I’ll confess that before I start playing a video game, I find out how long it takes to beat. Is the role-playing game I’m considering a 50-hour epic that I’ll be playing for the next two months or something I can knock out over a few weekends? It helps set my expectations. Sometimes, I want something short. Sometimes, I want something long.
What I’m not interested in, however, is a breakdown of the worthiness of a game based on its cost divided by the time I’ll likely spend playing it. I don’t need to know how many dollars each hour of content will cost me. Green Man Gaming (GMG)—a digital storefront for video games—thinks players might want to know, though.
As first pointed out by video game publisher No More Robots founder Mike Rose on Twitter, GMG publishes assorted stats and facts about its games. The stats include how many GMG users have purchased the title, the average amount of time people played it, and the average cost for each hour of play. Just Cause 3 costs about $1.68 an hour. Pillars of Eternity clocks in at $2.02 an hour.
Rose wasn’t happy about it and tweeted that GMG was “helping to perpetuate the massively dangerous idea that the price of a game should be based around how many hours you get out of it.”
Gamers have long used cost per hour as a measurement of the quality of video games. GameSpot used to assign game reviews a "value" score, alongside categories like "graphics" and "gameplay." It is not a completely ridiculous notion. A new video game often costs $60 these days, and I can see why if I could only afford to buy one or two games a year, finding out that I can do everything there is to do in that game in a couple of hours could bum me out. But it's an outdated way to judge what a game is worth.
“It’s super gross,” Rose told me via email. “It’s something a lot of devs have been fighting for a long time—this horrible nothing that a game is only valuable if it gives you X number of hours of gameplay.”
I’ve definitely felt ripped off after paying full price for a short video game. I still haven’t forgiven Square Enix for The Bouncer. But I’ve also played short video games that were wonderful. Firewatch and Journey are both great games that run just a few hours long. Firewatch had to deal with fans who loved their game, but considered returning it because they felt the developer charged too much for too little.
"To us, games have never been better and have become part of the mainstream entertainment landscape. With the global entertainment industry as a whole worth $215 billion and video games taking up one third of it, there’s a lot of competition for the consumer's time," Paul Sulyok, CEO and Founder of Green Man Gaming, said in an email to Motherboard. "There’s so much choice for entertainment that consumers have to make informed decisions on whether they spend time and money on going to the cinema, watching a stream or playing games."
Sulyok said GMG believe that playing video games is a very "cost effective form of entertainment" and that the cost per hour stat allows the community to make informed choices so they can decide how they spend their time and money against other activities. "The stat was introduced in response to demand from our community who were looking for different ways of deciding how to spend their money and is not linked in any way to the value or experience of the game," he said.
Rose pointed out that other media don’t have the same issue. “Do you see moviegoers saying, ‘I’ll only see the Avengers movie if it’s longer than the last one?’” He said. “Of course you don’t, so why do we have it in video games?”
According to Rose, this kind of thinking actively hurts developers. “If anything it leads to worse games,” he said. “Developers end up feeling like they have to bloat their games with crap to make them more appealing to gamers—stick another two hours of cutscenes or grinding into your game to make it feel more valuable. It’s just an awful way to view the medium, and we desperately need to move away from it.”
A lot of open world games such as Ghost Recon Wildlands and Far Cry 5 are full of repetitive, grindy tasks that pad out the length but don’t add to the story or enjoyment of the experience. Worse, there’s no good way to actually generate accurate stats that reflect the cost of a game per hour.
It’s not clear what GMG uses. “A previous employee there told me that those stats are extremely loose,” Rose said. “When people connect their Steam profile to GMG, GMG then pulls their hours in each game they buy, and then averages them all out. Clearly, this is absolute rubbish for a ton of reasons.”
Sulyok explained that it is an accurate statistic that is calculated using two non-extrapolated data points: "The total number of actual gameplay time by our community and the current sale price as shown on the store," he said. "This data is based on our community which we’ve built up since our acquisition of Playfire in 2012."
Buy games that look cool to you. Don’t worry too much about what your value per hour is. It sucks to spend $60 for a bad game, but cost per hour won’t stop that from happening. No matter the cost, one hour of something special is better than 100 hours of garbage.
Update: This article has been updated with comment from Green Man Gaming.