Why adults should never pay for video games.

Inside the Internet.
Jan. 14 2003 10:37 AM

Don't Pay To Play

Why grown-ups shouldn't spend money on video games.

Visit the site of almost any large game company—not to mention download sites like fileplanet.com—and you'll find hundreds of freely distributed, fully playable versions of the latest PC games. To be sure, the downloadable files are not the complete, shrink-wrapped version you'd buy in a store. For example, the sports titles will offer one matchup between two predetermined teams, and other games usually offer one or two levels that you can play through. By comparison, the version you shell out $40 for offers a few dozen levels or a full league of teams. But at a time when the free distribution of digital entertainment is a somewhat controversial matter, this creates an interesting state of affairs. Video game companies are effectively subsidizing our ability to play their games for free.

Advertisement

After all,getting these games into the hands of eager players is not cheap. For one thing, the file sizes are massive, some of them more than 100 MB. (Too big to download using a dial-up modem, but only an hour's worth of downloading via cable or T1.) And, not surprising given the price-point, the demand for these games is extensive. The combination of thousands of people simultaneously downloading immense files can lead to only one result: immense bandwidth costs for the game providers.

Why are the game companies so keen to give their product away? The video game industry has a long history of borrowing tricks from the movie business, and these downloadable games are no exception: They're the gamer equivalent of movie trailers, which are also freely distributed on the Web. Like trailers, the demo versions are designed to whet your appetite for a title rather than satiate it.

But movie trailers make economic sense because movies are narrative experiences. Most of the time, seeing a fragment of a story makes you more interested in seeing the whole thing. But while most video games follow some sort of obligatory narrative, I suspect few gamers are drawn to these titles because of their storytelling. Video games are experiential—they're about dropping into an interesting new environment, checking it out for a while, and then moving on.

The game companies' willingness to subsidize the market for free demos suggests that they think the primary appeal of video games is narrative: completing all the objectives, making it through all the levels—in other words, getting to the end of the story. This may well be a major attraction for younger players who have endless time and patience for this sort of thing. But for an elderly gamer like myself (I'm 34), making it to the end of the story is overkill. It takes around 50 hours to complete most of these games. That's time that most people with a job or a family do not have.

Consider my experience with Eidos Interactive's recent title Hitman 2. I was intrigued by the early press on this game because it belonged to the "first-person stealth" genre: While there's no shortage of violence in them, stealth games reward you for being quiet, for lurking in the shadows before you go in for the kill. Hitman 2 was supposed to be one of the most accomplished of the genre—and in fact, the introductory level I played, set in a Sicilian mafia palace straight out of the Godfather series, was entrancing. I'd creep around the grounds for 10 minutes, then pounce on a sentry, then go back to creeping. I worked my way through the assassination over three nights and enjoyed every minute of it.

But when the time came to pony up for the real version—which promised to take me from St. Petersburg to Kuala Lumpur and beyond—I didn't feel the need to dig any further. This was partially because, at this pace, committing myself to finishing the full game was going to be a monthlong affair. And partially because I wanted to throw myself into the free demo for No One Lives Forever 2. No doubt the gaming market is driven by 15-year-olds who are dying to travel to St. Petersburg after sampling Sicily for free. But the gaming business already owns that demographic. If they're going to continue to grow at the rate they've grown over the past 10 years, they need to attract the generation raised on Pac-Man and Intellivision, precisely the crowd that has little interest in playing games all the way to their conclusion.

For a grown-up gamer, the Hitman 2 download was the perfect size: just enough game-play to get a taste of the action but not enough to alienate the boss or the wife. And right now, you can't beat the price.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Gaming
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.