Games-As-Products Part 2: Theories

In the last post I talked about how game reviewers often approach their reviews of games as if the games are consumer products. They evaluate each feature in isolation from the others, and at the end assign a score based on some attempt to objectively determine the “quality” of the game. This is in stark contrast to reviews of other media, such as books and film and music, which are reviewed based on the reviewer’s subjective opinion of the work.

Actually, it’s not just reviewers that assume this attitude. Just look at the back of the box of any game: the game is invariably described in terms of the features that it contains. Consider the “Product Features” section from’s page on Resident Evil 4 for the Wii:

  • Advanced AI makes enemies smarter than ever and use their cunning in deadly attacks
  • Use the Action button for better player control
  • New ‘Aim and Shoot’ targeting for zeroing in on enemies with your weapons
  • Behind the camera view for intuitive movement
  • Conversations and monologues can be heard in real time

Now, in addition to being pretty poor English, this list of “features” fails really dramatically to effectively describe Resident Evil 4. They are similar to the back of the box (though the box at least contains a few plot details). Now compare that list of features with the product descriptions of the first Resident Evil film (a synopsis of the plot is given), the Resident Evil soundtrack CD (samples can be listened to), and even this Resident Evil book (the first page can be read). All of these other forms of entertainment give some sort of information about the content of the work, not just a sterile description of “features.” The game page is much more similar to the page for the Resident Evil 4 Chainsaw Controller, which is a consumer product and, as such, contains a list of product features.

So the games-as-products mindset doesn’t begin and end with reviewers. Games are advertised this way, and marketing makes a big deal out of the special features that each game contains (consider the common tactic of releasing a “game play video” to show off some unique mechanic; Alone in the Dark 5 is a recent example). Reviewers are not solely to blame for this product-oriented approach (and actually, I think that many reviewers try very hard to give readers good information without realizing that their style of writing is vasty different than other forms of media).

The real question is, why does this discrepancy exist? Why are games treated differently than other types of products? Maybe it has to do with the persistent association with toys. The Nintendo Entertainment System’s primary competitor in 1985 was Teddy Ruxpin, and to this day many people consider video games a branch of children’s toys rather than a medium (which is also the cause of a lot of controversy surrounding video game violence, I think). Or it might have something to do with video games being interactive: perhaps by enumerating features that are related to how the game is played, marketing is attempting to show how playing this game will be better than playing anything that you’ve ever played before (which, if you think about it, makes game reviewer’s tendency to compare games to other titles make more sense). Or maybe it is because games are sold with PCs and game consoles (which are certainly consumer products), and the product-ness of these host platforms “rubs off” on the media as a whole.

Those aren’t bad explanations, and they probably are at least partially true, but I think that there’s a more important reason that trumps them all: the price point. Games cost too much, both to develop and for the consumer. High development costs push the street price up, and the street price is extremely high compared to other media. Here in California, it costs $10 to go to a movie in a theater. Renting a movie is around $3.00. Buying a DVD is usually around $15. A new novel costs between $8 and $30 (hardbacks are more expensive, but paperbacks are always available eventually). CDs cost $15, and though that form of media is on the way out, it is being replaced by digital distribution models like iTunes that work out to just slightly less. But a new game for your Xbox360

Most PS2 games didn’t review well.

or PS3 is $59.99. A game for the Wii is probably $49.99. Though budget titles do exist, they are the exception rather than the rule (and usually hover between $20 and $30). That means a new game can cost four times the cost of a new DVD!

Now, some might make an argument here about the length of a given game vs a movie or book. But I think that “length” is just another technical detail, not a real metric of quality. If you read the reviews of The Orange Box, you might have noticed reviewer after reviewer harping on the amazing “value” that the set provides (several high-quality games for the price of one). But no reviewer rewards a long book for having “value” because it takes you longer to read it; in fact, excessive length is often considered a negative when books and films are reviewed. And other media isn’t priced based on its length; Neal Stephenson’s excellent Cryptonomicon only costs $8.99 despite its lengthy 1168 pages. His interesting In the Beginning… There Was the Command Line is a thin volume (160 pages), and it still costs about the same. No, the “duration of entertainment” isn’t a factor in pricing other types of media, and I don’t see why it should be for games either (and, as an aside, 100-hour RPGs don’t cost more than 5 hour adventure games, so even within the game market length doesn’t seem to be a factor).

