When I write a game review, I evaluate the product on my screen. I do not, and cannot, tell you how to spend your money.
Recently, I've seen a lot of angry comments regarding scores handed out to certain games, with reason grounded in the suggested retail price of the game being reviewed. To some, a short game should never be sold above a certain price—and if it is, then a lower review score is in order. While this might seem logical, there are numerous flaws with such an expectation.
Issue #1: Income Differences
A dollar to you almost certainly means something different than it does to me. For it to truly be the same, we'd have to have virtually identical lives, jobs, personalities, and other identical or very similar circumstances.
That's just it. No one can, and the one who tries is doing you a disservice. I can tell you if it was "worth the money" to me, but I can't do that for you. Reviews are already subjective in their very nature, as me calling a game "great" or "horrible" will also be based on my own views and experiences. You and I are more likely to share tastes in games than we are to share exact financial situations.
Those words, "worth the money" will be so many different things to different people. To someone scraping by working long hours for only minimum wage, the price of a single video game is a very important issue, and an increase or decrease $3 could swing the decision easily. To someone who brings in $65,000 a year, the price is still quite important, but they have more wiggle room. Affordability probably comes more easily to someone who makes $400,000 a year than it does to the previous two people.
The reviewer can't tailor numerical scores to your income bracket. To do so cheats all of the other readers who either make more money or less money than you do. If a reviewer assures you that a game will be worth a certain amount of money to you, then he/she'd better be posting his/her net worth at the end of the review.
Issue #2: Price Differences
The prices of games vary by region, sometimes greatly; Tokyo Jungle was $15 in North America versus $50 in Japan. Digital versions of games might also have different prices than physical media. Should the cheaper version be given a slight bump in review score because of a lower starting price? Special editions with higher prices and extra goodies would be a whole other can of worms. Oye.
One could say that a publication reviewing games with price as a factor would only do so for the audience of its own home region, but such seems odd, considering the global nature of game sites. Even sites that have their regions as part of their names like Eurogamer have readership from all over the world. If you took away the revenue that comes from the many non-European clicks, you can bet there'd be some layoffs and other changes. The same could be said of GameRevolution, if suddenly all of our non-US traffic disappeared. Let's be honest here, we're writing for anyone willing to read, not just people within a specific border. But even that weren't the case, there's…
Issue #3: Price Fluctuation
These days, games can change, especially online games. A Day-1 patch can sweep certain errors under the rug, pre-orders might come with little codes for extra downloadable stuff and all that other current gen badness disguised as goodness. Price changes, however, are a guarantee to happen to every game at some point. For some, there's no telling when or by how much: it could be a 50% reduction in one shot, whereas it'd be hard to change a game by 50% with some quick patches and DLC. And if that does happen, great, there are re-reviews. I hesitate to think we'd all be OK with the idea of re-reviewing games when there's a drop in MSRP or every time there's a sale. That sounds fucking stupid because it is fucking stupid.
Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes was taking a lot of heat because of its price tag for a small amount of content, and lots of gamers screamed that the review scores should be lower because of the price.
But look at this, virtually everywhere, the game was sold well below the suggested price—as much as 20% within only two days of launch. A few days later, you could find that action for $20, marking a 33% discount. Should the review score then go up accordingly? No, not at all. It's up to the reviewer to play the game, decide how satisfying it is, and describe his/her experience. You, the reader, then take that and match it with other reviews and other things you've heard. A reviewer's opinion of a game may or may not line up with yours, but their bank account will almost certainly be different.
MGS:GZ's play time was well-established before release and included in lots of reviews. If you read that information, know about the short playtime, and decide it's not worth your money, then great, the review's job is done. It gave you information, and you used it to make a decision. It doesn't matter what the rating is; if you got what you needed from that review, then we're done.
All of this leads us to…
Issue #4: Review copies
Most games reviewed professionally are done so via free copies from the publishers, so the reviewer can at best only simulate the idea of having bought a certain game. They don't have the subconscious attachment that you will when you buy and play it. Sometimes review copies are the same as the retail package, sometimes they're a download code, and other times they're a ghetto-burned disc only playable with a special debug console. The reviewer's experience will almost certainly be different than yours, so you're kind of asking him/her to pretend it's the same.
~Makin' it weird~
Issue #5: Come the Fuck On
I paid $30 for Journey, by way of its Collector's Edition pack. The $30 disc includes Flower and fl0w, but I didn't buy it for those and would have dropped the $30 on Journey alone anyway. Gaming is one of my hobbies, and I felt that Journey looked interesting enough to warrant such a price (and I was right). As unforgettable as it was, I'd recommend it at $100.
But see, that's me. That's me with my priorities and my spending habits. I don't have a car or a smartphone and the associated monthly costs, no pets to feed, and a thousand other factors that will continue to make me similar to some and dissimilar to others. There are lots of other people out there who wouldn't pay a dime over the $15 initial asking price for Journey, and they're neither right nor wrong.
Some people give Journey a black mark because of its short length. That's fine, as long as they say they do it. It's not how I do things, but I can understand why someone else would. But when prices change as often as they do, income levels vary as they do, and personal spending habits differ as they do, factoring price into the matter does nothing but add another unnecessary variable between the review and its audience.
Issue #6: Okay, I'll give you this…
There are rare exceptions to my rule. When Dungeon Hunter Alliance came out in the PS Vita launch window, I mentioned price in my review of the Vita version, because this version was priced absurdly high compared to the PS3 and iOS versions and came with weaknesses rather than strengths. While it was a big turnoff and worth pointing out in my text, I can safely say it would have received the same numerical score (partly because I don't review by price, partly because numerical scores are arbitrary).
I would also agree with punishments for pay-to-win bullshit because that has less to do with the price of the game and more to do with the slimy, dishonest structure set up by the developers.
Issue #7: Sticky Situations
Then there are different price structures to consider. What do we do about free games? Do they automatically get score boosts thanks to costing nothing? A game is either good or it isn't. If I'm a reader, I want to hear how the game is. Then I'll decide how much money to spend on it.
Issue #8: This isn't an issue, it just seems good to have separation before my concluding paragraph.
All a reviewer can do is tell the audience how awesome something is or isn't, and let each member consider everything they've heard and seen, then estimate for themselves how much of their money it might be worth. With income levels being extremely varied from gamer to gamer and even among reviewers, it's never made any sense to include price as part of a review score.
Stay hopeful, my friends.