scores as valid but rejecting "average cost per hour," and yet failed to take it to the next logical step.

On the flip side, I'm not a fan of the idea of reducing games down to their efficiency as pure time killers either.  Not only does this rob games of any artistic merits they might have, it wrongly assumes that each and every hour of playtime equates to an hour of fun.  I can't speak for anyone else here, but I've played more than a few games that would have been much tighter, streamlined, and overall better products if they had stripped out tedious filler like fetch quests, random encounters and the dreaded grind.  Then again, I'm one of those people who has money for games, but not much free time to play them.  For a lot of people who enjoy this hobby (particularly younger enthusiasts) it might be the other way around.

Regardless of money and free time, there are some other factors worth considering.  I'm not just talking about graphics and sound or any of the usual bullet points advertisers put on the back of game boxes.  As Sterling put it, The Order 1886 was a ripoff when it came out because it was a full priced (60 dollar) game at launch that could be finished in under six hours.  Since then the price has gone down to around 20 bucks, but it still isn't worth it because of an incomplete storyline and bland third-person cover-based shooting mechanics.  Sure it looks and sounds nice, but there are plenty of other games that have that and excel in less vainglorious ways.  FAR: Lone Sails is another example people have been bringing up because it has a fifteen dollar price tag, but only lasts about two hours.  I can see where their coming from, but as least that game has a novel concept and, in it's own simple way, a proper beginning, middle and end.

Of course, not all folks want to read door-stopper novels or play sixty hour RPGs.  On the other hand that might be exactly what some people are looking for...something that they can sink their teeth into.  Thankfully, there's a website dedicated to breaking down the length of pretty much every game in which this sort of information could be applicable (stuff like MMOs and freemium online games have no ending by design so no point in listing those).  It's called and is a great resource for that sort of information because it also breaks down a lot of games into more precise data points for players who just want to mainline the story or completionists who want to do everything.  "Average cost per hour" though...that just a bunch of misleading nonsense.  Then again, so are numerical review scores.

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