The world of PC video games is currently ruled by Valve, through their digital game store Steam, which boasts some 40 million users. Part of their success can be credited to their practice of providing heavy discounts on games that are a few months or a year old.
Rival company EA claims that this practice helps intermediaries like Steam while hurting the game developers who have invested a lot of resources into making quality products. David DeMartini, head of Origin, EA’s alternative to Steam, claims that such discounts “cheapen the intellectual property.” He then suggests that the system creates perverse incentives:
One criticism some have labelled at Steam is that its heavy discounts damage video game brands because gamers hold off on buying new releases at launch in anticipation of a future sale.
DeMartini agreed with this position: “What Steam does might be teaching the customer, ‘I might not want it in the first month, but if I look at it in four or five months, I’ll get one of those weekend sales and I’ll buy it at that time at 75 per cent off.’
Valve responded that DeMartini’s claim does not match the facts. Business development chief Jason Holtman first points out that, as game developers themselves, they eat their own dogfood.
We do it with our own games. If we thought having a 75 per cent sale on Portal 2 would cheapen Portal 2, we wouldn’t do it. We know there are all kinds of ways customers consume things, get value, come back, build franchises. We think lots of those things strengthen it.
In order to understand why a discount later might not impact sales today, you need only two simple concepts: time preference, and what I’ve called fanboyism and Jonathan Haidt calls “groupishness”.
The Value of the Now
I am continually impressed by the firm grasp of economic theory that public facing representatives of Valve always seem to have–even before they brought on an actual economist. In this case, Holtman clearly gets time preference.
For instance, if all that were true, nobody would ever pre-purchase a game ever on Steam, ever again. You just wouldn’t. You would in the back of your mind be like, okay, in six months to a year, maybe it’ll be 50 per cent off on a day or a weekend or during one of our seasonal promotions. Probably true. But our pre-orders are bigger than they used to be. Tonnes of people, right? And our day one sales are bigger than they used to be. Our first week, second week, third week, all those are bigger.
When asked to comment on why Steam customers are behaving the opposite of how we would expect them to, given the incentives, Holtman states “the trade-off they’re making is a time trade-off.”
Time preference is the term economists use to describe the phenomenon whereby individuals are willing to pay more for something in the present than they would be at a later date. There are a lot of reasons why something might be more valuable sooner rather than later. There’s always an element of uncertainty–you know they’ll discount any apples the store has left tomorrow, but what if they run out entirely before that? You know Valve will discount a game by a huge amount in a few months, but what if Valve goes out of business before then? What if you lose your hands before then and are unable to play video games ever again?
There are other reasons as well, which are more idiosyncratic. In an era before refrigeration or pasteurization, a bottle of milk worth five dollars today might be worth zero dollars in a week. But it wouldn’t make any sense to wait a week in order to get five dollars off, because it will have spoiled by then.
It is not intuitive on the face of it that video games should have steep discount functions. After all, video games do not spoil, and the uncertainties surrounding their future purchase aren’t much different than a lot of goods with less dramatic discount functions. So what’s going on here?
Following that argument, nobody would ever go to a first run movie ever again. Even now, as DVDs come out even faster, you’d just be like, heck, I’ll just wait and get the DVD and me and 10 friends will watch it. But people still like to go to theatres because they want to see it first, or they want to consume it first. And that’s even more true with games.
In The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes how human beings are inherently group-oriented. A lot of things that we like to think we prefer because of some inherent property we actually like because of how it connects us with other people.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that a consumer’s valuation of a given good can be split cleanly into two parts–the value they gain from it as an individual, and its prosocial value.
In video games, the individual value would come from most of the obvious things–how fun it is to play, how challenging it is, how good the art is and how well the story is written.
The prosocial value would come from having it as a topic of conversation with all the other people who are currently playing it or only recently finished it. Anyone who bought any of the Harry Potter books near launch day knows what this is like; everyone wanted to get and read the latest book as soon as it came out so that they could immediately turn around and talk to their friends about it.
In video games there is also the added prosocial value of being able to play with other people at parties or online, and being able to connect with new people in the game.
I would argue that the individual value of a game for practical purposes never changes. To the extent that it is driven down by an increase in substitutes over time, it decreases much more slowly than the prosocial value. Much of the prosocial value is created by the fact that everyone expects everyone else to jump at a game when it is brand new; this doesn’t last long as the group then moves on to the next new thing.
So how much of the value that most consumers get from a game is prosocial, and how much is for the inherent joy of playing the video game itself?
Well, if Valve is to be believed, then the prosocial value makes up as much as 50 or 75 percent of consumer’s valuation of most games. That is an enormous fraction, and I have to wonder how much it is representative of consumer valuation more broadly.
