Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A New Taxonomy of Gamers: Supply and Demand

This is the eighth 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, "Cash Rules Everything Around Me."

In the last part, we determined that all bad games are too long, but that a good game could be too long, too short, or just right. Let's look at how these can be applied to the question of value.

Any bad game is a waste of money (although you could argue that many games become more attractive in the bargain bin). Not all good games provide an equal value for your gaming dollar -- but your idea of value depends on the worth you ascribe to your own time. Someone who levies the "good and too short" criticism wants to minimize his dollar cost per hour, and considers value through that lens. A 10-hour game that retails for sixty bucks is worth $6 per hour. A 40-hour game at the same price costs only $1.50 per hour -- a relative bargain.

That calculus only works if your time is worth similarly little. That's not meant to sound as brutal as it does. It just means that a person who has forty hours to commit to a single game is selling their own time in bulk, and can afford to charge less for it. Consider now the person for whom gaming time is at a premium: it may be a better value to them to pay more per hour of gameplay, because otherwise they're not actually getting what they paid for -- they may play half of a $60 game, or $30 worth. We'll delve a little more deeply into this matter in the next case study. For now, we need to think of what to call these people.

The terms "Wholesale Players" and "Premium Players" carry some unfortunate connotations because there seems to be an implicit judgment of the quality of the games those people play, or even of the persons themselves. Yet if you think of the comparison solely in terms of the efficacy of the business models each category alludes to, you'll see why it works. A big box store like Wal Mart makes billions of dollars due to volume. A small boutique makes more money per square foot than Wal Mart, because they charge more for their products, but there's a hard cap on how much product they can sell. Both companies can be profitable.

Armed with these terms, we can strip out the personal value judgments and consider only the pecuniary ones. The Wholesale Player, who needs to move dozens of hours to make a profit, has a supply problem when a game is "too short." When a game is too long, it's a case of the Premium Player finding himself unable to meet the game's demand. Now, the "too short" criticism makes sense no matter what game it's applied to, because we know who is making it. And if we disagree, we have a more positive and productive way to engage the issue than simply saying "Nuh-uh!"

Earlier, we looked at Guitar Hero as a game that appealed to Skill Players and Tourists. So, too, can we point to a recent game that offered equal value to Wholesale Players and Premium Players.

Next: Case Study: The Orange Box


Reggie Donovan said...

I would add that it's not just a financial consideration. Even considering the usual time demands like school, work, family, sig. others, friends, there are still a lot of possible recreational/entertainment activities out there. Maybe this gets into the hardcore/casual thing, but I think someone whose recreational time is taken up more by video games than other factors can probably "afford" to sink forty (or more) hours into, say, Mass Effect, while someone who makes a choice every night whether to play video games or watch 3:10 to Yuma, or plow through a couple episodes of Deadwood, or read a hundred pages of Bleak House, or try figuring out a new song on guitar might be more inclined to play Gears of War so he or she can get through the game more quickly.

Unknown said...

Coming in a little late here, I think there are some more issues with the length of a game that need addressing.

Games may be too short because they don't meet expectations (the article's argument) or because they don't fully explore their game's design. Specifically, demos typically have a single level. They intentionally leave a good portion of the game to be explored by being "too short". Yet many of these demos are free and don't bring the money argument into the picture.

Similarly, games may be too long when they over-explore their domain and get repetitive.

This length could then be discussed as the density of the variability for a game. I can see some basic parallels between the tourist / skill gamer and the variability density they will endure.

Grobstein said...

You're making an assumption here that I don't think makes sense: that there's an easy comparison between the value of time spent playing different "good" games. In particular, you seem to be assuming that an hour of a game that costs $6 / hour to play is worth 4 times as much as an hour of a game that costs $1.5 / hour to play. This does not follow from the mere fact that you paid 4 times as much for that hour. You can get there if you assume that playing enough to "finish" one good game is exactly as valuable as playing enough to finish another good game of equal price, but again that's a crazy assumption.

That said I'm enjoying this series a lot. T.Y.

Grobstein said...

Bryan's actually making some important parts of my point really well; I wish I read his comment more carefully before posting.

Unknown said...

I got most of my argument here from these three posts in the critical gaming blog:

KirbyKid talks about the concept of variation and how good games like the Super Mario Bros. series use it to reduce repetition.

Mitch Krpata said...

Grobstein, it's a good point, but I don't know how crazy the assumption is. For myself, what I want is a complete gaming experience, irrespective of how long it takes to get there. Portal would have been worth almost any price. There have been lots of long games -- say, Oblivion -- that weren't worth anything to me, no matter how many hours I could have put into it. To put it another way: I'll pay $60 for a worthwhile gaming experience, and it doesn't really matter to me whether that takes 6 hours or 60.

But all else being equal, yes, a game with more awesome content is probably better than one with less.

Andrew S said...

A few suggestions on taxonomy:

Volume vs Quality players

although I think these names also suggest bias towards the Quality players, because the Volume players obviously pay for their games with food stamps....

The volume / wholesale player wants to spend a lot of time immersed in one world. He's looking for deep, rich, epic games. He doesn't want to spend a lot on a game, and when he buys one, he wants to get a lot of value out of it.

The quality / premium player wants to sample games, extract their essence, and get the most fun per hour. He wants quality and intensity; he wants to try something new. He doesn't want to spend a lot of time investigating a world; he just wants to scrape the icing off and move on to the next cupcake. I think, to some degree, this player moves on because he's looking for a wholesale game but doesn't have much luck finding one. Another critical point is that this player might have more disposable income to throw at games, and doesn't mind spending $5/hr to get his entertainment.

The first player is looking for a lot of hours per dollar; the latter is looking for quality per hour. They're both looking for quality per dollar, but they judge quality differently. The first one wants a game he can sink his teeth into, the latter a game that's worth his time.

Anonymous said...

It really feels like you have not played or understand the games you've played enough to talk about this from a philosophical point of view. This isn't science, but you fail to consider that a game can be "bad", but not a waste of money.

Consider borderlands. Let's say this game is bad because its a bland rpg/fps that has no replay value and no additional benefits (compared to Left 4 Dead or Halflife 2's source engine). Furthermore the DLC costs $10 and the game is missing the loot farming dynamic compared to diablo. But you got it anyways and enjoyed the couple hours playing coop with your friends.

This last part, with friends, makes and breaks many games. Some games are boring and repetitive without friends. Other games are fun and repetitive with friends. But its important to note that friends always adds some positive, no matter how small, to the experience. And that can be enough to tilt a game from bad, to OK.

I don't know if you are a economist, or have taken classes in this field. But I do not believe the way you utilized the term supply and demand properly fits the point you were trying to get across.

Either way, you shouldn't introduce two new terms "wholesale and premium" gamers into your 11 part article with modified definitions. You could have just put it out there in your original articles.

UNLESS, that is of course, you came up with it on the spot as you wrote these. It makes more sense this is how it played out.

It is a shame that the more intelligent gamers out there lack the follow through to leverage that insight.