From Metacritic scores to How Long To Beat completion times, there are plenty of numbers that players reference when deciding to buy a game. Gaming storefront Green Man Gaming has another metric: Average Cost Per Hour. 2015’s Doom is said to cost $1.24 per hour. Frostpunk is $4.57 an hour. These are strange numbers that reveals the pitfall of breaking games down into pretty little numbers.
Green Man Gaming functions as an alternative to mainstream PC gaming storefronts like Steam or first party stores like the Xbox Marketplace, offerings occasional deals on popular games. Most games sold on their website have a statistics and facts pages that outlines things such as the average playtime and percentage of players who complete the game. At the top of their list is a metric called Average Cost Per Hour, which is simply the game’s total cost divided by the average playtime. The playtime is based on data collected from the site’s users. I reached out to Green Man Gaming for more details about how this data is gather but did not receive response in time for publication.
The cost per hour stat has raised questions since it debuted on the site last year and even again this week when Mike Rose, founder of the publisher No More Robot tweeted: “Oh good, the Green Man Gaming store now shows “Average Cost Per Hour” for games, 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.” As someone who buys, plays and thinks a lot about games, I find the metric confusing and counterproductive.
The cost per hour stat is featured prominently for each game and is showcased as an important number. Aside from the game’s name, it is the first thing potential buyers are told about the game. Do you want to play Skyrim? Well, you should know that you’ll be spending 43 cents for every hour you play. Perhaps it means something to know that you’re saving more hypothetical money per hour on Skyrim compared to the $2.39 you’d apparently be spending with Forgotten Anne. That obviously speaks nothing to the quality of an experience. There have been excellent short games and terrible long ones.
In an interview this week with PC Games Insider, Green Man Gaming CEO Paul Sulyok said they offer these numbers because players asked for them. “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.
Cost per hour isn’t the same thing as value per hour, but I worry that players won’t make that distinction.
Let’s take an example from my gaming experience. The two hours I played of Gone Home enriched me more as a person than the 300-plus I have spent in Team Fortress 2. Does that mean Gone Home is the better game? That’s hard for me to say. One made me a better person but another is more fun. In terms of cost per hours, TF2 wins, but so what? I’m hard-pressed to say which has more value. Team Fortress 2 went free to play in 2011; for some players, this is definitely the better deal. In the minds of some people, that too may make it the superior title. But these are incomplete means of looking at a game.
I am sympathetic to the desire for more information about a game before purchase. One of video games’ biggest accessibility hurdles is the fact that it is a costly hobby. New systems or mid-generation upgrades are expensive, and AAA titles cost more than four times the cost of a movie ticket in New York City. Games also take up a lot of time. It’s one thing to ask for $12 to watch the new Avengers movie; it’s another to ask for a $60 dollar gamble that Rage 2 will actually be good. The more information available, the better chance someone has of making an informed purchasing decision. But a focus on money or on games as potential products to purchase can squelch discussion of games as valuable works of art.
The tension between gaming’s artistic aspirations and their undeniable function as consumer goods makes it really difficult to talk about games. When I recently tweeted about Green Man Gaming’s cost per hour, I said it was “indicative of how the medium’s commercial priorities stifle the audience’s critical literacy” and I stick by that. How do you talk about Sea of Thieves’ ability to create compelling player narratives if someone might suggest the 4.0 user rating on Metacritic means it is garbage? How do you kick off a discussion about Grand Theft Auto V’s narrative issues when people in the comments point to its “record breaking sales” as a way to dismiss it?
The effort to find more objective ways to calculate if a game is worth playing muddies our conversations. Individual circumstances like income change how we look at cost, while personal experiences make it impossible to quantify artistic value. It’s tempting to slap numbers on games but at the end of the day, games—like any artform—are far too personal for those numbers to reveal the true worth of a game.