Whether you enjoy sprawling epics, competitive multiplayer, social gaming, or small bursts of addictive puzzlers, there is probably a game for you out there. Over the last 35 years, I’ve enjoyed tons of games, with the current crop of games falling into 4 main categories:

  1. Console games (characterized by a somewhat-large initial investment in hardware, these games are usually sold at a higher price-point, receive tons of marketing and promotion, have incredibly large development teams, and more often than not, are contained on a physical disc or cartridge [but that is changing])
  2. Subscription games (made up of mostly MMOs, subscription games ideally use monthly fees to maintain servers, release new content, employ a constantly-evolving staff, and create a stable gaming environment)
  3. Indie games (receiving tons of free publicity on XBLA, PSN, and the various Humble Bundles, indie games are usually shorter and smaller than their console siblings, often times created by an extremely small development team, and they frequently push the boundaries of accepted gaming norms)
  4. Free to Play [F2P] games (while this typically refers to a non-subscription MMO, many iOS games would fall into this category—the game is free or very cheap, initially offered with a fairly barebones presentation, giving the gamer the option of making micro-transactions for individual pieces of the game)

We've come a long way…

While there may be other games that don’t necessarily fall into these categories, try as I might, I can’t really think of what they’d be… Also, with each model comes the potential for additional accoutrement that can improve the experience (new controllers, specialized keyboards, Kickstarter trinkets, or big wads of cash).

This is not meant to be an article praising one model or another; each one has its own benefits and uses, and each one excels at different types of games. When I started gaming, I didn’t have those choices. I had to metaphorically walk up hills in the snow, buying a cartridge with only a few 8-bit pictures on the back of the box to serve as my guide. I wouldn’t know if the game inside was as fun as Empire Strikes Back or if it was another E.T.

Now we have metacritic, game demos, and a whole host of sites talking about games, but I have become obsessed lately about the cost-to-enjoyment ratio for games. A good friend of mine recently bought Legend of Dragoon on the PSN, citing that the $6 price-tag was a big selling point. Even though, years ago, we had played the game a lot, he couldn’t be sure how much of the love that he had for the game was through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. A $6 gamble isn’t too bad…

Looks good to me…

I have had the incredibly bad habit of trying to estimate how many hours of enjoyment I’ll get out of a game before I buy one. Sometimes I’m dead on; other times I’m way off. Let me explain.

If I go out and buy a brand new single-player console game, I’m going to want to get to a $1 or $2 per hour enjoyment-level. That means that each $60 console game should give me between 30 and 60 hours of playtime. If I get sick of it before I reach that level, I’ll typically try to re-sell it, re-investing my money somewhere else. That’s why I am a big fan of adding multiplayer into single-player games (as long as it’s done effectively and not just a tacked-on horde mode or something). If I spend an additional 30 hours playing online, then my per-hour enjoyment is getting even cheaper, making me a happy gamer (and coincidentally, more apt to spend money on DLC for that game).

I once had a boss that used MMOs as a means to save money. He would go out and buy the latest MMO with the sole intention of playing it for hours on end instead of going out to the bars. After a few months, he’d have money in the bank and a couple of maxed-out characters.

For me, it took some getting used to. When I started playing Warcraft, I assumed that I’d still play other games. My console slowly started to gather dust, though, as the $15 a month gave me hours of enjoyment. The math broke down basically like this:

$75 for Warcraft, Burning Crusade, and Wrath.

$15 a month for 12 months (I played it longer than that, but not much) = $180

Grand total for a year of Warcraft = $255 or just shy of $5 a week.

Assuming that I played for 4 hours a night, 5 days a week, that came out to about 25 cents an hour; that’s not a bad little value. Comparing that to my 4-month stint on The Old Republic (Game + 3 months [1 month free] = $95, divided by only an average of 2 hours a night, 5 days a week [much different real-life schedule] = just shy of 60 cents an hour), it looks like subscription-gaming can be an exceptional value.