The problem with expensive games is that a lot of games are actually pretty bad, and the consumer can’t tell which are good and which are bad by looking at the box. When I did research for my article on sales vs game scores, I found that, across all PS2 games, the majority of titles got a rating lower than 80%. About 20% of all PS2 games got “good” reviews and the rest got mediocre to poor. That’s in keeping with Sturgeon’s Law, which stipulates that most things are really crap, which I think applies to movies and books as well. The difference, of course, is that for $8 – $20, the amount of risk that the consumer assumes when buying a book or movie that they know nothing about is very small. $50 – $60 is a much larger investment, and therefore the consumer is likely to be much more careful about what he buys.

My theory is that the high price point of games moves them out of the “disposable media” category and into the “product investment” category in the consumer’s mind. In that context, the consumer needs to know if his purchase is really going to be worth the money. And as I mentioned in the last post, things like plot are subjective and are not guaranteed to be liked by everyone, so marketing, reviewers, and in turn, consumers, fall back on objective facts about the game in an attempt to define where that $59.99 is going. You can see this mindset everywhere in the game industry if you look for it; consider, for example, the customers who got angry that Halo 3 only supports “640p”, as if 80 pixels of screen real estate have any tangible effect on the quality of the game. You can see this mentality in the way that games and game hardware is marketed: the PS3 had better be able to make games that we’ve never seen before; otherwise what’s the point of spending all that money for it? And I think that endless flame wars amongst fanboys usually boil down to insecurity about a purchasing decision; once a fan has made up his mind to drop his cash on a specific game or system, it’s common to really want to believe that the decision was correct and the money not wasted.

The price point for games, and, to a lesser extent, game systems, changes the tone and context within which games are perceived in the market. If all games cost $15 new, I don’t think we’d have very many discussions about quality in terms of feature sets; at a lower price, the risk of failure is lower and people will be more willing to try new things, and I think the conversation would shift to being about the content rather than being about the technology. Alas, until games can reach a much larger market, or until they can break out of the never-ending technical arms race, there’s not much hope that the street price of video games will fall any time soon. You can see, though, that some companies are trying; Nintendo’s strategy of cheaper hardware, cheaper games, and a wider target audience is definitely designed with these goals in mind. The jury is still out on whether or not they’ll actually be able to make a long-term difference, though some people think that the evidence is already clear.

15 thoughts on “Games-As-Products Part 2: Theories

  1. Good article…

    About the Wii, it sells Nintendo made games well. Third parties however aren’t doing so well. This generation seems to be a race for the bottom, not the top.

    > Sylphglitch

    I think that’s more rumor than truth.

    “Of the top 30 best-selling games of May, 19 are made for Nintendo systems, including third-party hits like Guitar Hero™ III: Legends of Rock from Activision, We Ski™ from Namco Bandai, Game Party™ from Midway and Boom Blox™ from Electronic Arts.”

    RE4 for Wii has done a million units, etc.

    Good analysis on your part, Chris. I strongly believe that we need a feasible space for ‘legitimate’ (as opposed to the stigma of “budget” or “casual”) games to be developed and sold at low prices. The majority of relevant commercial games costing millions upon millions of dollars and two or more years to produce, and $50+ to buy at release, is simply unsustainable and not good for creativity on the development side or adventurousness on the consumer side.

  4. Yeah, the high prices are definitively a down. When they started to make games for the Playstation 1 one of the main reasons was the CD was a lot cheaper than a cartridge, so people started to buy more.
    Usually when the technology gets better, it’s costs gets cheaper too. But in games, if the technology gets better, the game become more and more complex, and usually more expensive.

    I don’t know the prices there in USA, but here a BigMac is more or less $6,00 . A virgin DVD is around $1,50 and $2,00. A virgin Blu-Ray is $100,00! A official PC game is $90,00 to $100,00 a new release, and some older games (best sellers) you can find around $20,00 and $30,00. But console games are just freakin’ insane to buy: the cheaper PS2, DS and GBA ones are $150,00 ( sometimes you can get lucky and find a PS2 game for $90,00, but only PS2) up to $240,00. Wii games are around $250,00 too and I’m too afraid to even think about checking the 360 and PS3 prices. That’s why here in Brazil we got so many pirate games. You can get a PS2, Wii or X-Box games for $10,00. Here all gaming import got a 60% tax (ouch), that’s why they are so pricey.
    Today I read Ubisoft is coming to Brazil, and getting a filial here. I really hope this help to improve the national video-gaming scenario.

