Watching my son buy video games is interesting. He’ll follow a game for months before it is released, seeking out advertisements, watching videos, reading about the beta releases, and looking for any scrap of news. When the game is released, he’ll buy it on the first few days. Then, he’ll play it for a few weeks or a month, then go on to the next game.
What I find strange
I find this bizarre for several reasons. First, it looks to me like he’s spending far more time anticipating the game than actually playing it. This seems unusual, because the fun part of a game is supposed to be the playing of the game, not the anticipation of it. You never really hear someone say, “I can’t wait until they start putting out previews of the next Elder Scrolls game.” They talk about wanting to play the next game.
Of course, there are other things in life for which the anticipation lasts longer than the experience itself–movies and novels come to mind. Ask any Star Wars fan…. For decades, they anticipated a movie that was over in couple hours. A George R.R. Martin novel might take close to a decade to write, but only a few days to read. Nevertheless, I find a game different, because I think the experience of playing the game is supposed to last for much longer and because I see my son spend so much time following the game pre-release.
The other thing that’s odd is that, economically, it makes much more sense to wait for a year to purchase the game. There is huge deflation in video game prices. A game that costs $70 on opening day might be half that a year later, and sub-$10 a year after that. A brand new game might look slightly better because it will use better technology, but most of the interesting part of the game isn’t the graphics, but rather the game play. A great game is almost always fun to play even a decade later.
What’s more, there are many games that look amazing in previews, but turn out to be rather bad. If you buy the day the game is released, you won’t know for sure whether the game is worth even your time, let alone $70.
So, economically, instead of buying the best game today, it makes sense for my son to look at the best games that are three years old. Enough time has passed to know which games are great and which are lemons, and the price could easily be 90% off.
Why he does it
So is my son acting completely illogical in his obsession for new games? I actually don’t think so, because the value he gets from the game is far greater than the value he gets from playing it.
You see, when a new game is coming out, he will spend a huge amount of time talking with his friends about it. In essence, before and just after it comes out, the game might make up 50% of the topics of conversation. If he’s watched the marketing videos and played the game, then he’ll be able to contribute meaningfully in those discussions. If it’s a multiplayer game, he’ll be able to play with his friends and talk about strategies.
By being in the loop about the game, his social value among his friend will rise. So, in essence, the value that he’s getting from the games isn’t so much the enjoyment of the game, but the social benefits he derives from the game. Who cares if Skyrim remains one of the best RPGs ever, if none of his friends want to talk about it because it’s several years old? The game itself is still fun, but there’s no social capital to be gained.
And this is why it’s critical to get the game on day 1 of release rather than delaying three years–the social advantages on the first day are worth far more than the $60 he’d save by waiting.
When I was a kid
I don’t know for sure if this is what’s happening, but it seems to fit my observations. I suspect that for kids and young adults, this is a huge proportion of the value of games, while for older adults, it is far less important. (Older adults will still buy the game on opening day, but I think a big part of that is that $70 is far less significant to them than it is younger people, so the value proposition doesn’t need to be as high.)
It’s certainly true that video gaming is a vastly different activity for children than when I was growing up in the 1980s. Back then, there was some social value from games, but not nearly as much as there is now. I’d play a game for a year if it was fun, regardless of what my friends were playing. Now the social element is hugely important.
I suspect this evolution came about because of the Internet, the rise of distributed multiplayer games, and the massive growth of video game marketing budgets.