The Price Debate: How much is a game worth?

Scott McMullon
Latest posts by Scott McMullon (see all)

As games strive more and more to become photorealistic, emotional, or enriching, a new debate has begun to emerge about how much value we place on them. While AAA games dominate financially, making people willing to turn over their hard-earned cash, can a well made game that differs from the norm still command the same price?

Earlier this week an unusual game made its much anticipated debut on Windows and the Playstation 4. The Witness was the brainchild of Jonathan Blow, the critically acclaimed mind behind 2D puzzle platform game Braid, a game which had charmed critics and players when it originally dropped in 2008.

Braid in itself was a success story for Blow, and in 2009 he announced that he was working on The Witness. This new game would be in production for several years, jumping from one generation of games consoles to the next with Blow himself pouring much of his money earned from Braid into the new game.

When images of The Witness began to surface, we began to see a beautifully stylised 3D world littered with puzzles for a player to solve. Indeed we began to hear stories that there would be several hundred puzzles and a promise that the game would take over 100 hours to finish. Then, finally, Blow himself announced the game’s purchase price of £30 here in the UK ($40 in the US and €37 in Europe).

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Almost immediately after the announcement of the price, a debate began to emerge on forums and message boards. Many bemoaned the high price tag attached to a puzzle game, suggesting that it was far too high and that many other puzzle games could be purchased on mobile platforms for a fraction of the cost.

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By way of contrast, Lara Croft Go was a very popular puzzle game in 2015, and named as one of the best apps available on Apple’s own App Store and only cost £3.99. Many others pointed out that the production costs of The Witness were huge when compared to other games like it and the process had taken many years and a much larger team to create.

The debate slowly began to evolve into one of the difference between cost and worth, and whether a game’s price reflected that fairly.

Prior to Blow’s polarising price announcement, Fortune published on their website a list of the bestselling video games of 2015, as compiled by NPD Group Inc (a market research company). The top spot had been claimed by Call of Duty: Black Ops III, a continuation of the vastly popular Call of Duty franchise which had dominated top selling games lists for years.

This on its own might not sound shocking, but this instalment in the series was only released on 6 November. This means that CoD: Black Ops III was able to outstrip every other release in that year in just under two short months, with over 250 million units sold. As a full price release, costing £59.99 from the UK Playstation and Xbox stores, this game has undoubtedly earned more than most games, and yet the game was critiqued for having a very short single player experience.

On the other side of the coin, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt was released in April of that year at a similar price, and yet the game’s studio CD Projekt Red continued to release free content sequentially for many weeks after general release. The game also boasted a vast and expansive story, and several in-depth side-quests which meant a player could easily lose hundreds of hours in-game.

It is because of this that Witcher III would receive several game of the year nominations for 2015. Yet comparatively, according to Fortune’s list, CD Projekt Red’s game didn’t even score a place on the top 10 bestselling list.

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So here we have two top games which retailed for almost double the price of The Witness and the question we find ourselves asking is: what is the difference? The answer seems to be a very subjective one.

Many gamers tend to fall under the blanket category of ‘casual gamer’ – a phrase which is often thrown out with more than a little derision by so-called hardcore gamers. That is to say, a casual gamer is someone who probably does not play games as often as others, maybe logging in and playing for a few hours on and off a week.

Casual players find an easily finished game like Call of Duty: Black Ops III more attractive by virtue of it being finished quickly. Players are able to pick it up and put it down at their leisure to enjoy the multiplayer aspects of it. Witcher III and The Witness are not multiplayer-based, relying on their single player content to take the player into their world.

But even this does not seem to truly answer the question of what is a fair price or how much a game is worth. With all these examples someone could, in theory, clock hundreds of hours playing each of these titles. Yet it is the pricing for The Witness which seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Much of the debate seems to stem not from the quality of content as much as the content itself. The Witness touts a slower pace, focusing entirely on simple maze-type puzzles that allow the player to move throughout the game world. Many of these puzzles have promised to be intricate and tricky, but beyond this premise there is not much else.

Compared with the other games we mentioned earlier, though, this might seem rather slow when set against raining bullets down on enemy combatants or slaying vicious monsters in a medieval fantasy world. Indeed, while researching for this article, I saw many people write comments on videos about The Witness using similar lines of thought – usually saying something to the effect of ‘It looks good but $40 (£30) for a puzzle game?’

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The question is who really is right, and the answer… I’m really not that sure. Many of us are lovers of games as both a hobby and a powerful tool of expression.

At £30, Jonathan Blow’s newest game straddles an unusual no man’s land between several extremes. The Witness itself is light on story and yet stuffed to the brim with content that is meant to test the player and keep them coming back for more. It doesn’t have much in the way of action and yet is full of things for a player to explore and investigate for several hours. There doesn’t seem to be much to see in the game’s somewhat deserted setting, and yet the aesthetics of the half-wild world are sumptuous and colourful, showing a unique style. All of these are contradictions of a sort, and yet rather than put us off it makes us intrigued to play the game rather than denigrate it for its supposedly high price tag.

In short, any consumer has weigh these pros and cons on their own. While I may think that there’s a lot to explore in the gaming media other than mindless shooting or absorbing story, the onus is on the player to support the games they want to play. But I will say that using the price tag as a point of contention doesn’t feel like a true critique of the game itself, more our own perceptions of what we expect to get.

There is also the fact that when all is said and done, this is a game that took many years to create and refine with many people working on it. When that is considered, is £30 really too high a price for something a little different?

Come back soon to see our review of The Witness here on Vada.

About Scott McMullon

Lover of literature, film and music living in Essex (no jokes please!). 'We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars' - Oscar Wilde