Thursday, 20 May 2010

That's Money Honey, Part I: "Us..."

I've mentioned the financial cost of video games quite a lot, but only in passing, so perhaps it's time for a more detailed analysis.

Gaming is a marginally expensive hobby; more so than knitting, less so than sailing. Although there are more and less expenisve ways to game, cost is something a gamer needs to take into account in a way that a literature fanatic does not. Oh, and before the bookworms amongst you get too self-congratulatory, I know through experience that books have an ability to colonise your personal space in a way that video games do not.

However, it would not be true to say that video games are universally extortionate. A gamer has many options when deciding how they want to play games. Although video games require a platform to host them - such as a PC, a console or even a mobile phone - gamers have never had so much choice as to how they decide to play asthey do today. Although you can buy a Nintendo DS for less than £100 (or an original Playstation console, controllers, memory and 18 games all for £10 on ebay), someone who plays online video games which require lightening reflexes can happily spend upwards of £5,000 on a top-of-the range computer which will translate their skills into kills (sorry, couldn't resist).

People likely to spend this amount of money are likely to play games professionally. Actually, they prefer to be known as "electric sports" player, which I think is fair enough given that curling is apparently also a sport. Perhaps the most famous of these is Johnathan Wendel, generally known as Fatal1ty despite having an almost offensively friendly face.

Wendel endorses a range of high-end PC parts, all of which are designed for the professional (or just plain wealthy) gamer to soup up their machine. You can laugh if you like, but I don't think that a hobbyist spending money on computer bits is any sillier than spending vast amounts of money on fashionable gym wear. Less silly, since at least a motherboard does something. Spending £45 (yes really) on a "Seamless Yoga Cami" from Sweaty Betty will not actually make you any more bendy.

For the more modest-earning PC gamer, compromises have to be made. Thankfully, PC gamers can alter the complexity of their games' presentation. Lighting, textures and screen resolution can all be turned up or down (or off, depending) in order to allow a complex game to run on an slower computer. This means that players are still able to play recent releases on older systems. If you object to playing their games at anything less than the optimum resolution but still can't afford one of Fatal1ty's expensive graphics cards, you can opt to play video games several years after they are released once the hardware has come down in cost.

Credit: xkcd.com, which you should all be reading already.

That's from XKCD, by the way, which describes itself as "a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language". It's very good, even if you're not a techie. Oh, and the joke at the end refers to the "surprise" ending of Portal, and shows that the 5-year lag has resulted in the stickman being hopelessly out of touch. "The Cake is a Lie" appeared on more T-Shirts in 2008 than any other phrase. Fact.*

That's one option for the economically challenged, anyway. It also makes more sense on a PC than on a console because most of the best older PC games exist as digital downloads online for a fraction of the original price.

That said, although many of these downloads are legal, one could (in theory) circumnavigate the cost issue altogther by illegally downloading all your video games for free. This is a tricky one. On one hand, downloading an illegal copy of a game which was released last year to modest sales rather than buying it is a tad cheap and not to be encouraged. On the other, downloading a copy of the classic 1988 Dos side-scroller Captain Comic is understandable given that (I don't think) you can buy it legally any more.

The video games industry has suffered less from piracy than the music or the film industry. I couldn't begin to explain this in full, but I have a few ideas.

Firstly, it is extremely difficult to pirate video games for consoles. Consoles simply will not run copied disks. It is possible to "chip" them, i.e. modifying them so that they do, but this barely worked on the original Playstation and is an even more dodgy practice now. Besides, you have to either know or be someone who is both capable of and willing to do something complex and illegal.

Secondly, although pirating of PC games is more widespread than the pirating of console games simply because it is easier to do, games have always been digital and thus always been pirated. Illegal file sharing has always been a part of the games industry, which has not been the case with either music or film. Consequently, the games industry has not have to restructure itself in the way the other industries are trying to do. PC game piracy is a problem, but it's one the industry is better equipped to handle than the music industry. For example, many multiplayer games (a huge segment of the PC gaming market) require your machine to authenticate against their servers in order to participate. This goes some way to avoiding the problem of piracy.

Well-Rendered does not endorse illegal file sharing, but it admits that there is a grey area when games are not available any other way. For example, you can no longer buy a brand-new SNES console. But you can download software to makeyour PC play SNES games. You're not denying Nintendo of any money by doing this because there is no alternative (other than buying a second hand console from someone, which doesn't support developers or manufacturers). I think it's better that there is a way for people to play forgotten (or not so forgotten) classic video games than not at all. In some cases, games are not re-released legally because rights issues are too complicated.

To put this in context, the Traveling Wilburys were a supergroup (George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan) whose first LP was only released on CD 2 years ago despite originally coming out in 1988. The only way for fans to hear this once bestselling album was to either spend a fortune on ebay or make friends with someone willing to convert the vinyl album into a digital file, not dissimilar (if you overlook piffling things like "details") from someone wanting to play Captain Comic toda

If we only concentrate on legal methods of obtaining video games, it becomes clear that the gamer on a modest budget has one sensible option, and that is to decide on a single gaming platform. For reasons of practicality, this is often a games console rather than a PC.

