Last week Green Man Gaming unveiled a new info tab on a game's store page that breaks down a game's "cost per hour," a new metric that adds approximate monetary value to a game's length. Marketers and analysts have been trying hard to find ways to quantify a game's value, but none have been more successful or dangerous than cost per hour valuations.
As Green Man Gaming's CEO Paul Sulyok explains, the metric is determined by the price of the game at the time someone views it and divides it by the average number of hours the community played the game. That data is gathered from a player's Steam account if they've linked it with their Green Man account.
The number of hours played isn't a precise measurement of time however. A game could run idle, or crash repeatedly, or any number of issues could drift the hours played metric in whichever direction. When I contacted Green Man Gaming about this concern, they reissued the statement Sulyok gave to PCGamesInsider.biz:
"We believe that playing video games is a very cost effective form of entertainment and 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. This can be done through customer reviews and discussions which are also available on the Green Man Gaming store."
The reason why any of us buy video games are, at its core, subjective. We could be drawn to a game's artwork, or be a fan of the developer's previous games. Hell, we could just like the title of the game. More than that though, the hours someone plays a game just doesn't mean anything for how good the game is.
"If a AAA studio pumps their next game full of fetch quest side missions to bump the total playtime up, does that make for a better game?" said No More Robots founder Mike Rose, who first highlighted Green Man Gaming's new cost per hour chart on Twitter.
As many have pointed out, the metric of hours played is only good for determining how long you'll be sitting in front of your screen playing something. Not necessarily whether or not you'll enjoy it. The hours played metric might only benefit consumers who are solely interested in occupying as many possible hours in front of a game they might not even like.
Rami Ismail of Vlambeer echoes those sentiments in a statement to USgamer, ""Time' is such a subjective measurement, and in many games, completion time varies wildly. An average won't necessarily give you a good understanding of the quality of a game."
Ismail highlights how that data itself could be improperly interpreted: "[There] could be a niche game played for 1000s of hours by a few, or it could be a big game that you'll hate and bounce off of. I have no objection to 'data,' but time is not a very sensible metric for a game unless you have contest for 'time.'"
I can name several games that I think are better, or at least are personally more enjoyable than, for example, The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim. But there's a chance that Skyrim is longer than all of my preferred games combined. The notion that the hour length of a game is related directly to its quality and therefore its desirability as a product is skewed towards an imprecise, and subjective metric. But will it make a difference or impact sales any which way?
"At the end of the day, [Green Man Gaming] is there for its consumers first, and developers second so if they think they are helping their customers make a better consumer decision, then fair enough," Rose admits. Ismail also says he doesn't believe the new metric will make a difference to sales.
The time spent on a game metric has been long-adopted by video game consumers and reinforced by the games media. Though I find them less common now, it's not hard to find some reviews make adjustments to a game's review score based on how long or how short it is. It used to be that a game that clocked in at 7-9 hours was deemed too short for a full-priced experience, hence Green Man Gaming's decision to include this metric into a game's store page.
And that won't stop marketers from taking advantage of consumers either. If you recall the Star Wars Battlefront 2 loot box controversy, gamers were mad that at launch Star Wars Battlefront 2 was actually more expensive to fully complete once you take into account the numerous microtransactions that are required to unlock everything in the game.
If you subscribe to the cost per hour metric however, then Battlefront 2 still would have been incredibly cost effective—at least according to KeyBanc Capital Markets analyst Evan Wingren. In a note to worried investors, Wingren wrote:
"If you take a step back and look at the data, an hour of video game content is still one of the cheapest forms of entertainment...Quantitative analysis shows that video game publishers are actually charging gamers at a relatively inexpensive rate, and should probably raise prices"
He explained this by breaking down the $60 base price for a game plus an additional $20 a month for microtransactions, while calculating the price against 2.5 hours played per day for one year. He concluded that it amounted to about 40 cents per hour of entertainment, which is cheaper than, say, his estimation that it costs 60 to 60 cents per hour for television, or the $3 paid per hour for a movie watched in a theater.
"Despite its inconvenience to the popular press narrative, if you like Star Wars and play video games at an average rate, you're far better off skipping [Star Wars The Last Jedi] and playing [Star Wars Battlefront 2] to get the most bang for your buck," said Wingren at the time.
As you can see, the cost per hour measurement can be used in incredibly cynical ways to sell games to consumers. With that metric in mind, bullish marketers are essentially suggesting that games are underpriced at the current market rate. If this trend continues, there's no reason why the next 100+ hour RPG can't be sold to you for $100. It's already cheaper than movies per hour at that rate. By buying into the cost per hour valuations, we risk buying into an imperfect metric more suitable for marketing than for artistic merit.
The idea that a game's value is tied to its length isn't only harmful, but opens gamers up to decidedly anti-consumerist practices. But unfortunately, as Rose, Ismail, and even Green Man Gaming have explained, there appears to be very little stopping consumers from wanting this metric in their purchasing decisions. Consequences be damned.