Blog Post

What Is In a Game? Money vs. Content

My friend Eric Knisley recently posted a link to a blog post that caught my eye. The blog post, in turn, linked to a study that came up with what seems like an obvious conclusion: that games that cost less will sell more.

Yes, this is my attempt to recreate my aforementioned eaten-by-HASTAC (more likely: I didn't save it properly) post.

Anyhow, on the face of it, the study's results are pretty obvious. Not that obvious results aren't valuable: a lot of the time what that much-heralded "common sense" tells us is, um, wrong. You don't know until you've tested a thesis. That having been said, though, these results were more interesting than you might initially imagine. It's not just that price matters, it's that price matters more than any other factors. That includes graphics, storytelling, playability, good reviews... basically, the study is saying that people don't care if something has any value to them, if it is cheap enough. Not exactly encouraging words for the creators in the world.

However, I have to ask: is a game (or any other creative project) really successful just because it sells a lot of copies? Even leaving out the fact that it's possible to sell an incredible number of copies of anything and lose money at the same time, is profit the only motivation for making games? I don't think a game has fulfilled its intended purpose unless someone plays it and gets something out of it. If I buy a book, but never finish reading it, that book has failed on some level. If I buy a game I don't want to play, the same is true.

I know this argument will never fly with companies. To them games are products, items to be moved. Games aren't really made by companies, though. They are made by individuals. Creative minds create for themselves and for others. Without them, the well will run dry, and consumers will eventually become jaded and stop buying things. Especially when there's a lot of quality free content out there on the internet and in the real world besides. If companies follow the obvious conclusions of this study, then they're acting as their own worst enemies in the long run. I know this is business as usual for a lot of folks. That doesn't stop it from being true.



Interesting commentary, Matthew. I do have a question for you: how would you define the measure of a game's success, in a practical way (i.e. that we could track)? I would argue that there's at least a correlation between copies sold and success, since you say that a game has fulfilled its intended purpose if someone plays it and gets something out of it- wouldn't more copies sold increase the probability that people are getting something out of it? Or would it be better to use critics' reviews, cultural impact, derivative products etc. as a measure?


Good point. Success as an abstract concept is well and good, but doesn't actually help anyone.

I agree that there is a correlation between copies sold and success. I think it's a better indicator if you track how many copies a game (or book, etc) sells over a long period of time. This probably works less well for computer games, as the technology becomes rapidly obsolete, so the power of cultural influence-- for both individual games and franchises-- is probably more valuable here than it might be in other cultural cataegories. It's harder to find a metric to measure cultural influence, of course. It might be measured via surveys, or by a process similar to counting citations.

In some ways, the more useful a metric is in this case, the harder it is to measure. That said, I think putting in the work to find the best possible measures would be rewarding.


I'm not entirely sure I agree with cost being the only factor in buying games. Certainly, the market is so saturated in gaming right now that you really have to come up with something entertaining to sell it to people. And by sell it, I mean sell it at any cost. In the past, product/game differentation, often based on quality of content, and marketing properly could easily make a company some money (here I'm thinking of the glorious earlier days of computer gaming when the economy was much, much better). For example, I remember playing games like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiago?, Sim City, You Don't Know Jack, and 11th hour. Now obviously from these choices I am not a huge gamer, but I did enjoy them enough to actually pay for them, and become highly addicted to them in a matter of hours. Then came internet pirating. No longer would I ever have to actually pay for the game, unless I had a compelling reason or really wanted a good copy of it. This made me (and most of us I imagine) less likely to actually buy a copy of the game. I think this has in turn impacted the way most people treat their consumption of video games. If they really REALLY want it, like for a wii party, they'll buy the game and suck it up. Otherwise, they'll save the $ and look for a copy online.

So my overall feeling is that despite the current financial crisis, the video game market is already in crisis. Unless someone starts paying for things the quality of games will go down. Nothing's really free, we just haven't come up with the new model yet. (When we do, let's make sure to also cover the news industry and the humanities as a whole, too...)


The issue is that success means different things to different groups of people. Which isn't really any different than for other forms of mass media. Think of TV, film, even the music industry. There are pop "hits" which make a lot of money but which don't have much lasting cultural impact. The Michael Bay brain-dead blockbuster. The next bubblegum pop teenybopper album. The predictable, safe sitcom. The next Command & Conquer or Pokemon or Sonic iteration.

Then there's those items which are financial failures (sometimes even critical failures at the time) but which go on to have lasting impact both within their own media and beyond. The kind of things that define an entire genre. Blade Runner. Max Headroom. System Shock.

I think perhaps the one big difference is that computer games, unlike TV and film, can realistically be produced independently, sometimes by just one person. The production values of games have increased steadily over time to where it often takes as many people to design and produce a major title as it does to produce a TV show, but low-budget indie games are still far more feasible than indie films. And because of the inherent distribution model, indie TV shows are almost unheard of.

A well-designed indie game can quickly and easily garner thousands of fans and players in a matter of days through word-of-mouth. I think the problem then, is that the model used to assess success or failure simply isn't built to handle these sort of cases.

Take Dwarf Fortress. It's *free*, and yet the author (a single individual named Tarn Adams) makes enough in donations each month that he was able to give up his teaching job and work on the game full-time. The last released update to the game was over a year ago, and yet there are still thousands of hardcore fans of the game, and monthly donations continue to pay Mr. Adams' bills, fan modifications continue to develop, a fan-created Wiki still thrives, etc. That's pretty hard not to describe as a success, even if he's never actually "sold" a single copy.