Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A New Taxonomy of Gamers: Case Study: The Orange Box

This is the ninth in an 11-part series. To start from the beginning, read part one: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Games." Or read the previous post, "Supply and Demand."

On the back of The Orange Box is a quote from declaring it "the best deal in videogame history." They may not be wrong, but I'm not sure if they're right for the reasons they think. They're calling it a value because The Orange Box contains five games. The reason it is a value is because those five games have something to offer to Wholesale Players and Premium Players. If they offered only a low dollar-to-hour ratio, then it might be the best deal in game history for Wholesale Players, but Premium Players would get almost nothing for their money.

Any game with a multiplayer component could theoretically be said to offer unlimited playing time, making its dollar per hour value infinitesimal. Even a game like Disgaea isn't technically endless, but completing every aspect of it would probably cost fractions of a penny per hour. For the Wholesale Player, that's unbeatable.

By that standard, four-fifths of the contents of The Orange Box are essentially useless to the Wholesale Player. Portal is about three hours. Each of the Half-Life episodes takes four to six hours to complete. Half-Life 2 is a little longer, clocking in somewhere in the teens. Each game on its own represents a poor investment for the Wholesale Player, but together you could be talking about 30 hours or more for a $60 game. That's not bad, and we haven't even mentioned Team Fortress 2 yet -- the one game in The Orange Box that theoretically provides so much play time, it's almost free.

Because The Orange Box is split into those five separate chunks, it also provides an easier point of entry for the Premium Player. Take Portal: at three hours, it would make anybody feel like a Wholesale Player if it cost full price. Nevertheless, the Premium Player is likely to be the one to respond more positively to the game, because it better suits his natural instincts. "It was only three hours long" ceases to be a criticism, and becomes an accolade. It means Portal was short enough to beat! That's the litmus test for any Premium Player.

Just as a skillfully designed game such as Guitar Hero can appeal equally to Skill Players and Tourists, so too can it provide adequate value to Wholesale Players and Premium Players (in fact, I'd argue that Guitar Hero does this as well). Nowhere in The Orange Box is this more apparent than with Team Fortress 2. We've already discussed its value to the Wholesale Player: because the game doesn't really end in the traditional sense, as long as the Wholesale Player likes it he can get infinite value from it.

For the Premium Player, the match-based gameplay provides the appropriate value because each play session is broken into easily digestible chunks. There's are no cutscenes to slog through, or far-flung save points preventing him from quitting at his leisure. He can log in for a couple of rounds and have gotten a full, satisfying game session. A Wholesale Player might need to play for six hours to get his fix, but in both cases the players get what they want from the game -- and thus, what they paid for. That's the ultimate test of a game's value.

We can't pinpoint a specific dollar value as the line of demarcation between a Wholesale Player and a Premium Player, nor do we need to. It's probably different for everyone. What matters is understanding the opposing philosophies. Value can mean either spending as little money as possible per hour of gameplay, or getting the most bang for your buck. What matters is being able to identify Wholesale or Premium tendencies in a game, in other gamers, and in yourself.

: Tying It All Together


Atan said...

You've got something here but I'm not sure it's making perfect sense the way its stated. Obviously even the premium player doesn't want any kind of "shortness", they don't want to buy a game that is 10 minutes long.

I think it might be better to speak of "game sessions". How large a block of time does a game demand? One of the things busy gamers look for in a game is the ability to have one solid "unit of fun" in under an hour, so they can fit it into their schedule.

Another angle on what you are talking about would be the raw "fun per minute" delivered by the game. The theory is that a game that lasts 80 hours is unlikely to deliver the amount of fun-per-minute that a 6 hour game can deliver, assuming equal development money, effort, and skill. A game like WoW would be the ultimate in low fun-per-minute but very long lasting, while a Call of Duty single player campaign is huge fun per minute, but very short.

In general it seems that the busier and wealthier the gamer is, the more he wants the high cost per hour, high fun per hour type of game; while the young and unemployed gravitate to the low cost low fun per hour type of games.

Anonymous said...

I cannot believe you started this part out by making assumptions about IGN's statement on the Orange Box. Maybe they were paid to say it? Maybe they mean't it as in the games were so great, and would have such lasting lifetime, that it was worth it? By the way you picked apart the game package (you need to make note that FEW people would even consider a game package or deal to be used to define two groups of gamers), it sounds like you are writing these things for the sake of backing your own argument, which throws your entire article out as anything more than food for thought.

Mitch Krpata said...

It... it is supposed to be food for thought...

Peter Young said...

Readers seem to be focusing on the labels and their actual definitions themselves. That's not what I'm getting out of the article at all.

I think Mitch's point is that "value" is a relative and fuzzy term, since it has a different meaning for everyone. The idea is to analyze trends and come up with basic categories for the different gaming elements that are considered "valuable" by different gamers. The hope is that we will be able to create better games by ensuring those elements are both present, and do not conflict with each other (e.g. Guitar Hero vs. MP3).

I think the actual definitions of what makes a game "bad", or what makes a game "too short", or even "bad because it's too short" are tangential discussions. What I'm getting out of this is another way to measure the overall value of the games we develop.