I still remember the first game I ever bought with my own money. It was 1988 and I went to K Mart and put Super Mario Bros 2 on layaway. From this distance, it’s hard to remember exactly what I ended up paying, but the internet tells me that it must have been around $50 at the time, which was the average price for a Nintendo cartridge game.
According to an inflation calculator, $50 in 1988 money is about $106 today. So in 1988, the best the gaming world had to offer – a game that is still considered an all-time classic cost more (counting for inflation) than an AAA budget game today.
And that’s why I want to talk about value.
The funny thing is that this all came about because I keep running into people who have paid astonishing amounts of money for mobile games. They always say it with a shake of the head and a slight sense of surprise, as though they’re not really sure how they managed to rack up hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars for a phone game.
The thing is that I don’t really judge phone games in principle. Even if I do feel that putting a cell phone jammer outside all bathrooms and boring school concerts would probably cut mobile game profits in half. Usually, I would say that if you’re having fun with a game, there’s nothing wrong with spending a little money on it.
But hundreds or thousands of dollars? In order to tap things repeatedly?
Every gamer who has access to their bank account or credit card is familiar with the icy cold feeling of dread that comes with the realization that you got sucked into overpaying for a game. But the age of microtransactions has made things so much worse.
Look, I’m not usually one to say that microtransactions and monetization are worse than Hitler or Voldemort or whoever you like to identify as the source of all evil. But they’re not not the devil either. And they are unquestionably the root of our current inability to understand value in video games.
Which brings me back to Super Mario Brothers 2. In real money, that game cost more than your average big budget game today, even if you were to pre-order the super-deluxe version with useless cosmetics that will only be available for the millions of people who also decided they were worth an extra $30.
And Super Mario 2 is a great game. It’s complete. It has endless replay value. It’s still fun. Because a good game is a good game, regardless of when it came out. Just like a good movie is a good movie, a good book is a good book, and a good cheeseburger is a good cheeseburger.
Value is a funny thing. In some ways, it’s highly personal. You could sell Aliens: Colonial Marines for $1 and include a free Mountain Dew with every pack and I would still rather buy the Mountain Dew separately than go through the trouble of throwing the game in the garbage. And yet, some people happily and inexplicably pay full price for it.
On the other side of the coin, Red Dead Redemption 2 could be priced at $90 plus your firstborn son and I would probably find myself making a case to my wife about how this would be a growth experience for our kid.
Weirdly, critics tend to ignore the value issue when they review games. They might give it a one-line mention, but that’s usually a reflection of pure gameplay hours a particular title has – as though quantity and value are the same things.
This is patently ridiculous, as anyone who has ever picked up a book can tell you. The fourth book in the Twilight series (Breaking Dawn, which includes a vampire C-section scene) is 756 pages – more than five times as long as Hemingway’s Old Man in the Sea, which won the Pulitzer Prize. More of something doesn’t make it better.
Value isn’t measured by how much of a game there is. I don’t care if I can spend the rest of my time on earth wading through endless content if it’s just a monotonous chore.
There’s one test of game quality that really matters – is it fun? And the test for the value is equally simple – what does it cost me to have fun?
In the world of endless add-ons and micro-transactions, we seem to have lost our appreciation of games that give great value at one price. I may have paid more than $100 in 2018 dollars for Super Mario 2 back in 1988, but I got great value from it.
We need to laud the games that do just that.
Which brings me to Blizzard Entertainment.
I was playing the new season of Diablo 3 the other day when I realized that 1.) This is still a damned fun game, regardless of age; and 2.) Blizzard may be the reigning king of value.
Diablo, Overwatch, World of Warcraft, Starcraft … they’re all games that are upfront in price and have incredible play value. Even the games with the dreaded microtransaction elements (Overwatch, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm) don’t allow monetization to override the fun of the game.
The folks at Blizzard seem to have mastered the art of providing enormous amounts of entertainment at a reasonable price.
But we’ve become so twisted up in arguments about monetization and micro-transactions that we can barely recognize this anymore.
Games haven’t gotten cheaper or easier to make. On the contrary, they’re more sophisticated than ever. They’re created by enormous teams at the kind of expense that makes drug cartel dons look frugal.
Instead of whining about the ways that game studios try to recoup the cost in a marketplace where consumers refuse to pay more than $60 for AAA game (that’s $30 in 1988 dollars if you’re curious), we should be looking for good value. That means appreciating the game that gives you years of fun at an upfront cost … and steering away from the ones that are little more than Skinner boxes with a credit card gateway.
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