This week saw some great news for bargain hunters. Jonathan Blow‘s time-shifting, allusion-fancying puzzler Braid had its price slashed on Friday from 1200 Microsoft points to a paltry 800. When the download-only game first appeared in 2008, it garnered almost universal praise for every aspect of its production. The gameplay, the story, the sound design, the graphics… everything, in fact, received rave reviews except for one feature of the package: its price point. Offering only around 4-5 hours of gameplay to the average player, Braid was considered by many to be a bit on the steep side, price-wise.
At first glance, 1200 points for four hours of play might well seem extortionate, especially given the fact that Braid’s replay value is limited by your willingness to painfully track down its maddening hidden stars. However, there are plenty of full retail games out there delivering a much shorter amount of gameplay for every dollar or pound that you spend. Bioshock is another famous example of a game adored by the press and public alike, but when it shipped in 2007 we only got around eight hours under the sea for four times the price of a Braid. Strangely, there weren’t too many critics bemoaning the pricing strategy adopted by 2K even though every hour of gameplay was twice as expensive as those offered by Blow’s indie title the following year. Of course, Bioshock – like Braid – was a conceptual masterpiece of a game and the higher production values afforded by its vastly larger budget go a long way to justifying its higher cost. But perhaps it’s an example that helps to illustrate a bigger question: when we splash out our hard-earned cash on a new game, would we rather be entertained for as long as possible or would we prefer a shorter experience if it meant that the enjoyment and satisfaction we received were heightened?
We might have seen all there is to see of Rapture after eight or nine hours but surely it’s the quality of the experience that really counts? Grand Theft Auto 4 probably took the average player around 25-30 hours to play through to completion, depending on how interested they were in the peripheral activities available. And a fine game it was too… but how many of those 20-odd hours did we really, truly enjoy? It’s hard to imagine too many players who didn’t rack up several hours’ worth of fairly tedious car journeys and map-reading failures, after all. Another AAA title of recent years, Fallout 3, offered an even longer play experience than GTA4 along with, arguably, an even lower density of action. Fresher in the memory is Mass Effect 2, which perhaps found a pretty optimal balance between longevity and excitement, managing to play out its story in as long or as short a time as the player (sometimes unwittingly) desired.
These matters are never black and white and there will be those who prefer a sprawling, slow-paced game, just as there will be those who like their gaming sessions to be short and sweet and those who like to choose one or the other based on their mood. Certainly, the fact that the library of exceptional games available across all systems in 2010 offers something to suit all tastes is a cause for celebration. If you fancy a short, sharp blast of action or drama before bedtime, Gears of War and Heavy Rain are there for you. If you’ve got the day off and feel like indulging your hankering for protracted strategic fiddling or rambling exploration, Final Fantasy and Far Cry 2 are your friends.
At times though, it would be nice if the gaming press could be a little more sophisticated in their appraisal of the value-for-money inherent in a game’s longevity. A short game isn’t necessarily a rip-off, just as a long one isn’t always a bargain. At 625 pages, the Penguin edition of Moby Dick is more than 3 times longer than The Catcher in the Rye and yet the publisher sells both classics for a similar price. This isn’t because one is better value than the other: they are of equal worth but serve different purposes, suiting different people, different tastes, or just different moods. So next time you ask somebody for their thoughts on a particular game and they give you the common response “yeah, it’s ok… but it was short” perhaps you should suggest that they have a little think about why they subscribe to Rolling Stone magazine instead of getting to grips with War and Peace. Then, as they stare blankly back at you with a quizzical frown, maybe you should leave and find somebody with a view on the game that isn’t a lazy, knee-jerk regurgitation of something someone else said in a half-baked review. Oh, and one more thing: if you like puzzles and can handle a little sentimentality, you could do a lot worse than splashing 800 points on the wonderful Braid.
Are the assessments of value for money provided by press reviews useful to you? And do you have a gaming preference when it comes to lengthy epics versus brief romps?