And this was as cool as I ever looked…

For an indie game (let’s use the Humble Bundle 2 as an example), it may not be as important for a low per-hour investment. Indie games are important to some of us. It’s art in the gaming world, and by selling games unconventionally (the Humble Bundles have no DRM, they give money to charity, and let the gamers choose the price), they usually enable new markets and distribution models to take hold (for several reasons, the least of which is that it’s a lot easier to download a small game over a network than it is a 9gb triple-A console title). I would argue that Steam’s success is as much the result of an indie-game-filled catalogue as it is Valve’s exceptionally-crafted titles.

Anywho, when I got the second Humble Bundle, I was excited for Braid mostly, but I had heard good things about Osmos, too. I paid $10 for the bundle, and within minutes, I had a bunch of new games on my Mac (I was travelling at the time). Yes, I played Braid, but I sank hours into Cortex Command, and Revenge of the Titans was insanely addictive (I have a soft spot for tower-defense games). While I don’t have an accurate figure for the amount of time that I played those games (or “play” those games), I think that somewhere between 20 and 40 hours is a relatively conservative estimate. With that amount in mind, it comes out to between 25 and 50 cents an hour to enjoy those games—again, not that big of an investment.

Get those titans…

For F2P games, you’ll hear every once in a while about huge spikes that MMOs get in player numbers after moving to a F2P model from a subscription model. Well, no shit, right? If the game is going to be free, of course more people are going to play. What’s interesting, though, is what happens when they start counting the money. Looking at Age of Conan and Dungeons & Dragons Online as examples, the move to a free-to-play model was incredibly successful. Age of Conan saw a two-fold increase in revenue the first month, and D&D saw a 500% increase in revenue soon after the change.

Interestingly, though, most F2P games start out as F2P games. It wasn’t that long ago that everyone was interested in this little game called Farmville, which helped Zynga reach a $7 billion IPO last year. The game was free, had shitty graphics, could be played in the browser, and was apparently addictive as hell. You didn’t have to spend money, but it sure helped. That business model, you know, the one where you can use a dollar or two to speed up the mundanity of the game, helped lead Farmville to being a ridiculous success (and it didn’t hurt that Facebook was a much different experience back then). With all of the “Ville” games, you have a combination of social interaction, micro-transactions, and addictive gameplay leading the charge.

While I sat on the sidelines of those games, subconsciously judging all of the players, I soon found myself knee-deep in the same shit. From what I’ve seen, iOS developers have really taken the F2P model, and they’ve run with it. I have a fondness for cheap Ipad games, but the thing that I quickly started to realize was that the games were not as fun as they could’ve been. What would make them more fun? Oh, you know, just a dollar or two to get a sack of gold or unlock the new maxed-out car or whatever.

Browsing the Appstore became a game in and of itself. I wanted to find a free game that could still be fun without spending that extra dollar or two (it never really happened). Yeah, most of the games are cheaper, but there isn’t as much depth there, either. I can play it for a couple of hours, but the little $1.99 game will soon grow stale, eventually getting cleared out of the Ipad entirely, spending its days in the Limbo that exists between Itunes and Ipad, while a new and sparkly two-dollar game shows up. Gold multipliers combine with Game Center social play to create an addictive F2P game that seeks to get gamers to shell out just a few more bucks (And really, what’s a couple of dollars to make a game actually playable, right?).

I feel lucky if I can get an actual hour’s worth of enjoyment out of a 99¢ game. I always look out for the sales, too, hoping to find that discounted treasure (like when I bought Dead Space for 99¢—I shit you not), but by and large, I find that my Ipad gaming ends up running around 50¢ an hour at most. That doesn’t mean that I don’t bitch about some of the more obvious money-grabs.

Oh look—a game where you build stuff and buy things. How unique!

When I’m walking around in Infinity Blade 2, and I see a treasure chest that’s locked, saying I need a large key, but I can go buy the gold to get the key for a few bucks, it’s no longer a secret about what’s going on.

But then I remember what I used to do for hours on end in college: put quarter after quarter after quarter into the Gauntlet Legends cabinet in the student center. Maybe we’re just going full circle, back to the days of the arcades (where 25¢ meant that you could, in fact, continue).

After all, arcade cabinets were the first iteration of gaming’s microtransactions…

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