Holtman does seem to indicate that at least some of the value is individual:
Now you can do things like say, I never did own XCOM. Maybe I should buy that for $2 or $5 and pick it up. Or I didn’t get that triple-A game from three years ago, maybe I’ll pick that up on a promotion. And that’s making people happier.
But even here there’s a prosocial element–he states that the ability to get something late for cheap is actually “making them more willing to even buy the first time release.” In other words, if you didn’t get in on Portal 1 when it came out, but had a bunch of friends who were, you can “catch up” now for cheap, and then when Portal 2 comes along you’re more likely to pay the premium to be part of the group.
A lot of people in behavioral economics and moral psychology take their findings to be at odds with standard economic models. But I have always seen them as complementary; as giving us a much better idea of how subjective values are arrived at in the real world. I also share Yanis Varoufakis’ optimism that digital systems like Steam will provide even more insight into human nature than traditional social science experiments or data mining ever could.
In short, it’s a very exciting time to be interested in social science. Also, an exciting time to be a gamer!
When I was maybe three or four years old, my mom would drop me off at the house of a woman that would watch me for the day. She had two sons, who were a lot older than me. The younger of the two, who was maybe 9, figured out a really clever way to keep me distracted. He would turn on his Sega Genesis, hand me the second controller, and promptly start playing a one-player game. I was convinced that I was doing something, so it felt like we were playing the game together. He continued to encourage me like I was really accomplishing something. It was pretty clever.
It wasn’t long before I had the opportunity to actually play.
Gaming in Green
In kindergarten, the system I was constantly exposed to was the Gameboy. It seemed like everyone had one but me! Of course, in retrospect, I don’t think many of my classmates had one at all. There would be one or two of them people had brought to SACC after school and we would huddle around them and hope the owner would let us have a turn.
I can’t remember if it was for my birthday or for Christmas, but I got my Gameboy, the first system I ever owned, when I was just five years old.
This was so long ago and I was so young that I get the chronology kind of screwed up in my head in terms of what games I got when. Based on the year that I got the Gameboy, I’m pretty sure my first game was Super Mario Land. I definitely remember playing it, getting stuck on specific parts, and doing them over and over until I finally advanced or ran out of lives.
The last level in particular game me trouble. In it, Mario is flying around in an airplane–in space(?)–where he fights some alien who never really made it to King Koopa level infamy.
There was this sixth grader, Tron, who had it. We would all sit around Tron and watch him play, and sometimes he’d let someone jump in. I wanted it. I wanted it with the intensity that only a little boy who has fixated on something can muster.
It may be a little sad, but I will probably never be as excited about any material thing ever again as I was when I unwrapped a present that Christmas and discovered it was that game. Not because the game itself was so intrinsically amazing, but because I was a 7-year-old, I wanted it so badly, and I got it for Christmas.
My grandparents got me the game on Christmas Eve. I was much more eager to start playing the game than I was to find out what other presents I was getting. So when I woke up Christmas morning, I just started playing it, and assumed that my parents would come get me when it was time to get up. Well, my mother noticed my light was on and popped in to tell me to go to sleep, because it was three in the morning.
I can’t think about the joy I felt about Christmas as a kid without thinking of what it was like to get and play that game.
After I got back to school, Tron was still playing the game, but he was stuck on one part–the Space Zone. Which I just so happened to have beaten over the Christmas break. He couldn’t believe that some kid was better at the game than he was, so he made me prove it. So, I did.
I got the next game in the series when it came out (“it’s the first game ever where you get to play the bad guy!” I told my dad with excitement, “yeah, that sounds great” he replied with dripping sarcasm). With it, my grandmother got me a subscription to Nintendo Power magazine. It had the next to last installment of a Super Metroid comic miniseries, which got me hooked right away.
I read every single issue of Nintendo Power for years. It was, in fact, the only magazine that I ever had a subscription to.
That magazine was instrumental in turning me into the kind of gamer that I would be until I was in college. There were PC gamers, and the Sega and Sony faithful. I did play the occasional PC game, such as Age of Empires and Starcraft, and I would play other consoles at my friends’ houses. But for many years I was a dyed in the wool Nintendo fanboy; and I never owned any other brand’s console. In retrospect, Nintendo Power dished out a lot of what was basically propaganda, and I ate it all up.
When I was 9, my dad got the opportunity to do a stint at the embassy in Paraguay the following year, so my parents wanted me to start learning Spanish. My incentive for reaching a certain goal (memorizing “Cultivo una Rosa Blanca“, and explaining what it meant) was that my parents would get me a Super Nintendo. Needless to say, I made damn sure I met that goal!
