July 27, 2021

The “Cost Per Hour” Debate – My Take.


In the last few days, people have begun to slam the “Cost Per Hour” value calculations for video games.

For me, Cost Per Hour is an awkward and messy metric. On paper at least, there’s certainly more than enough reason to dismiss the whole concept – Resident Evil 7 is about 10 hours of content for £50, and Dark Souls 3 is 100+ hours of content for £50. Both are critical darlings (and I’ve criticised both), but that means one game is £5 per hour, and the other is 50 pence per hour. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is about 50-plus hours of content – but Final Fantasy XIII is somewhere around 50-plus and I couldn’t really recommend that game.

Much of this has “blown up” with Green Man Gaming breaking down games into a “Cost Per Hour” formula; the intent is to give people an idea of what to expect for their money and it’s admirable, even if it has some problems. The digital retailer offers a variety of stats on games, like recent purchasing data and the average playtime from its users, but it’s using that as a basis to generate some extrapolation on a value model and… well… hands up who has a “Steam List Of Shame” – i.e. games you’ve not played, or played for less than a couple of hours? I’d wager that’s a lot of people and that does and will tend to skew the end results.

That said – Cost Per Hour is not a new concept. I wrote about it years ago – the higher cost of a brand new video game, at £50/$60, is a healthy chunk of money for most people today and the end result is people do want to get as much from their purchases as they can. And so, some people have gravitated towards the idea as they look to get the most bang for their buck, as it were.

It’s a flawed model, to be sure.

Bloodborne - Yharnam
I’ve slammed Bloodborne more than most and I think it’s worth the money!

But the issue here is developers aren’t happy and… I get it. Some games aren’t designed to be lengthy epics; they’re meant to be short, punchy and interesting in their conceit. But deep down, the issue for many remains – why is it I can get a 100+ hour sprawling RPG epic about love, death and the nature of life itself for the same price as a four-hour action run-and-gun campaign? Why is it that one game is capable of cramming in all this content whilst others… can’t?

Personally, I’ve had this discussion with myself over the years. There are plenty of ways to question the cost of a game after all, why -is- Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition £45? It’s a port, right? Sure, it’s 100-or-more hours of content but it’s still a port. Surely it must be cheaper because it’s a port? Or, why is it everyone is okay with Resident Evil 7 being painfully short and lacking in content when Resident Evil 6 at least had the decency to give you about 30-odd hours of gameplay plus, of course, the additional time-sink of Mercenaries Mode? Why am I not feeling the Final Fantasy series these days, when it still delivers lots of content?

Developers don’t want you to focus on “value”; that’s a question with an infinite number of angles. They want you to enjoy the game they made. It’s that simple. They still have to make a livelihood on these things, so they want you to judge them on whether you like the game or not – which is either Yes or No, with the mystery third option of “I don’t know…”.

That said, there’s a cold logic underneath the “cost per hour” ideal; the more you’re paying for each hour, the better you expect that game to be.

Dark Souls has always been a flawed and at times buggy little series, but the fact its cost-per-hour is so low kind of makes people more forgiving of a games shortcomings. Meanwhile, The Order: 1886 is a significantly shorter gaming experience and as a result, the expectations of flawless execution and delivery are more anticipated as a result. If a game is short, then people expect it to be… well… perfectly pitched, to look amazing and play brilliantly and be a complete experience and not have people hanging on for an almost guaranteed not-to-happen sequel.

I think that’s where the debate becomes interesting; it’s not so much a question of a value proposition as a question of individual tolerance. I mean, I do like the gameplay from Gears of War 1-3, but I expected a complete story. Which it didn’t give me, “Oh go and buy the novels…” I spent £120 (£40 per game) for what is about 15-20 hours of content and the very LEAST I expect from you as a games developer is to actually put all relevant and pertinent information pertaining to the story INTO THE SODDING GAME I BOUGHT why yes I am still bitter about that all these years on. If you can’t tell the relevant story in a big, expensive video game… why the hell are you including it in the game? Yes, World of Warcraft and Kingdom Hearts are just as guilty of this, but at least again, they have the whole “value” thing going for them. Mostly.

Which means those sorts of games, like World of Warcraft, can get away with far more egregious things like novelising important information (like The Trial of Garrosh – yeah, the biggest driving force behind the basis for Warlords of Draenor was, indeed, never actually told or shown in-game). You’ve already had dozens if not hundreds of hours already; it sucks, but you sigh and shake your head and go “alright, give me the cliff notes”.

WoW: Battle for Azeroth CE logo
“Previously on WORLD OF WARCRAFT… things happened…”

For me, when a game is shorter – that’s the sort of thing that sticks out more. Hence my gripes with Gears of War (and I still think the Locust were 100% justified in their war on Humanity in that game – change my mind!).

I’ve certainly played short games I’ve loved to pieces, Firewatch was great and I am a big fan of What Remains of Edith Finch, the absolute pinnacle of what a “Walking Simulator” should be. Little Nightmares is fantastic too – and the DLC, again kind of pricey for what it was, is a phenomenal and emotional gut-punch as you realise the implications at play. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule; there’s nuance, there are exceptions, there are shades of grey here. Hopefully not fifty. Being wholly fixated on the idea of “it costs me X for Y hours of gameplay” can deprive people of some pretty enjoyable video games. I know that.

Still… I am going to be more tolerant of a games shortcomings if there’s more value in the overall experience. As are most people. The games I mentioned that I liked – are exceptional in their end quality. Not a foot wrong, not a second out of place. So I accept that in such a case – yeah, I mean I can’t complain about a video game if there’s nothing much to complain about. As I said, exceptions exist because exceptional quality happens. But if a short game is buggy, rushed, flawed and constantly throwing up problems? Yeah, I would think most would be a little less than accommodating of that.

Ultimately, that’s the main takeaway I have from this; there’s no single good measure for what makes a video game “good”; there’s no scientific formula, no magical pixie dust, no digital Cthulu that can show that a game is 100% guaranteed to be worth the entrance fee to everybody who wants to buy into it. And if there was… would we really be happy with that? The industry would quadruple down on it to the point that everything would be effectively the same game. So even the concept of a solution or a solid rule comes replete with its own issues and foibles.

Cost Per Hour is a baseline; it’s something to work with, it’s not a perfect model but it’s a foundation on which we can judge a games overall worth. Using it as an exclusive yardstick is as silly as saying “But the graphics are pretty so it’s worth £50”. There’s a lot, lot more to a video game than just how long it is. Because, as I said at the start… if this was all we needed, then why do we still think Final Fantasy XIII sucked like an especially large black hole?

What users need to formulate a more conclusive and rounded opinion is information. And to that end, I kind of support Green Man Gaming in this whole thing. Because what they’re offering is data; averages, medians, and yes there’s certainly outliers that can affect those numbers but you address the outliers, not the core basis of the whole thing. Cost Per Hour doesn’t stand up on its own. It’s not meant to. It’s just relevant information, data, something to consider in your purchasing decision. It’s a statistic, and maybe if developers are afraid of that… well… why are they afraid of that?

Just don’t be silly and think that “Cost Per Hour” is all that matters. Again… Final Fantasy XIII…


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