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Budget issues

March 28th, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · No Comments · Uncategorized

I review a lot of independent games. (I could write a long post on what indpendent games are and what they aren’t, but I’ll just point you to Greg Micek’s column in the April issue of Computer Games Magazine.) Many of these games have small teams, small budgets and sell for lower prices. My most recent review for DIY Games is for one such game, Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run by Mad Minute Games.

Their publisher, Activision Value, has chosen to sell Civil War for $19.99. This is an amazing price for what is really a very good game – flawed, but mostly excellent. This is the same price that you’ll pay for any number of crappy “tycoon” games and for games made to capitalize on the latest pop culture phenomenon, be it Who Wants to be a Millionaire?or Survivor.

The thing is, most serious gamers – the ones most likely to be drawn to a heavily detailed simulation of the opening battle of the Civil War – expect games to cost forty or fifty bucks. If a title is priced below the magic $39.99 sticker, the immediate expectation is of poor gameplay and rushed development. When Dreamcatcher announced that they would be selling Universal Combat for $19.99, developer Derek Smart was outraged. As popular a target as Mr. Smart is, the prevailing opinion of bargain software is that it is dreck, making his fear that the price would ruin his franchise not entirely far-fetched.

Indie games are caught in the middle on this. Most of them sell for a good deal less than fifty bucks. Supremacy: Four Paths to Power goes for $24.99, Jeff Vogel sells his Spiderweb RPGs for around that price, and the amazing Gish is for sale from Chroniclogic for a mere twenty dollars. Because the production costs and production values of a small indie game are usually lower, it is questionable how many people would grab Gish despite its excellence if it wasn’t priced to sell.

So how should the consumer – or reviewer – approach these games? It is common for people to say that X product “wasn’t bad for the price” or “at least I got my money’s worth.” Should we expect less of less costly game and just be thankful that they didn’t cost more? Should a game reviewer go easier on a game because it is easy for the consumer to drop a few bucks on a smaller title? If the game cost less to produce, should this influence the valuation of its gameplay?

These are not easy questions. The reflex action to rate worth according to a basic money/time ratio is understandable and even valid in some cases. If the original Superpower hadn’t cost me any money, but was given to me, would my hate be less severe? Absolutely. Even at bargain bin prices, it was a stupid purchase driven more by a desire to see the car crash everyone was talking about than sound fiscal planning. The thirteen dollar price of President Forever makes it easier for me to recommend it to friends on a tight budget.

But there comes a point when the player and reviewer have to see a game for what it is, and not for what it costs. Games that have more money invested in them tend to be better games. It’s not an iron clad rule of course. Every year is full of dozens of AAA turkeys. But what was the last small scale game to finish in anybody’s annual top ten? This does not mean that there is no fun to be had in the cheap seats.

To be fair to the gamer, lower priced games have to be evaluated honestly when it comes to how enjoyable they are. When I played Supremacy, I couldn’t get past the fact that there was precious little fun to be had, and the lack of enjoyment was in no way tied to the archaic graphics and old school game play; basic game design issues cramped my style. To recommend it to friends and readers, except under specific circumstances, would be wrong – in spite of the excellent price. As a reviewer, games have to be measured according to how they work as games, not how much money the developer had to spend or how little they charged for it.

But the example of Civil War should be pointed out by every strategy and war gamer out there. Great games can be found at the price point usually reserved for cash cow impulse purchases. Examples of compelling play and good fun can be found on all the shelves. Coverage of the bargain game market (like the children’s game market) is pretty sparse, so any savvy consumer should find a reputable source to rely on in this area – Gamespot isn’t going to be doing a bunch of previews for the next Geneforge game.

But trust me on this. Buy Civil War.


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