Money and games journalism have always had a dubious relationship. As with all forms of media, the influence of money has led many to question the integrity of several media figures and companies, from supposed biased reporting to accusations of undeclared sponsorships and dealings behind closed doors. Whilst this is certainly a conversation worth having, this article will not be focusing on this side of money in the gaming world, but rather the difficulty in judging what affect it should have when it comes to the critiquing of games themselves.
A common theme in video game critiques is the price of a new game, and whether or not that should affect whether or not a consumer should purchase it. Games are often praised for being good value, and having a level of content or replayability that is normally expected in a more expensive title. Similarly, a number of AAA titles get criticised for having short campaigns or large numbers of bugs or performance issues, despite their hefty price tags. It’s a sensible enough rationalisation, if a company is charging a higher price for a game, there is an implication that the product is worth more, either in terms of quality or content level, than another title with a lower price tag, so judging an expensive game for a lack of content, or for having too many technical issues, is justifiable, as is giving more praise to a cheaper game for having a high level of content. The price of a game effects willingness to purchase it, as we can see from the amount of money that gets spent on the Steam store whenever a sale rolls around. Players are often unwilling to part with their cash for a full price title, but often decide they can get enough from a game to justify spending a smaller amount of money. The counter to this argument is that someone who reviews games should purely determine whether or not the game is good, and it’s the consumer’s job to determine if the price is right for them. As many economists will say, prices are determined by consumer demand, and that choosing a price for their product that a company feels happy with shouldn’t make the reception to their game any better or worse. Many people are willing to pay a great deal of money for a new iPhone, even though they have the option of a much cheaper alternative smartphone with similar hardware. Consumers are aware of the price difference, but as long as the reviews show the phone is up to scratch, that’s their decision to make. The difference in opinion about whether or not to include a game’s price in it’s overall critique can create some disparity in reviews, as you get score differences between reviewers who review a game purely on how it plays, against those who adjust their ratings based on the price of a title.
As well as looking at the asking price for a title, another thing to consider is the money and resources that went into it. When a major publisher is asking a lot of money for a title, and considering the resources at their disposal, it’s fair to be frustrated when they release a game in a buggy or unoptimized state, particularly when they gain a knack for releasing unfinished titles, which demonstrates a lack of respect for the consumers paying money for a product they expect to be up to par. However, for an indie developer with limited money, staff, and resources, a few issues are more understandable. Covering indie games also presents a difficulty to a reviewer. Whenever I was covering an indie title, I found myself battling with two ideals in my head. On one hand, I wanted to remain as fair and objective as possible, which would include being honest about a game’s shortfalls. On the other hand, I imagine the risk an indie developer might take in quitting their job to make their first game, the investment of their savings, the hours spent working on their pride and joy, just for me to rip apart their work in a single article or video. Making an indie title is difficult enough without reviewers contributing to an environment where the difficulties of making such a title with a smaller budget are not accounted for. My struggle with these two ways of thinking led me to make a separate series for my Youtube channel just to cover indie titles, in order that I could show them off without being overly critical.
In the current gaming market, when you pick up a new title you will often find yourself considering the amount of money you may end up spending on it as big a factor as much as its initial cost. For free to play titles, this is the standard, being able to play the game for free, but generally with limited cosmetic or in-game options, with an option to purchase these with real money to expand your experience, but without (ideally) creating a pay to win environment. However, these types of transactions often creep into non-free to play games. Star Wars Battlefront II drew ire from fans after it became known that they would have to play for a significant length of time, or to pay more real cash to unlock hero characters. Even free to play titles have caused controversy with their micro-transactions, with players often complaining that better options are held behind paywalls, giving an advantage to players who spend more money. Another common trend in the video games market is having content that is available on launch as DLC, often including it with the game for free if the person chooses to pre-order. Total War: Warhammer caused a storm when the Chaos Warriors DLC pack was available from day one of the game’s release, initially forcing players to either pre-order the game, or wait until release and pay extra for content they could have had for free. If a reviewer feels that a title’s in-game transactions make it too pay-to-win, it’s fair to include that as criticism, as it directly affects the balance and enjoyment of that game, but other practices, although dubious, should arguably be kept separate from a game review.
So there are a number of areas in video gaming you can look at where money has effects on games, and where someone who critiques games may have to make some considerations. Mentioning price when talking about a game is justifiable, but it should not be a major focus of a review or similar critical coverage. Consumers are able to decide how much they think a game is worth, but the amount of content that you get with a game compared to how much you pay for it is a relevant factor that consumers should be aware of. When it comes to the question of how much leeway to give an indie developer compared to a larger company, I believe that it’s fair to give them more of a pass for minor issues, so long as they are not ignored completely, as it’s still information a potential buyer should be aware of. Detailing minor issues, but doing so in the context of it being made by an indie developer is a good way to proceed, and it’s also a good way of mentioning the price point, as games made by small development teams are usually much cheaper than AAA titles. Microtransactions are a fair point of criticism if they are not well implemented, as they have an impact on the balance of the game, and in paid games, it can make players feel as though they are pressured to pay extra to have the save level of experience as another player for a product that they have already purchased. Microtransactions are of course a necessary aspect in free-to-play titles, but when these options give a tangible advantage to players who choose to spend extra money, it’s still a fair point of criticism. Video games are products, and as with any other product, it’s about overall satisfaction. If something like the price or business model of a game could affect how satisfied a player will feel, then it’s justifiable to include this in the criticism of a title. When there are issues that affect games, it’s important that these issues are mentioned and reflected in the work of those who choose to discuss video games.