Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes released last week and we saw a relatively large range of review scores. The positive reviews praised the core gameplay experience, while less positive ones criticised the amount of gameplay on offer. I haven’t played Ground Zeroes yet – our review copy got delayed on the way to Australia, along with retail stock – so I can’t offer an opinion on the game. But I have been watching the debate around reviews very closely.

What struck me was how the game was sometimes considered being too short for the price. It’s been equated to the Tanker mission in Metal Gear Solid 2, a demo, and a tutorial. At the price of roughly half a full AAA release – $50 here in Australia, compared to $90 – was the one hour main story worth it? Some have even completed the main story in under ten minutes – not considering side content.

I see this as a distillation of the “how long is long enough” debate in the gaming scene.

Putting aside Ground Zeroes as a specific example, I think the debate of whether a game is worth a certain price fascinating – especially as it applies to reviewers.

I don’t want to go into the “what is the value of a game” debate here specifically. That’s a whole other fish of kettles. But I do want to explore how reviewers approach this factor when considering those all-important numbers down the bottom.

Price of a product is not necessarily comparable to enjoyment value, and enjoyment value is personal. But there is an expectation that a purchase is worth something to a buyer.

Video games – and video game reviews – are a unique beast. Games are released very frequently, meaning there is vast choice for consumers, and limited funds. Having said that, games aren’t really that expensive. Cheap games cost the price of a coffee, while expensive ones are maybe the price of a three course meal at a nice restaurant. While they won’t break the bank on their own, there is a huge price disparity between $5 and $100 – and that means there is a clear expectation of quality at the top end. That value is entirely theoretical, too, since games have no inherent financial value. Games are entertainment, and as such their value is cultural, emotional, and very personal.

Video games are one of the few industries with products that show such a large price disparity. Film reviewers, for example, rarely have to consider the price of a movie when they are considering the pros and cons. The cost of seeing, say, The Shawshank Redemption in the cinema is identical to seeing Twilight – despite the difference in content and/or quality. Likewise, the brand new Kanye album weighs in about the same as the brand new Taylor Swift album. This price parity in other entertainment mediums makes cost a moot point, since there is a general expectation of cost and value.

Other products also don’t line up so well with video games. Take car reviewers. There are clear segmentations in that market between economy and luxury vehicles, and while price does come into it, there are other mitigating factors. Cars are not strictly an entertainment item, and come with additional running costs and expenses, plus a measurable functional benefit. Practical needs impact on price, making the decision on a purchase budget very personal. Cars are also a massive expense and long-term investment, further complicating the price consideration issue.

So video games are a frequently releasing, relatively inexpensive, purely entertaining medium with wildly varying prices (within a range). There is a clear expectation of value, but each consumer sets that point based on their own means. Video game reviewing is not neatly analogous to any other form of product review and requires a unique approach.

Where does that leave reviewers?

Well, where it always leaves reviewers. Every one of us has our own approach. I know reviewers who consider purchase price heavily when reviewing games, aiming to assess whether a game is “value for money” in their eyes. I also know reviewers who completely divorce the issue of cost and focus on whether a game is inherently quality, leaving the consumer to consider whether the price is worth it. Both approaches have merit. The first is arguably consumer friendly, focusing on delivering value for money to the average buyer. The downside is there is no “average” consumer, and the value of a game to a reviewer is a personal opinion. The second view is more pure and arguably more “objective”, delivering criticism based on the content in front of you. The downside is that it doesn’t consider a consumer budget or attempt to quantify value for money.

Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle, I guess. I think price should be considered, but I also value the strength of the core game experience. If I think a game is not worth the price tag, I’ll generally raise the issue, but if I think the game is of sufficient “value” to me I’ll ignore the price issue – unless it’s exorbitant. The amount of enjoyment I get out of a game will be different to everyone else, and I try to acknowledge that when writing my reviews. I approach each review as a subjective account of my time with a game, with a descriptive glance towards mechanics.

I guess it’s the old question of what is the point of a review. Is it a buyer’s guide? Or is it a critique? Is it both? Is it neither? And how do we resolve these tensions?

As I always say, find a reviewer you trust and find out their opinions on games you’re considering purchasing. If you disagree, that’s okay too – everyone has their own personal view on what a game is “worth”. And remember that a lot of reviewers don’t actually have to buy the games they review, meaning they are (at least a little) removed from the hip-pocket hit – as well as the buyer’s loyalty.

Lachlan Williams
Former Editor in Chief of OnlySP. A guy who writes things about stuff, apparently. Recovering linguist, blue pencil surgeon, and professional bishie sparkler. In between finding the latest news, reviewing PC games, and generally being a grumpy bossyboots, he likes to watch way too much Judge Judy. He perhaps has too much spare time on his hands. Based in Sydney, Australia. Follow him on twitter @lawksland.

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1 Comment

  1. As time has gone on, I’ve come around to the idea of reviews without a grade (be it numerical or alphabetical). Graded reviews were fine when the majority of games were about the same price.

    I think the best a reviewer can do now is review the game for its own merits, state the price of the game in the review & let the consumer decide whether or not it’s worth it to them. After all, we not only have different tastes, but different budgets as well. Something that’s worth $30 to you may not be to me, & only we can decide that for ourselves.

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