It came with Donkey Kong Country, which I found particularly exciting because Nintendo Power hadn’t just covered it, they sent a video promoting it!
I played a ton of SNES games over the years. There was Mortal Kombat II, Street Fighter II, Earthworm Jim, ClayFighter, Super Metroid, and many more. While we were in Paraguay I ended up unwittingly acquiring three games that were Paraguayan-made fakes. The first was the original Super Mario Kart. I could tell something was amiss, as the box was entirely in Japanese except for a bit on the back which read “To be sold exclusively in Japan” or something to that effect. The game was entirely in Japanese–but I played the hell out of it anyway.
The others were Toy Story, and Earthworm Jim II. The latter was the real tragedy, as it just did not work right. I had borrowed a friend’s copy and really wanted one of my own, but the thing just glitched out after a few minutes.
The Nintendo 64 came out right around the time that we would be coming back from Paraguay, so I started saving up my allowance. I opened my very first bank account in order to buy the N64. I was 12 years old at the time and needed to make it some sort of joint account with my mom for it to even be legal. But I saved up enough eventually and the N64 became the first console I bought with my own money.
I explored every nook and cranny of Mario 64.
Nintendo Power sent me another promotional video, this time about Starfox 64. It was really laughably ridiculous, and to my great joy I found several copies of it on YouTube:
The Rumble Pack: “A FEEDBACK DEVICE THAT LETS PLAYERS FEEL THE GAME!”
Which really just meant that it vibrated every so often in response to something that happened on the screen. I’m not ashamed to admit that my 12-year-old self watched that video like five times in anticipation of getting the game.
I had seen the original Starfox played by the older brother of a friend of mine–we used to sit and watch him play games all the time, back before I had a Super Nintendo of my own–and I still hold a special place in my heart for Starfox 64. The nature of the game was such that there were a bunch of different paths you could take to beat it, and I eventually explored them all. I played it again recently for the first time in years and found that I could still beat it in less than an hour. Like riding a bike.
Another favorite of the N64 era was Super Smash Bros, arguably one of the most original fighting games in its mechanics. Sophomore year in High School, a couple of guys I knew from school would come over to work on our Government class project. Instead of working on that project, we listened to Adam Sandler tapes and played Smash Bros. Those two guys are both going to be groomsmen in my wedding; so the game has a bit more sentimental value than most for me.
The very first Legend of Zelda game I ever played was Link’s Awakening for the Gameboy. Which is funny, because it’s a very peculiar game in the franchise–for one thing, Zelda isn’t in it, at all! For another, the Gombas of the Mario universe make a random appearance. Regardless, I absolutely loved the game, though it took me forever to beat.
Even more than Mario, the Legend of Zelda franchise acts as a reference point for every console I’ve ever owned. The only exception is the Super Nintendo; I did play A Link to the Past but many years after I got the console, and many, many years after it came out.
I can’t even remember how far back rumblings about Ocarina of Time started. All I remember is the teaser screenshots that Nintendo Power seemed to offer what felt like every month for years. Consulting Wikipedia, it seems I’m not exaggerating–it was teased in 1995 and didn’t come out until 1998.
Getting Ocarina of Time was the second most excited I’ve ever been to get a game, after Super Mario Land 2. Once again, I got it as a Christmas gift.
I have a distinct memory of my dad coming down to the basement, Christmas Day, and watching me play it. He commented on how amazing the graphics were. Of course now it all seems so blocky compared to what came after, but that memory of my dad’s remarks are like a snapshot of one moment in the progress of gaming graphics.
There was something about Ocarina that just captured people’s imaginations. I’ve seen people argue that various Zelda games were superior in one or more dimensions, and most of the time I get where they’re coming from. But Ocarina just had some quality that’s hard to put your finger on that made it fun, that makes people want to go back and play it all over again. And what gamer of our generation doesn’t instinctively feel hatred at the words “Water Temple”?
Many years later, the summer after I graduated High School, I used it to get my friend Kelly into gaming. She was content to watch me play through it to begin with, as she enjoyed the storyline. Then she had a go at it.
I think every gamer at some point in their life has the experience of trying to get a non-gamer into it. It always starts out incredibly frustrating, because everything that seems obvious and intuitive to you turns out to have been something completely learned, and the only way to learn it is with experience. There is no quick way to gain experience, so you watch as they walk off cliffs or respond to some new stimuli in a way that seems completely inexplicable to you.
Kelly crossed the threshhold, and became one of my closest gaming buddies. These days, she’s gaming a lot more than I am. In fact, she’s played the latest Zelda game, and I have not!
