By Neil Merrett
“What is a cynic?
“A man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”
– Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde (first performed in the 1890s)
Skull Rogue, Released on Nintendo Switch in 2020, Published by Drageus Games
What is a fair price to pay for a couple of hours of mindless or not-so-mindless video game escapism? For the price of a few coins, Skull Rogue potentially offers hours of escalating dungeon battles and literal bang for your buck.
Just how important then is cost to the appeal of a game, particularly as the industry looks to introduce a variety of different pricing models from free-to-play to the best past of $100 in the PS5 and XBox Series X Era?
To many of us mere mortals, games provide a blessed means of escapism from the toil of daily life. They are often fun, and can certainly be frivolous. Some might even go as far as to describe gaming as a lifelong passion.
It can be difficult to accept therefore that video games are also a commercial enterprise. This in turn means that our fun and frivolous pastime can also serve as someone’s career, their livelihoods – the choice between putting food on a table or not.
Yes, despite their often fantastical premise and ability to deliver digital worlds free of real world ramifications, games are as subject to the lows of economics and human fallibility as any other industry.
The price of a game matters. This will not be news to many gamers who are used to paying around £45 (approximately US$60) for the latest attention grabbing studio title.
These prices are not insignificant to an adult gamer, but to a child hungry for the next epic adventure game or playground favourite – they can feel like a small fortune.
But where does this market standard price for games that has been around for decades come from? Is it corporate greed, or a fair price for the months and years of work and effort that has gone into them? Sometimes the answer might be both.
Passion, sweat and tears
The ubiquity of games as a culture and artform, not to mention the abundance of news channels and social media channels focused on the industry and its workings to have launched in recent years, has meany gamers are much more aware of the work and grind that goes into making a product.
Real world passion and tears and sweat and heartbreak is often required to make the carefree digital worlds we like to escape into.
Jason Schreier, a journalist covering the videogames industry for Bloomberg has spent years covering the industry’s success, largesse and doomed ambition, as well the emotional toll and workplace abuse behind the development of some of the industry’s biggest hits.
It was a pleasure to talk to @yozetty (an excellent interviewer) about my new book and many other things https://t.co/Zzs7qvSamN— Jason Schreier (@jasonschreier) April 20, 2021
Ultimately, his work and a growing number of journalists like him covering the industry often ask difficult questions about whether fans and studios have realistic and fair expectations of the developers that make our games.
For some consumers, the costs of a game might not just be about the overall financial investment, but the reports of the real life impact it has had on individuals making the games and their lives.
In some ways it is an issue of sustainability and corporate ethics – a major overarching concern of our present age.
The issue is particularly pertinent in recent weeks after John Garvin, the director of the well regarded action adventure survival horror game Days Gone, appeared on David Jaffe’s Youtube show.
He came under fire when asked about the number of players that had gone on to discover the game not via retail, but as a downloadable title available to free for members of Sony’s PS Plus service. This is a service required to play games online via the Playstation consoles.
He commented at the time, “If you love a game, buy it at fucking full price.”
A response to the comments by Brendan Sinclair, managing editor of GamesIndustry.biz, was highly critical of Mr Garvin for not reflecting the complex realities of game development and modern profitability.
Mr Sinclair was highly critical of the idea of criticising many people who are perhaps unable to afford every major new launch at full price especially without a chance to experience the game outside of heavily curated trailers.
He also accused the game’s director of being out of touch with how major games companies now measure value and profitability less around the idea of unit sales, and more specifically via user engagement and ongoing custom.
Mr Sinclair said, “It’s been six years since Microsoft stopped reporting console sales figures, explaining that engagement metrics were a more effective way to measure the company’s performance. Activision stopped reporting World of Warcraft the following month, saying it was pushing to a ‘year-round engagement model’ that put more emphasis on those metrics than sales figures.”
“And while it’s easy to see those moves as companies not wanting to be transparent with numbers that were on the decline at the time, there’s a convincing argument in a games-as-a-service world that they’re right, and they have generally been consistent with emphasizing engagement since then, even when it dips.”
Mr Sinclair added, “It’s a lot easier to get money next quarter from a customer you see every day than it is to get it from a customer who already paid you $60 for a game they played once and bounced off of”
These arguments from Mr Sinclair do not fully invalidate the importance of cold hard cash to a developer to justify their corporate role and cover their bills – but they do hit at the complex economic ecosystem that gives ravenous gamers something to play.
There is cost to everything, whether we like to accept it or not.
In the hallowed days of the 1980s and 1990s, the novelty of having multiple physical gaming stores, as opposed to relying on a single retailer such as Game or online giants such as Amazon or Ebay, offered the potential for an undervalued or hidden gem to be picked for a bargain price of 10 to 20 quid.
For example, a moderately reviewed robot building and combat game may have offered some gamers hundreds of hours of play for the best part of ten pounds. That’s the type of thing that can suddenly make a game’s initial flaws seem not so bad for a cash-strapped consumer.
A professional reviewer looking at a game for an initial retail value of £40 may have every right to be a bit more cynical about perceived flaws or shortcomings in a game.
It is fair to say that the context in which something is appreciated is always important. Sometimes a great cinema trip doesn’t always require a great film to go with it – even for one of the world’s foremost movie critics.
The £1 game
Likewise, on a fairly middling winter’s eve, you can be confronted by a game being sold digitally on sale for less than a single pound coin. Out of sheer curiosity, who wouldn’t ask what a developer can realistically give you for such minimal financial output. The answer is Skull Rogue – a fine example of accepting value at a ludicrously low price.
Skull Crawler is less a dungeon crawler – although it does take place in procedurally generated dungeon levels – and more instead an evocation of playground chase games such as British Bulldogs.
Level by level you are charged with fighting off hordes of skellington warriors that look exactly like the player. This is done by either by using level traps to your advantage, running into any available free space you can find in the level, or luring the baddies into a large group in a tight corridor or corner of the level while you chip away at their health. Get too near and you risk being swarmed and destroyed in seconds.
Death in the game forces you to start your dungeon run again – this time sans the colourful armour and swords or sharp objects you may have picked up along the way.
The game does however have a light, but effective upgrade system as used in many ‘Rogue-like’ games. Under this system, each time you level up the game, the player is given points that can be traded for permanent improvements for every subsequent play.
This can involve improving the reach or power of your attacks or instead choosing to increase your health and the ability to take damage. Why not otherwise invest in your special attack smart bomb so that it has an expanded area of impact to kill enemies a load of pesky enemies swarming on the player?
This whole process is repeated ad infinitum to see just how far the player can get each time. With even more health and powerful explosives. Perhaps you can smash your own record.
There is no plot to the game and very little customisation or depth beyond the core gameplay mechanics of dodge and hit and stay alive. But what Skull Rogue does, it does well.
With a cost of between one to three pounds on various digital e-stores as of April 2021. You do get what you pay for.
Yes there could be a lot more weapons and enemy types to vary up the gameplay. It could have a lot more visual differences in each new dungeon setting, and there could be a bit more depth to how you can upgrade your character – but then you’ve gotta pay the developers to devise and build those mechanics – dungeon battling is still a business after all.
What the game literally does give you is bang for its buck – that is to say it is relatively high value for a low price. Now that is something to appreciate – even for a professional cynic.