Nit is my series of posts that will nitpick minor or very specific details relating to one very scoped aspect of video games. Our purpose is to always come up with a series of rules or suggestions to guide developers to make even better games in the future. Today we start by looking at the value of a game and why an objective measurement system will always fail.
How do others see value?
There are a ton of varying opinions about what value is, but there are a couple categories that are repeated a lot.
I feel this is supposed to be the “objective” approach to value. In fact, Yahzee Crowshaw claimed this directly in his article talking about the value of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeros:
In my opinion, the objective worth of a game should be measured in hours of content, not hours of average playtime – how many hours go past before a game has nothing new to offer and starts repeating itself, because the number of additional hours of fun that can be extracted becomes much more subjective at that point.
I fully admit that I tend to agree with a lot of Yahzee’s opinions, but this one seems like solving the wrong problem. Other than functionality, the idea of “objective” evaluations is pretty meaningless for an interactive medium.
To put this point in perspective, this observation would mean that, objectively by Yahzee’s standard, Ride to Hell: Retribution (metacritic) has more value than The Stanley Parable (metacritic). I fully admit that The Stanly Parable is quite short, but it is a wonderful experience in my and others opinions. RtH:R is bad all over.
One point of ambiguity towards this objective system also is how to measure length. Different players play at different rates. We could just go with some sort of average to solve that one. But the idea of emergent gameplay seems to make that number very difficult to lock down. Is the length of a game like Saints Row or Grand Theft Auto strictly how long it takes to get through the story? Should any fun that is had between missions be discarded because it is, after all, repeating things that were seen in the missions and not really providing anything new?
I think that length is definitely something that is valid to consider and talk about, but I don’t think it maps so directly to value. It is most appropriate with narratively driven games and much less so to sandbox games or, worse, competitive games. Online shooters, racing games, sports games, and so on are all about repetition and honing one’s skills. To say that repetition brings no value to those games undermines the entire idea of the game.
Even in narratively driven games, the intensity of the experience I feel is an important factor. The Stanley Parable is a short game, but I found it hysterical and amazing the entire time I played it. Gunpoint is short but really fun. But to me, these pale in comparison to what could honestly change someone’s life.
Gone Home is a story with a powerful message for a group of people. It overall is well done and paced really well for what might be called an “art game” or just a narrative experience to me. There really is no gameplay (aside from walking around and picking things up), so it really provides no replay value. But the story is powerful for the right people to the extent that it could actually change people’s lives. I am not one of those people, but I did enjoy the game. Unfortunately, one cannot talk about the demographic the game has the most potential to help without spoiling the story (which is, in fact, all there is to the game), so this becomes a difficult game to talk about when discussing value. But we’ll return to Gone Home later.
In the end, though length is debatably an objective measure that can correlate to value, I feel it is far too far away from actual value to be useful.
Given that I have been linking to metacritic in this very post might imply that I look favorably toward the idea of using review scores to determine value. Unfortunately, I see that as an oversimplification to the extent that it isn’t useful. I believe review scores reflect some level of personal value to the reviewer, but that again is vague. In general, I think the scores mostly reflect if a game was liked by the reviewer.
The reason I cannot see a score as actual value is that different reviewers, very reasonably, review with different agendas. This means that reviews tend to come with caveats that are frequently implicit.
I feel Heavy Rain (metacritic) presents a good example. This game got very positive reviews overall, but I would argue that is has an experience breaking flaw for some amount of people: the game starts out slow. In most games currently, you are forced into a tutorial to start, but this is much more than a tutorial. This is just boring. I overall enjoyed the game myself, but I feel that anyone would be justified in saying that the first (if I remember correctly) about 1-2 hours being really boring just isn’t worth it. I admit some things do happen in that time, but it is a while before the story seems to get going in a meaningful way.
Another example we can consider is that reviewers or critics tend to look at the game as a whole (as can be seen with the Heavy Rain feedback) but without a lot of discussion of price. There are definitely a class of critics who do that as well, but it is not always obvious which camp a critic falls in if one does not have prior experience with them.
Something I really like is how reviews are handled on Steam. In the end, the entire decision boils down to “Would you recommend this game?” as opposed to some numeric system. I like this because it deemphasizes the final conclusion and, I feel, puts more focus on the content of the review itself. It also helps to have users take a stand of yes or no to, in my mind, whether you feel the game is a good value. Additionally, a person can only leave a review if they have played the game for at least 5 minutes. There is plenty of discussion on whether that is enough time, but I am just happy that a person cannot just leave reviews for games that they have never played. This does pose a certain issue that a person had to want to actually buy/play the game first, but at least I would argue it is better to filter that way.
The term “preaching to the choir” is frequently applicable with published reviews. This poses a problem for outsiders to a genre or a game series. Shamus Young recently wrote about how he hated Resident Evil 4 which got amazing reviews (metacritic). This isn’t just a case of not liking a game to the fullest, but outright hating the experience. He cites examples such as not knowing the Resident Evil universe essentially keeping him out of knowing what was going on as a major problem with the plot. There was also an undertone of campiness that he didn’t expect and didn’t like. These might be expected by veterans, but a newcomer would think that this was another survival horror game like Silent Hill 2 and find themselves greatly disappointed.