  5. This is one of the reasons why most of my game purchases of late have been XBLA & Wii VC games ($5-$15) with my retail games coming through goozex (an online game trading service). Not only can I get more games this way, but I’ve also found that I tend to enjoy these games more since I’m not worried about “getting my money’s worth.”

    Speaking of cheap games, Space Invaders Extreme just came out for the DS/PSP, is one of the best games I’ve played in months, and is a mere $20. 🙂

  6. Atleast regular product descriptions tell you in a vague way what the game contains. Just take a look at the back cover of Resident Evil for the Gamecube:

    It only shows(images with zombies) and tells(terror³ on the upper right corner) what the customer should expect from it thematically. Not a single sign of what the content is about or any description of the gameplay features. It doesn’t even tell you that it’s a remake! An ultra-ignorant person could think, looking at the box, that it’s probably a horror cgi movie.

  7. Part of the problem is that games are probably still seen as part of “technology” as opposed to art. Art is subjective and measurable on person to person basis. Technology is, coneversely, rateable and measurable in technical specifics (how loud, how quick, what resolution etc.) It seems to me that Amazon and other reviewers try and push the tech side of games, as opposed to the artisistic side.

    However, I can understand their reasons for doing so. When I browse for a game on amazon, i do look for features (for instance, how many players), but primarily I read the other user reviews. If amazon is there to supply “product specification” can we blame them for detailing the specifics of the product?

    I suppose the ultimate in subjectivity is what we are looking for from a game. Perhaps some people want those features such as “action button”, “hd graphics” and “new camera views” and thats what they base their deciding on a game upon. But the option is available for those who want to look at specific gameplay, storyline and development and detailed “subjective” revies.

    I do suspect that games would be taken more seriously as an art form if there were more reveiews that approached them subjectively, saying things like ” i liked game x because i found y character interesing and his character arc created z emotion in me”, but would that be representative of what sells games? I doubt most gamers are interested in an intelectually challenging / stimulating experience.

    Maybe this is partially down to how they are marketed (a vicious cycle), but the majority of my friends are’nt interested in games in anything but the superficial level of entertainment they can provide. This brings me to what you say about the difference of “product investment” and “disposable media”. I would suspect that most games seem to occupy a place they dont belong, in that they are in the realm of investment. BUT the majority of games i find unrewarding and therefore a bad “product investment” and probably belong in the “disposable media category.

    Anyhow, the important thing for me is that there is a community of people out there willing to look at games, and their virtues beyond simple distractions. However, it appears that the majority are marketed as precisly that.

  8. Games costing $59.99 are the reason I do not own a ‘next-gen’ system. I refuse to pay more than $20 for a video game and so I play mostly PC and older PS2 games used.

    I am always using the arguments that Chris makes to justify this. I would much rather read a $5 book that lasts me weeks than a $40+ game that lasts me days. I love video games, but being a poor college student makes sure that I never play new games because I choose to wait 6 months to a year before it becomes affordable.

    PS I just started playing Dracula Origins (a new game for $19.99!) for PC and its a phenomenal horror themed adventure game.

  9. I think the difference in mediums ad their descriptions, where you were showing each type and how it’s described… well, there’s a difference because when you play a game, you’re controlling the actions, the way the character reacts. But in a book or a movie, the audience is being led along, not really allowed to make their own choices. So, that’s why they show more attention to such things as consumer features.

  10. After reading this article, I have to agree. I don’t have a huge budget for games as a student, so when I want a console/game, I want something that will give me great value: either a long game with a great story, or great gameplay. As a result, the vast majority of my game purchases on GCN and Wii have been Nintendo products. Time after time, I’ve been satisfied or plaesed with Nintendo games. Heck, for Wii right now I have 4 Nintendo games and 1 3rd Party game. That 3rd party game happens to suck, but I’m unconcerned because I was able to get it for about $5. Soul Calibur Legends really isn’t as good as SC2. If games costs dropped, maybe to the level of GB games a few years ago, I’d be much more inclined to experiment with something new. Case in point, four years ago I was looking for a new game. The GCN games were too expensive at the moment, but GBA had plenty of affordable titles. I looked around, settling on Golden Sun 2. I had no idea I was picking up a game that would not only provide hundreds of hours of entertainment, but also a game with one of the best plots in years and an interesting look at the world that ended up influencing a research paper I wrote earlier this year. All that for $19.99.
    The point is, I can’t afford to waste my money on bad console games. I never buy a console game without doing some deep research, unless the game is bargain priced. Definitely something wrong with this picture.

