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Oranges versus Bananas: Entertainment Costs


So, here it's December, and I find myself yet again inundated with the "RPGs are too expensive" debate. This time, not from skilled, knowledgeable gamers, but from... relatives.

The idea of buying a game or book that is $30 is bewildering to many. After all, for $25 you can get a stand-alone computer game that does everything! For $5, you can rent a video for a night. A paperback is only $6. Why is RPGing such an expensive hobby?

Okay, let's run the numbers. We're going to figure out what gives you the most bang for the buck. I'll list my assumptions, and then give the hard, cold figures in a table at the end.

We're dealing with moderate users for all of these-- no more than 1 game session each month, 20 hours of TV each week, and 1 CRPG each month. Diehards for any category can simply half their hourly cost, since doubling the hours you spend reduces the cost per hour for all of those (except for books, movies, and vices). Here we go!

RPG Core Rules are around $30. Say we use them for a monthly campaign of 12 three-hour games, with 3 players plus the GM. Let's also factor in another $30 for the kind of game that requires at least two books. Individual RPG Adventures run around $15 and can be used for 2 three hour sessions, so we'll want to add that in.

Players also want books. An RPG supplement (aka splatbook), that affects perhaps 1 person for the above time periods. So we'll want to add that in.

And to be fair, we'll include a sucky RPG book, at $30, that you play once (1 three-hour session with your three friends). This provides a good lower bracket (or maximum cost) for things.

We'll also compare it with just straight reading. A novel, 250 pages, reading 1 page every 3 minutes, that gives around 12 hours of fun, for $6.

In comparison, we have a lot of entertainment options. A Gameboy with an CRPG like 'Zelda: Link's Awakening' (nice game design, there) will yield 20-30 hours of play (let's say, 25), costs $25 plus the base cost of the Gameboy ($70), which we'll amortise assuming the person ultimately buys 4 games (so each game really costs $17 plus the game cost, to cover the costs of the hardware).

Toss in Tetris for the Gameboy as another sample game, one with a lot of replay value-- say, 70 hours (again at $25+$17). Add in BagelMeister, a truly dreadful game (bonus points for those who know who invented it), same cost but ditched after a mere 2 hours. That nicely brackets the computer game costs.

PC Computer gamers require pricer hardware, typically a system that lasts 2 years and costs $2K (we're talking good gamer hardware here). That's $83/month just to have the hardware. A game is around $40 and lasts for 20 hours of fun, as with our Gameboy stuff. Assume a moderate gamer usage, of one new game each month (this helps us amortise the hardware cost down in our calculations).

And yes, we're ignoring other uses of the computer in this, but that isn't that far off the mark. A surprising number of people buy computers to 'be more productive' but use them for gaming either heavily or entirely. Mind you, Solitaire or Hearts are often free and keep that $40/game figure down, but you still have to factor in the amortised cost of the machine (that's one expensive Solitaire game!)

We can include online games. Add in an ISP cost ($15/month), game subscriber fees ($20/month), and assume you're rabidly playing 3 hours each night. And realize I'm jealous of anyone that has 3 free hours each night to devote to such things!

But to be fair, we'll list a computer that isn't used for games, just for email and web browsing, with an average ISP ($15/month) used for 3 hours/day. Amortising the costs gives us a reasonable per-hour figure for that.

Next, there are movies. $7 for 3 hours. Or, renting a videotape: $5 for 3 hours for 2 people, which cuts the per-person per-hour cost a lot.

Television looks cheap, so we'll bracket it. Assume a $300 TV set, amortised over a year of viewing. Say a light user (10 hours a week), a medium user (20 hours a week), and a cable user (20 hours a week, $40/month for cable).

Vices make for fine entertainment. A day's drinking, at 1 drink per hour and $5/drink (you lousy tipper) gives us an hourly rate for that 'hobby'. A good old fashioned quickie is 2 people, 20 minutes, $1 (for the condom). What a bargain!

Finally, we need to figure out what your time is worth, to make sure your entertainment costs are balanced. Assuming an 8 hour work day, $24K salary, you earn enough to provide $3/hour for your existence. At $48K/year, $6/hour. Freelance writing at 3 cents a word, doing 3K salable words each night, that's $3/hour for that day.

Okay, what do we have?

(timescale) Entertainment Media Cost per hour Cost per hour per person
(1 yr) RPG core rules $1 $0.25
(1 yr) RPG 2-book set $2 $0.50
(1 mon) RPG adventure $2.50 $0.65
(1 yr) RPG supplement $0.50 $0.50
(1 mon) total RPG package $2.92 $0.73
(3 hr) (sucky RPG) $10.00 $2.50
(1 wk) Novel $0.50 $0.50
(25 hr) Gameboy+Zelda $1.70 $1.70
(70 hr) Gameboy+Tetris $0.60 $0.60
(2 hr) (Gameboy+BagelMeister[tm]) $21 $21
(1 mo) PC Game $6.70 $6.70
(1 mo) Online RPG $1.31 $1.31
(1 mo) Email $1.10 $1.10
(1 yr) TV, low use $0.60 $0.60
(1 yr) TV, medium use $0.30 $0.30
(1 yr) Cable TV $0.70 $0.70
(1 day) Drinkin' $5.00 $5.00
(20 min) Quickie $3.00 $1.50
What you earn
(1 yr) Earnings, $24K $3.00 $3.00
(1 yr) Earnings, $48K $6.00 $6.00
(1 mo) Freelancer $3.00 $3.00

Looking at the final column, the cost per person per hour for Fun, there range for most entertainment (hand-waving aside) is from a quarter an hour, to maybe a buck-fifty. Things that suck cost a lot, because you're really being short-shifted in the amount of fun they provide, versus what they promise. But exempting lemons, we have three categories, really.

The best bang for the buck is things that last a long time (TV) or are shared by a lot of people (RPGs). Those come in at under a buck an hour for Fun. TV is cheap because people watch so much of it. It's a good thing we're not arguing "worth" or qualifying which is "more fun".

RPGs do really well because the costs are shared among the participants. Macro-economically, that is; whether groups actually share costs is up to the group. If they don't, then the poor GM pays full rate and the players scoot by for nearly free. Then, RPGs really kick butt as a bargain for players (at the cost of the GM's wallet).

The middling media are PC games and other solitary pursuits, which are somewhat costly precisely because the buy-in cost is not shared among a group, and yet they have a finite time to 'recover' the cash investment.

The other really expensive items end up being movies (high fixed cost) and vices (again, a fixed cost per bang). These start to infringe on your hourly worth, actually.

So what is your gaming worth, to you?

Until next month,
Sandy Antunes

What do you think?

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