A little-used online gaming store called Green Man Gaming released a hotly debated metric for its consumers last week: Average Cost Per Hour. According to Matt Kim from US Gamer, the metric is determined by the price of the game at the time someone views it divided by the average number of hours Steam connected users of Green Man Gaming have played the game. It goes without saying that, as a statistical measure, this metric is highly flawed. For one thing, this a volunteer sample and is not at all representative of all players of the game. It’s not even representative of Green Man Gaming players of the game which might be a more helpful metric considering that consumers using Green Man Gaming may share goals and perspectives. For another, Steam hardly, if ever, accurately tracks the amount of time a player spends in game and using current price as opposed to the price when purchased ignores the impact of investment on motivation to play. I can’t be the only person who’s spent more time in a game simply because it was more expensive for me. The list of qualms with this particular metric could run through this entire article, but instead of talking about how bad this particular version of the metric is for games, as was done in practically every major article covering it, I’d rather discuss how an average cost per hour metric could be useful.
I know what you’re thinking, “Useful? How could something that practically every major article believes distorts our understanding of a game’s value be useful? Doesn’t it harm developers and encourage the inclusion of time padding in otherwise succint and engaging experiences?” and yes, it does do all those things… in its current form on Green Man Gaming and in our current gaming culture. But have some imagination, this metric serves an obvious purpose! Not every gamer has a limitless pool of financial resources, and gaming is already far more expensive and specialized than practically every other entertainment medium out there! Finding ways to make gaming more accessible, like the explosion of the mobile market did, is critical for games to continue to develop as an artform. Yes, that’s right, more consumers and producers will make games a more mature artform, so giving an accurate average cost per hour metric could bolster our communities and platforms. There are many ways you could alter a flat average cost per hour into something more helpful.
Why not, for instance, create a value based rating system as opposed to a nebulous review score structure? The calculation for this rating system would be Appraised Game Value = Hours Enjoyed × Personal Cost Per Hour and Value Per Hour = Appraised Game Value ÷ Hours Played. For example, let’s say you bought a $60 game that you’ve played for 20 hours but every hour you played was abysmal and you regret the time and money you spent. That game’s really worth $0 after your appraisal, so the value per hour (what the game should cost) comes out to $0 an hour. If you enjoyed all 20 hours of the game, that’s a $3 value per hour, and if you enjoyed 15 hours of the game that’s a $2.25 value per hour. A value per hour rating system could then be compared with a cost per hour metric to aid in purchasing decisions. This eliminates the issue of cost per hour being used as a value system, and the meaningless “out of ten” reviews we’re all familiar with. This rating system also leaves room for higher order recommendations in the form of impressions, ordered lists, full scale analyses, etc. by separating the consumptive value of a game from its artistic merit.
Now on to fixing that pesky cost per hour metric. First off, self reporting is wildly inaccurate and Steam counts hours spent downloading and updating software in proprietary launchers, adjusting settings in menu, and many other superfluous moments into its record. What a cost per hour metric requires is an in-game timer like the one in Pokémon games and an “Are you still playing?” stop screen like the one used on Netflix. This wouldn’t eliminate every problem and is obviously a far way off (good luck trying to standardize all that) but it would drastically improve our data quality. Once we had that improved data collected in a publicly accessable forum, all sorts of demographic information could stratify the data according to the users needs. Imagine a Spotify style Discovery playlist that suggests games to you based on the playing habits of those with a similar library or similar favorite games! Imagine a specialized, social media style feed that performs a similar function. That, however, is beyond the point. Users could select which consumers to include in a cost per hour analysis or defer to an algorithmically generated analyis that matchs the user to those with similar tastes or view the full analysis that includes every player in the system. Each of these choices would give valuable information, but the order in which they’re arranged is important. I believe the default cost per hour metric should be blank and request you add users to track and only give the full player base or algorithmic analysis upon request. This would disuade the use of such a subjective measure of the game as objective and improve the metric itself as users develop it to reflect their own desires. Certainly a metric like that would be integral to purchasing decisions and celebrated/critiqued into fitness!
Despite all this, it is important to remember that even a value per hour score doesn’t relate every bit of critical information on a game. For a player, playing a game is like eating food. Appraised value and value per hour are to games almost what calorie content is to a meal. In both cases, that metric is terribly important for those with little to spend and degrades as a measure of utility as financial resources swell. Other methods of games criticism tell us more nuanced information like which ingredients were used, where those ingredients came from, how their flavors interact, and more, but no food critic has ever bemoaned a calorie count for degrading the value of their assessments. We shouldn’t let our critics either.
Besides, they must be a little impressed… Why else would they give a little-recognized retailer such great publicity coverage?