Entertainment Economics

The MMO subscription model is dead, or so they say. So they say despite the two largest MMOs in the world, both of which dwarf their closest competition by 100% or more, being subscription-based games.


$60 is too much to pay for a video game. It’s a catch-22; we demand ever higher quality and ever lower prices, despite games being one of the few entertainment media whose cost doesn’t rise noticeably with inflation. The “standard” was $50, up until the release of the Xbox 360, when new console games more or less centered on $60. That was in 2005. As a point of reference, going to see a movie was, on average in the US, $6.41 in 2005. Now, it averages $8.17 (http://natoonline.org/data/ticket-price/). To be entirely frank, I can’t think of a single theatre in my area that sells tickets for eight bucks– try twelve or more.

But, people still buy games, which means that there’s a particular point at which a game (or, really, any kind of entertainment) is worth spending money on. Barring the reductive philosophy that fuels piracy, the “I wasn’t going to pay money for it anyway so it’s okay if I steal it” flawed premise, there’s a certain amount of logic and evaluation that goes into spending money on a game. Everyone has some kind of system that helps them determine whether they’re going to spend money on entertainment or not.


I think having a system is important; it puts things in perspective and helps avoid buyer’s remorse and helps you evaluate whether the purchases you made were worthwhile. This almost certainly changes over time– nearly everyone I know has changed how they determine when something is worth plunking down cash to buy.

My own system takes into account two things: the money I have to buy games and the time I have to play them. I usually have a lot of one and relatively little of the other. When I have a lot of time to play, I tend to look at entertainment purchases from a cost per hour standpoint. Any purchase I make is based on the dollar value per hour I’m getting out of whatever it is. Movies are pretty bad for this sort of thing: $12+ for two hours of entertainment average six dollars an hour. Going out to a bar is even worse: one drink an hour at $3-12 a drink (plus anything I might eat) puts me above even the six dollar standard. A book is okay– I read at about 150-200 pages an hour, so most books take me about three to four hours to read– at about $8-10 for a book, that’s in the two to three dollar per hour range.

Isolated open book

Isolated open book

Games are all over the place. $60 for a game that takes me 8 hours to beat doesn’t feel worth it, running $7.50/hour, but a game that takes me 12 hours is looking a lot better. A game like Skyrim, Dragon Age, or Persona, which suck away 100+ hours look great, at pennies per hour of play. The only games that look better are MMOs, where as long as I play 30 hours in the first month and 6 hours every month thereafter are absolutely worth the initial box price and the $15/month thereafter. Any more time I spend on them (and usually, I spend rather more time on them) just drops the price. This weekend is Heavensward, which I spent $60 on, a cost I’m going to recoup in about three days, possibly less.

On the flip side, when I have more money and less time, I want experiences that don’t take too much time to complete. I don’t have the time to spend a hundred hours playing one game; I’d rather play four shorter games in that same window. I’ll be honest, I haven’t devoted the time to come up with a system for this, because to be entirely frank I haven’t been in a situation where I have more money than time in quite a while. I have, however, seen a lot of friends come up with systems for this, and they tend to look for the highest quality experiences they can get for their limited time. It needs to be good, it needs to be polished, and it needs to work out of the box.


I’ve spent more time in the middle, where I have a decent amount of money and a decent amount of time, but not a ton of either. Perhaps bizarrely, this is when I often find myself buying minis and getting into new minis games. Minis, despite being individually expensive, are surprisingly good from a cost-to-time perspective. It takes me some amount of time for assembly, call it an hour to clean, fit, and glue, and then anywhere from two to six hours to paint. Even at the low end, a single mini ($10) is right in the book range, and that’s before I’ve ever put it on the table to play a game. Games take 1-2 hours, so each one of those I play is making the mini more and more worthwhile. There are minis in my collection that have cost me less than a penny per hour that I’ve played them; I have a group of Infinity minis where the entire faction has cost me about fifty cents per hour of entertainment; a really, really good deal.

All of these things help me evaluate whether some piece of entertainment is worth my time. It’s become a sort of instinct, I can tell when I feel like a game is worth me spending money on and when I don’t. It makes price fluctuations affect me a lot less than they otherwise might– there’s occasionally a game in a Steam Sale that goes down to a point where I’m interested, but that’s exceedingly rare. It’s when this instinct fails me, or when I can’t adequately predict if something is going to be worthwhile that I regret my purchases. I honestly have a hard time thinking of many of these– they’re almost all games i literally couldn’t play for one reason or another, or that I bought on someone else’s recommendation and didn’t end up liking.

What kind of systems do you use to determine if a game is worth buying? Are you a price-per-hour sort, or a quality-per-hour sort? Something else entirely?

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