  11. “I would much rather read a $5 book that lasts me weeks than a $40+ game that lasts me days”

    See, my thought was “$5 is fine for a book that will only last a week, when I pay $50 for a game that I’ll play for a month or two, and then can resell/trade in.”

    The price thing is somewhat of a factor, but 1. books don’t cost $5 anymore. I’m seeing $8 as the new mid point, and a lot of the time I’m looking at $14 or so (or $30-35 for hardbacks) and 2. Books don’t have a resale value like games do.

    Technical features should be *part* of the review, but not the sum. Describing the believability of the rendering engine/graphics is about the same as discussing the flow of the prose, or the director’s vision. If the game is ugly in an inappropriate way, it breaks immersion, just like clunky sentences or bad filming does.

    But in a book, you don’t care if the pages are made from new types of paper, because it doesn’t impact your reading. A new control scheme, a new system of combat, etc *do* affect your game play. If Terry Pratchett wrote a new Diskworld novel, and it was a dramatic tale of depression, it would get noted on the reviews.

    It’s just the obsessive focus on the tech that’s annoying. Also the belief that new == better. Yes. You have a new AI system. Woo. Does it make the enemies more fun to play again, or more challenging? If so, mention it. If not, who cares? And if you use an old AI system, but it works, a reviewer shouldn’t ping you for it.

    Don’t games need to sell at such high prices because their audience is in fact a small niche? Lowering prices might allow more experimentation within the niche. But I’m not sure if it would increase the size of the audience sufficiently. Games need to become more accessible (both in terms of content and mechanic) before they will be able to appeal to a larger audience.

    Then again, the one game that did this (The Sims) sold millions and millions of copies at normal high prices. Especially considering the expansion packs. If you would buy all the expansion packs, your Sims game could easily cost 300 USD. Does this mean that people are simply willing to pay a lot for their games? Or that the masses are starving for games that appeal to them so much that they would pay any price for them?

    Rather than figuring out how to sell a shooter game at a lower price, I think developers would do well and reconsider the kinds of “products” that they are making. Maybe if they stop being so damn nerdy and make something that people actually want, they could afford to sell at “normal” media prices.

    Because ultimately, and I think this is the implicit conclusion of your article, games are reviewed and marketed as products simply because, usually, they suck.

  13. Don’t games need to sell at such high prices because their audience is in fact a small niche? Lowering prices might allow more experimentation within the niche. But I’m not sure if it would increase the size of the audience sufficiently. Games need to become more accessible (both in terms of content and mechanic) before they will be able to appeal to a larger audience.

    This is true, but it’s a vicious cycle. The console game market is one where only the top 10% of games actually make a profit, and those also happen to be the games that have high production values: Halo 3 and GTA4 and MGS4 and things like that. Those are also games that are aimed at the “core” gamer market, so publishers end up believing that the core market is the only viable one. Games like The Sims and Nintendogs (20 million units shipped!) are so quickly forgotten (or ignored as singular exceptions) because publishers are entrenched in the idea that the market is core gamers and core gamers only want space marines shooting nazis in WWII with 16-player multiplayer.

    The cost is high because they keep trying to make games with better and better production value, when really I don’t think there’s a clear correlation between “production value” and fun.

    If the price point of games dropped, so would (necessarily) the cost to develop them, which I think would stimulate a lot of experimentation in the medium, which I think would ultimately widen the audience. Nintendo is trying to force this change, but their marketing dollars can only go so far–the industry as a whole needs to expand its ideas of what the medium can be before things will change.

    PS: Love you games! Very much looking forward to The Path.

    Thanks! We hope you will appreciate The Path. It’s definitely an attempt to cater to a different kind of audience (or another side of the existing one, perhaps).

    I’m not sure if a lower price point necessarily means lower production cost. If games have a wide enough appeal, big budgets might still be justified. Though it’s likely that that money would go into content rather than making the armour that extra bit more shiny.

    But I do share your hopes for lower production costs allowing more experimentation. Because, ultimately we don’t (just) need great blockbuster games that appeal to everyone. We mostly need more variety so that everyone who wants to play, can. You know, as is the case in other media. So that the sentence “I don’t play games” start sounding as absurd as “I don’t watch movies”.

  15. Yes, I think that eventually high-cost games will still be viable at a lower price point, but to get there the audience will have to widen, and for that to happen we need an environment where the monetary stakes aren’t so high.

    The price of games isn’t like to fall, but it would sure be nice if it did.

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