The sequel, Majora’s Mask, doesn’t get nearly as much attention but I had a blast playing it. I think a lot of people were expecting more of a straightforward sequel to the narrative of Ocarina, and Majora disappointed them in that. Still, as a standalone game I think it’s pretty solid.
Wind Waker is one of the few games for the Gamecube that I really remember. Nintendo went with an aesthetic that was drastically different from the previous two games, and the choice was quite controversial at the time.
I thought the look of the game was fine, and it really is a very fun game. I remember a reviewer at the time saying that it had the potential to be the best of the Zelda games, if you didn’t have to spend a cumulative million years sailing from place to place.
The last real Zelda game that I played was Twilight Princess, which came out when I was in college. It was designed for the Gamecube, but didn’t come out until the Wii was on the market–so I played the version for the Wii.
Twilight Princess was a direct response to people who had an adverse reaction to Wind Waker’s playful aesthetic; it was made for people who wanted to see a grown-up Link kick some ass. In that, it delivered, with the addition of occasionally turning Link into a badass wolf, but saddling him with this thing:
In the end Twilight Princess is probably my least favorite of the Zelda games listed here. There was nothing wrong with the game itself; though I found it much too easy to beat. Maybe if it was the first of them that I had played, rather than the last, I would feel differently. I do have some good memories around it–I played this with my friend Sam in Kelly’s dorm during the day, when we were between classes and she was off working. Sam would leave his Wii and his copy of the game in her dorm after he went home, resulting in a great deal of distraction from class and studying on her part. She ended up beating his copy of the game before he did!
The College Years
I commuted to college, which in practice meant I ended up spending most of my time hanging out in my friends’ dorms and off-campus apartments. This meant the consoles I ended up playing were whatever they had, and nine times out of ten this meant it was a Playstation 2.
Three games really stand out in my mind from this time. The first was Soul Caliber II, which a friend I got ridiculously competitive over.
It was, in retrospect (and maybe even at the time), pretty crazy how much time we devoted to trying to one up each other. He always had a slight edge on me, and it drove me crazy. Of course, we ended up getting so good that no one else we knew ever wanted to play with us–talk about counterproductive!
There was also Guilty Gear X, one of the most absurd and fun fighting games ever made, which began each match with the nonsequitur statement “HEAVEN OR HELL” (and yes, it was a statement, not a question).
Finally, there was Dynasty Warriors 4: Empires. This game has a Risk-like conquest element, which is really just an excuse for you to kill hundreds and hundreds of soldiers. It is a truly addictive game, which we would take turns at until we’d all conquered ancient China, and then begin again. It also featured some of the worst voice-acting, and most awkward fake arm gestures, possibly ever conceived of by any human mind.
Kelly and I still play it every so often.
A lot of things happened after college. I started seeing someone seriously. I got a job 30 miles from where I lived. I started grad school 40 miles from where I worked. In short, free time suddenly became a lot more scarce, and what time I had I wanted to spend with my better half.
It worked out really well–I finished grad school, got an even better job, and we got engaged. But during this whole time I barely played any video games at all.
Even putting all that aside, my gaming was already waning. In college, it was my younger brother, not I, who went out at some crazy hour of the morning to wait in line to get the Wii when it first came out. And he had to do this many times before he actually got one–he was very dedicated to his goal. When I moved out, I left my consoles with my siblings because I knew they would get more mileage out of them than I would. At that point I was too busy doing–well, just about everything else.
I have slowly started trying to reconnect with my gaming roots. I reclaimed the old N64 at my parents’ place, and I play it every so often.
The biggest pusher in my life is my brother, who gave me Starcraft II two Christmases ago and Portal 2 this Christmas. Circumstances have made me into a PC gamer–not that I’m complaining! Those are some excellent games.
I suppose I’ve just come to realize that being a gamer is an important part of who I am, in the same way that being a sports fan is an important part of a lot of people’s lives. One does not have to acknowledge video games as an art form in order to recognize that gamer culture is culture. There are creators and critics, consumers and commentators, and above all, communities.
We live in an increasingly interconnected age, but we gamers knew of communities of interest long before we took to the web. Some of the greatest and longest lasting friendships I’ve ever had have been cemented through gaming. Now we’re online, connecting to one another in unprecedented numbers, and having a ton of fun doing it!
Back when I was maybe a Sophomore or Junior in High School, I took the money I had saved from my summer job and used it to buy StarCraft. My relationship with StarCraft was to be a tragic one–I loved playing it but was absolutely mediocre at playing against other human beings.
