This was originally posted on my personal blog here. And bear with me, for this is probably the looooooooooooongest blog post I've ever written.
Well, you may or may not know that Gone Home was released a few days ago, and also you may or may not know some people are talking about the game being, or not, worth the $20 price tag. Let’s get this out of the way: no, I won’t tell you “go play it now!” because I can’t recommend a game I haven’t played, much less a game I won’t be playing in a few months from now (because I am busy and I have other games waiting for me).
Anyway, back to the subject. Basically the two sides of the coin are these:
1. The price is too high because it’s a very short game with no replay value and minimal interaction.
2. The price is fair, or even too low, for a game that takes gaming to a whole new level with narrative, storytelling, subjects, and all that.
To say one or the other is right while the remaining option is wrong is a completely subjective thing because none of those is an absolute truth (unlike saying ‘things fall down because gravity exists’). Before I go any further I will share my own experience:
When I first learned about the game, I thought the environmental storytelling was interesting (I couldn’t care less about it being marketed as ‘a non-combat non-violent game’ because, even if you don’t realize, such games have been around for quite some time… unless I somehow missed the shotgun in Myst). A couple of days ago I realized it was out, so I went to the Steam page (surprise, Gone Home is selling only on Steam… Sorta-monopoly, maybe?). And then I noticed the game was $20.
My first thought was “wait, $20 bucks for a game about wandering inside a house reading stuff to know what the hell is going on?” Then my second thought was “could it be possible that am I the only one thinking this way, or are there others wondering the same thing?”
Now I give you 5 minutes to mentally rant about me being a cheap bastard. I will wait here listening to some music in the meantime.
Anyway, moving on…
Fair comparisons vs. stupid comparisons
It turns out many are thinking the same thing. As I said before, I can’t say those thinking the price is fair are right and the other ones wrong, and I can’t say those thinking it’s too expensive are right and the other ones are wrong. This is a very subjective thing.
Let’s take the point mentioned above, when people think the pricing is fair: “The The price is fair, or even too low, for a game that takes gaming to a whole new level with narrative, storytelling, subjects, and all that.”
At first the whole thing makes sense, but we reach a point when coming up with explanations as to why the price is fair falls into stupidity. When you say “well, yes it’s very short, but I really liked it, the story was deep, engaging, moving, etc., etc.” doesn’t explain anything, it just states you liked it and thus you feel the price is right (it’s a subjective thing), but I can turn this against you very easily because I can mention a few games I played and didn’t like and then say the price was not fair.
But let’s take this further: let’s say I make an exploration game (à la Dear Esther) with a story so large and deep in meaning, and so life-changing, it will make you cry and turn your stomach inside out, and it will sell for $50. Would you buy it? Now let me make it really bad for you: total gameplay time to see everything there’s to see is only 10 minutes, and every time you play it, it’ll be the exact same game. Would you buy it?
There are also those who say that even if the game is only 2 hours long, people have no problem paying $20 for a DVD. I usually don’t make comparisons between two different mediums simply because comparisons are not fair and don’t even make sense (in other words they are plain stupid). However, just for the sake of this post I will make a comparison that’s equally valid (and show you why such comparisons are stupid).
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is one of my favorite movies, it’s around 3 hours long, and I own it on DVD. I can assure you I wouldn’t pay $40 or $60 for a copy of the DVD and say it’s worth the price because the story is deep, moving and extremely well written (I got it for around $15 on Amazon).
A Clockwork Orange is an amazing book with a very interesting and deep message (and I’d dare say it’s way better than Gone Home in terms of narrative and storytelling). You can get it for $12 on Amazon, and it will surely last more than 2 hours.
So, you see saying “people pay $20 for X and you don’t see them complaining” is not the most intelligent response because it can be easily turned around, and that other comparison would be equally valid: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or A Clockwork Orange are stories that might have a deeper meaning than Gone Home, and they are cheaper.
But I won’t stop here. Let’s take the first point mentioned above: “The price is too high because it’s a very short game with no replay value and minimal interaction.”
This one is easier to explain because it uses more objective things, like gameplay hours, number of levels, and so on. Saying a game can give you 100 hours of gameplay somehow makes it better than a game offering “only” 50 hours, and way better than a game offering 2 hours. A game featuring 100 levels is “better” than a game featuring only 10 levels.