As a teenage with only summer job pay as my disposable income, I bought a Playstation 2 in 2003 because it was the cheapest and most versatile option. I did not have broadband internet, and a PC which would have been good for video games would have cost many times more than what I played for my PS2 (£140 with a free copy of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time). Besides, at the time I was severely lacking the technical expertise which I would have needed were my hypothetical PC to break down in any way.

That said, a new console game doesn't come cheap. These days, big-budget releases cost £40 when they come out. They tend to halve in price within the first couple of years, and then remain around the £20 mark for a good while. Previous generations have shown us that (as one might expect) prices drop even further when new hardware arrives on the market, usually after a period of 6 years or so.

It is possible to choose your game based on long you think it will last you. For example, Gears of War is a great game, but it's only about 8 hours long. At £40, that works out at £5 per hour of fun. At just under minimum wage, that's quite expensive. However, I still consider that a good deal when you consider that you can spend £15 on Avatar on Blu-ray. This also works out as £5 an hour, but you're paying to sit through a sanctimonious rehash of Disney's Pocahontas as opposed to being fully immersed in the gleeful thrill ride that is Gears of War.

Besides, Gears of War can be played at three different difficulty modes and (here's the clincher) co-operatively, on the sofa, with a friend. The artificial intelligence of both enemies and allies means that every game provides players with a different experience for which they must employ different tactics. Oh, and there's also an online multiplayer deathmatch mode to sweeten the deal. I suppose when you take the gameplay modes into account, Gears of War costs rather less than the £5 an hour you might otherwise have spent making James Cameron even more smug.

If, however, you decide to spend your £40 quarterly video game budget (if you're on a low income, I think this is a fair estimate) on an RPG such as Final Fantasy or Oblivion, you're likely to be spending less than 50p per hour on your game. To complete all the missions in these games can take upwards of 80 hours (which you will have figured out by the end of the last sentence if you're good at mental arithmatic), which I think is a good deal by anyone's standards. And that's if you bought the game when it came out. Now, four years after its release, you can buy a brand new copy of Oblivion for about £15.

Admittedly, you have to purchase an XBOX in the first place in order to actually play the games, which the gamer on a budget has to take into consideration. A new XBOX today comes in at £160. Half the price that it was in 2006, but still not cheap. Consequently, many players will make a decision about which platform to own (for example an XBOX or a Playstation 3) and stick to it. Consequently, games which only appear on one platform can have a large impact on how successful a console is.

The 10-year supreme reign of Sony's Playstation (in both its original and PS2 incarnations) was down to a number of factors. One of which was its console monopoly at one time or another on big names like Final Fantasy, God of War, Tomb Raider, Prince of Persia and Metal Gear Solid. God of War has only ever been available on Playstation, and jolly good fun it is too.

Yeah! If you want to pull the eyelid off a cyclops (and frankly, who doesn't), you will have to buy a Playstation.

These days however, the Playstation 3 isn't doing nearly as well as the XBOX 360. There are several reasons for this, but the main one is that the XBOX came out first, which had several commercial consequences. Firstly, this means that gamers bought an XBOX when they came out and thus were reluctant to spend money on a second console. Secondly, even when their XBOXs stopped working (and oh, they did), consumers were far more likely to spend £160 on replacing a console they already had loads of games for than spend £250 (minimum) on a console they had no games for.

Ultimately, gaming is a business like any other, which means that money is a major influence on how games are made and how we play them. Like anything which has to exist in a market economy, video games must find a balance between being commercially viable and having artistic (or any other kind of) integrity. Many games manage this very well, although there will always be those which are just out to make a quick buck.

The games industry famously weathered the recession fairly well, largely because home entertaniment is cheaper than going out. Whether video games provide better all-around (social, financial, artistic, intellectual, entertainment) value than anything else is really up to the individual to decide. As an avid gamer, I would say that the sheer number of options open to me if I want to purchase a new game mean that I am well served whatever my budget.

The fact that I would spend less money on one book from a second hand book shop is beside the point, because this never happens. Seeing as my second-hand book purchases don't come about so much by a "decision" as a "reflex" (see book for £1 -> buy book) means that I have probably spent far more on second-hand books than I have video games. I consider the cost of video games, how long they will last, whether I will want to play them again, whether I will want to play the with friends and whether or not I will want to sell them on.

*     *     *

I realise that I've only talked about video game consumers as opposed to people who make money playing video games (Fatal1ty notwithstanding). It is possible to make money as a video games tester, reviewer or player. It's just that I have little to no experience in these matters and would be ill-equipped to write about them. If anyone wants to open up discussion, feel free.

And I mean proper discussion, not just bot-posted adverts for porn. Thanks for those by the way. I'm enjoying them so much that I can't bring myself to "allow" and share them with the rest of you. Porn's so tricky to find on the internet, I'd just rather keep it for myself, you know?

Next week: That's Money Honey, Part II: "... and Them". Well-Rendered goes in search of a recession-friendly video game character.

*Not actually a fact.

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