Many, many years later I acquired the sequel and started playing it. One thing that struck me, looking at it now, is how rich the universe is that Blizzard created for the game. The world-building and history-building for the two alien species–as well as for mankind’s own progression–is excellent science fiction in its own right. Moreover, the settings, units, and cutscenes are visually rich.
When Roger Ebert declared that video games could never be art back in the spring of 2010, the accusation was not a new one. His post managed to light a fire under the debate at the time, and he did eventually backpedal somewhat. I hesitate to address the subject at all because, like arguments over whether modern art is really art, or any argument around the definition of a word, there isn’t actually a right answer. But a conversation on the subject with some friends recently got my mind working, and I felt an urge, as usual, to think it out through writing.
I’m not interested in what towering intellectuals or the Supreme Court have to say on the matter; and I’m certainly not interested in trying to make some kind of tautological, game=art by definition argument. How we experience art is a very personal thing, so it is from my personal experiences with gaming that I will proceed.
First of all, I think it’s crucial to clarify what it is we’re actually arguing over. I think Alex hits this on the head:
This is really a debate over status, with gamers wanting to elevate the status of their activity, and by proxy, themselves. Opponents fear that calling games art will lower the status of art.
This is what it’s all about. It isn’t because people are really passionate about their particular definitions of the word “art”. It’s because we have culturally come to use the word art to talk about something higher, something refined.
If you read the original Ebert piece, he is quite clear about this–saying that “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.” He even admits that there are many legitimate definitions of art that are in common use which would encompass video games, but still he excludes them. Why? Because they have not demonstrated a propensity for greatness.
A couple of months later Ebert basically said he shouldn’t have stuck his nose in an area he knew next to nothing about–but his perspective isn’t limited to the inexperienced. Hideo Kojima, the mastermind behind the popular Metal Gear Solid series, also believes that video games are not art.
His argument is that video games are not art because they are entertainment. This seems to beg the question–is art never entertaining? That would miss the point, however–Hideo’s drawing a line between the lower form of expression–“entertainment”–and the higher one–“art”. He is saying that video games do not reach the status of art. When Ebert says it as an outsider it seems insulting, when an insider like Hideo says it we could consider it a kind of humility, but either way I have to disagree.
Comics are, to me, the greatest art form because there are so many elements to master. A person who creates a full comic must at the very least; be a great planner, a great storyteller, have an eye for layout, know how to pencil, ink and color in a way that tells their own story, and of course, they have to know how to write. Becoming more than simply “proficient” at all of these components can easily take a lifetime to learn.
Of course, at big comic publishing houses like DC or Marvel, they have people who specialize in the components–the writer may be a distinct individual from the person who pencils it, who may be different from the person who inks it, and so on. If we accepted Helmer’s criteria for what makes an art form great, the movies would be greater than comics, for you need not only good writers and good visuals, but good actors, and directors, and music. Along these lines, Wagner considered opera to be the greatest art form of all.
As I said, I don’t much care for hard and fast criteria like this, but if there’s one thing that video games have, it’s a lot of elements that require different talents.
First of all, the stages that the game takes place on are beautifully designed.
Some of the components of these stages are designed in order to be directly interacted with by the characters, but much of it is there for purely aesthetic purposes.
The opening sequence to the most recent game in the franchise features music composed by longtime video gaming music veteran Nobuo Uematsu.
There are three things that I find wonderful about this sequence. First, it is ridiculous–extremely over the top for a game that is basically Nintendo throwing together favorite characters from disparate popular games and making them fight each other. Second, for those of us who grew up as gamers, it is nostalgic–these are characters I’ve been interacting with since I was five years old. Finally, the music is good–the context may be strange but the fundamentals are sound.
What really blows me away about all of this is the sheer attention to detail that is given by producers of modern, high-end video games. It reminds me of a story I heard once about a Jan van Eyck painting that was so precise, modern day eye doctors were able to diagnose the subject.
Finally, at the risk of getting semantic, it must be said that there is an art to making a good game. A game does not need a good music score or visual design in order to be fun, but making a game that is fun is hard. Figuring out how to do that is a skill in its own right, one that people like Hideo Kojima and Shigeru Miyamoto possess to an abnormal degree.
A few months ago, my siblings, some friends, and I went to see the National Symphony Orchestra play video game music. Meanwhile, the Smithsonian has an upcoming exhibition on the Art of Video Games. Whether or not particular individuals think of video games as art, it’s clear that the high status institutions, seeking avenues to remain relevant, are increasingly welcoming contributions from video games.
It may be that, given time, video games will be widely accepted as an art form. Even under those circumstances, the art of video gaming, like all art, would remain a highly personal affair.