But then again, for the sake of this blog post let’s make the same comparisons with other mediums (and again I will prove why transmedia comparisons are stupid).
“The Curious Case…” is “only” 3 hours long, so does that mean that, say, Super Meat Boy is better because it will entertain you for a longer period of time?
It took me a few days to finish A Clockwork Orange, while I finished Dear Esther in one hour. Does it mean ACO is “way better” than Dear Esther?
I can make it worse if you want me to: when you go to the movies they don’t charge more if the movie is 3 hours long compared to a movie that’s only 90 minutes long. They don’t charge “cents per minute of film,” they charge for a movie ticket.
After this, I see no reason why somebody would ever try to pull out a transmedia comparison ever again. For every person saying “but you pay this much for a DVD” I can come up with an equally valid comparison like saying “we both know for a fact this game is not nearly half as good as this cinematic masterpiece on this DVD, and yet it’s more expensive.”
Then there’s the replayability issue. Fundamentally replayability means you feel the need to play the game more than once. People are saying that once you play Gone Home you’re done because it offers zero replayability.
Let me explain this to you: replayability has to do with you willing to play the game again for whatever reason, and it has nothing to do with a game being different every time you play it. Just to let you know, I played Batman Arkham Asylum only once because I found no reason to play through it again, but I can play Fatal Frame II over and over regardless of it being the exact same game (with the exact same ending) because I believe it’s an amazing game. In case you didn’t know, Fatal Frame II has no multiplayer, no random events, and no procedural level generation, meaning I play the exact same freaking game over and over and yet I like it.
People who find Gone Home replayable will play it over and over because they like it, not because the game has procedural level generation, multiplayer or random events. Saying a game is not replayable means you know why every gamer in the world replays games, and know a certain game offers none of those elements that would cause even one of those millions of gamers to replay the game.
And yes, in a game there’s the extra game modes, costumes, unlockable levels and all that good stuff that’s meant to make a game replayable, but that means shit unless the player feels the drive to unlock all those things (on a side note, Enola has some of those elements, but I am aware only completionists will care about them).
But I won’t stop here. There’s more to replayability than having multiplayer maps and DLC, because not-all-games-need-multiplayer. The idea that you need multiplayer to make a game replayable makes no sense at all (but that’s a different topic).
To many, Batman Arkham Asylum might have a high replay value. To me it doesn’t. Just the same, Gone Home will offer replay value to those wanting to play through the game again, regardless of it being the same game, just like Fatal Frame II offers me a high replay value.
Quoting the “gameplay time” (meaning the amount of time a game is likely to keep you busy) can be a good explanation. However it only makes sense when the game is good enough to make you wanna stick to it (Mass Effect offers 30+ hours of gameplay but after nearly an hour I was too bored to continue).
You were going to talk about pricing being complicated…
So, I believe the $20 price for this game is steep, not because it’s short or because the mechanics may not be compelling enough, but rather because it seems expensive compared to other similar games (the word “similar” meaning “similar core mechanics” not “similar stories”).
This is why pricing is complicated. In the AAA arena all games pretty much cost the same, but in the indie arena, games range from $5 (or even less) to $25 (or maybe a little more). That can cause a lot of price comparisons and discussions like this one (“but why is this game $20 when Dear Esther costs only half?” “why this game with only 10 levels costs more than that other game with 100 levels?”).
I began to wonder what if all indie games had the same price point, but that would be counter-productive as it goes against the freedom to make your own choices as an indie. For this reason I’d be against setting a single price point for all indie games.
When setting a price, you may be inclined to check similar games to get an idea of how much you can ask for your game. However, there’s an issue about valuing your own work: you won’t want to under-value yourselves. “Well, similar games cost $10, but we’ve put a lot of blood, tears, and other kinds of fluids into this game, so those $10 sound way too cheap, and thus we will charge $20” as well as saying “we can charge this much because we are experienced developers/won all these awards/we worked on all these big budget games/etc.” It can be tricky not over-valuing yourself and the work when you try to avoid under-valuing it.
Remember players will also make this comparison and wonder why your game is two or three times more expensive than “similar titles.”