How do you even define value?
Value is hard to talk about for a broad audience just because different people will actually want and experience different things with the same material. This is part of the problem. But we aren’t looking to just say that the problem is hard and walk away. We’re really looking to come up with the guidelines for how a developer could evaluate their game and determine if they have a good value.
But still, a good value will ultimately be defined by the consumer. That isn’t to say a developer cannot anticipate what a consumer would want. The idea is pretty straight forward: a consumer wants entertainment. That comes from all the little and big experiences in the game (be them good or bad). A consumer puts in money and time to get those experiences. In the end, people just want to feel like they got a good amount of enjoyment relative to the time and money they put in.
So what is an experience? Pretty much everything in the game. Hearing a sound (sound effect or music) creates an experience. Seeing something is an experience. Each moment of playing the game is an experience. Each and every part contributes to the whole. But not all experiences are equal. Someone feeling genuinely offended is probably going to create a very bad experience while a stunning conclusion to a game might be very positive. Walking down the street in a game is probably not very far from neutral in either direction.
What do we do with all that?
An opinion isn’t very useful if there is nothing one can do with it. After all, I do still think talking about content length and reviews about whether someone liked a game are useful, but I also think that considering value is important.
Talk about it better
I think that, as a community, we need to actually discuss value as its own topic. In particular, I feel like actually taking the time to determine who would feel they got the best value out of a game is important. Possibly even more so, we need to define who would dislike the game too. Hopefully my review of Titanfall was clear enough that no one is surprised by the game or blindsided with an experience they didn’t want. To be a good person, I’ll even try to do the same for Gone Home, since I think its value is interesting (but we do have to get into mild spoiler territory to do so).
For a couple more examples, we can look at Gunpoint and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.
Gunpoint is, at its core, a puzzle game. It is a unique puzzle game involving connecting different things in the environment together. This presents lots of different paths to solve the same puzzle and has the habit of feeling very satisfying when each part of your plan works. It also only has mild timing involved (as in some things do need to be timed, but they tend to be isolated and not super exact). That said, Gunpoint is short. I played through the game twice and got all the achievements in about 5 hours. Even replaying the game to try different approaches in a level provides some entertainment, but it will never be that long unless the level editor becomes your best friend. It is best to pick up on a sale, but between the fun of actually interacting and playing with the game and puzzles and the direct and hysterical writing, there is definitely fun to be had. Puzzlers that like a story will find a good amount of value especially on sale.
My experience with AC4 was short. I fully acknowledge that the game opens up more and so on, but I found the game so boring that I couldn’t continue. I did not connect to the main character whose sole motivation seems to be that he wants money. The gameplay is just like the other games before it (of which I only really played the original). The controls felt a bit off on PC where my character kept running into walls which really took away from the experience. That said, if you like collecting things and completing tasks, the game has a ton to offer. The story isn’t horrible; I just found it to not be engaging. And without that motivation from the story, I felt the game just became repetitive and about completing tasks for the sake of completing them. Completionists who enjoy action-parkour third person games will find a ton of value, but if you need a story like I do, you will be hard pressed to stick with it and really get good value out of it.
Design for it better
Hindsight is 20/20 as they say. I bring this up because it is much easier to look back at the completed product and see the flaws and realize that it might not quite be the stellar value a developer set out to make, so how do you get ahead of negative feedback?
Games are always playtested. That’s the only way to even find out if they are functional. And I expect feedback comes from the playtesters often. One question that really needs to be asked and followed up on is what did those playing the game not like. Everyone can probably come up with something even if it might be a menu or a typeface. But boredom or frustration are the big keywords that have to be identified. If someone is bored, can the boring part be eliminated? A bored player might just stop playing in the real world, and then all the great content after that point is lost. Then the player feels the entire game wasn’t worth it.
Some games are meant to be hard. Dark Souls and Super Meat Boy come to mind. But all the frustration needs to be combatted. First, be honest with what players are getting into. Lying or not warning players is a good way to alienate people early off. Additionally, success should feel great then. Some of that is internal, but provide the right fanfare to help it along.
Games are a series of experiences, so looking at each one by itself has value. Maybe walking down the street in a sandbox game feels really minor, but it’s likely to come up a lot. Can it be improved? Saints Row always wants to present alternatives (including super powers in the latest) which can help.
Entry cost is a real thing too. This is both in time and money. A short game is fine if it is distilled down to great experiences, but the price tag should reflect that. Also time is something everyone has a limited amount of. The response, “it gets better later” is not actually a feature. Why should someone seeking entertainment have to work to become entertained. Supposedly (I have not played it), Final Fantasy XIII “gets good” about 20 hours into the game. To me, that is not a point in its favor. To give that perspective, if someone worked for the US federal minimum wage for the same 20 hours before they got their fun, they would have earned $145. That’s significant.
Value is an important concept when looking to buy or sell a product. Video games might be a bit strange for defining value, but it can be discussed and understood. The community should appreciate the differences in value between all of us while developers should actually take it upon themselves to consider if they are giving the best experiences at the right price. With all of that in place, maybe we can have more fun with our games and less feelings of regret on our purchases.