Anyway, developers can’t think purely as developers, because we are also gamers. There’s a chance a gamer won’t care if your budget is only a few thousand or a few hundred thousands, and there’s a chance a gamer won’t care if you’ve poured your body fluids and soul unto it while developing it (I will take for granted you loved it enough to devote 2, 3, or 4 years of your life making it). It is possible a gamer won’t care where you studied game design or how many big budget titles you worked on in the past either. To some gamers, the only thing that matters is his own experience with the game, not the developer’s experience (a gamer will never say “well, you know, Sergio had such a great time working on Enola and that’s enough to make me wanna pay for that game”). So this takes me to my last point.
But is a gamer who doesn’t care about my passion for game making any less important than a gamer who’s been an avid fan of my game from day one? I don’t think I even need to answer that.
I think it’s not much about what you think the game is worth, but what you think it’s fair. It’s about finding a balance between not under-selling yourselves and finding a fair price. Simply put, it’s about asking a simple question: “if this game was being developed by someone (or a team) I don’t know and I don’t care about, would I pay this much for it?” Saying a developer or a team you don’t know and thus don’t care about means you’d be willing to pay X because the game itself is worth it, not because the devs are your buddies (“hey it’s my colleagues we’re talking about, of course I’d support them and pay the $20 for the game!”).
Of course you can’t please everybody, and there are always those who’re always going to complain about the price, even if the game is only $5 (or 99 cents). However, I am inclined to think those are a minority and/or the kind of people that wouldn’t buy your game to begin with.
When I was deciding how much to charge for Enola, it was a combination of looking at similar products and then figure out how much I’d be willing to pay for such game based on the original design considering: story, gameplay style, roughly estimated gameplay hours, endings (keeping in mind that, even if the game has 5 different endings, most players will only unlock one or two), replay value (again, considering replay value has nothing to do with multiplayer or extra content, and thus is a very subjective thing, like my case with Fatal Frame II). So in the end the game will cost $14.99, and yet I always keep the constant reminder of “people will pay that much, so make that every dollar count… and your ‘brilliant story’ is not the answer to all questions.”
Making games is expensive. That’s why, as an indie, you find yourself trying to find ways to produce a game as cheaply as possible, because you don’t have the luxury of spending millions upon millions to develop a ga… oh, yeah… Double Fine…
Then there’s the attachments that affect budget directly. Does the game have voice overs? Did actors ask for a lot of money plus your first born to give voice to your character? Are you using licensed music, or a licensed property? Math puts this very simple: the higher the budget the more money you need to make to break even; a low price means you need to sell more copies break even. But here’s a nice question: Imagine I’m licensing Michael Jackson’s music for the credits, hiring Elle Fanning as a lead, or using a tale by Poe as a foundation for the game. Would any of those give me the right to charge twice as much for the game, considering the game itself wouldn’t change much? I’d say the answer is “not-at-all.”
Ok, it’s time for me to shut up
So, Gone Home is out, it costs $20 but I believe somewhere between $10 to $15 would have been a fair price for what the game seems to be “as a whole,” but again that’s my own subjective opinion. Take note I am saying “what it seems to be” because I haven’t played it because the delivered pitch doesn’t give me a reason to believe it’d be worth the $20. By the way during my research I even ended up finding out what the whole story is about, and don’t tell me how I spoiled the story for myself (I’m guessing for you knowing right off the bat Frodo was going to destroy the ring must’ve really spoiled LOTR… it’s not about “the premise” but about “the execution,” but again that’s also a different subject).
Some people’s answer will be “yes, it’s short but the story is great.” The problem is that’s not an answer (remember my example of a 10-min game with a life-changing story selling for $50). Other’s citing number of levels or gameplay hours is not an answer either (did I ever tell you I never played more than 1 hour of that 30+ hour epic called Mass Effect?).
I don’t remember when was the last time I heard a discussion about a game’s price point (except when it comes to mobile games), but when there are players with mixed feelings about loving the game but feeling ripped off (or simply having your fans acknowledging the price point is high, or even having to defend the price), I believe we have a problem that’s worth discussing.
Or you can simply ignore the issue, or even say “hey dude that’s the price, if you don’t like it don’t buy it” (by the way has Fullbright even said anything about the price discussion, or will they ignore the issue altogether?).
At the end of the day, like it or not, gamers are paying for a product, not a developer’s passion, feelings, portfolio, awards, bravery to tackle on a subject, or whatever else you can think of.
Like it or not, game making is a business as much as it is a form of expression.