Tag Archives: Economics

Of Movie Subscriptions

As I said last week, I have a real soft spot for not-great movies. I’ve also really enjoyed having a MoviePass in no small part because it alleviates me of some measure of financial responsibility for poor choices. The subscription nature of the service means that it’s not gonna cost more to watch a silly movie in addition to something I do really wanna see. And now with the service going sideways, I’m really gonna miss it.

It is an odd sorta idea. $10 a month gets you unlimited daily movies. Which is dope. Though it does raises questions as to how exactly it’s profitable. My theory’s that they’ve been selling my data to studios so they can analyze the viewing habits of a dude in his late-twenties in New York to better optimize the funding of potential movies. Which could be a whole ‘nother issue about studios making their stuff over-specific and edging out room for wonderfully weird fare that no one expects like Sorry To Bother You. But as it is now, it seems that MoviePass couldn’t  quite figure out a way to monetize it and now some movies aren’t eligible for the pass.

Unless MoviePass finds a way to turn its whole thing around, it’s starting to look more like its golden days are over (in the last few months the service stopped allowing repeat viewings, introduced a surcharge for certain showings, and now, after a series of outages, decided not to support some major blockbusters). I could be wrong and, hopefully, they’re able to bounce back and I can continue to watch movies with abandon, though it’s looking more unlikely.

All this does raise a question about movies and, along with it, my own willingness to spend money on, well, art. It’s easy to have reckless abandon with choosing a movie when you’ve already paid a flat fee. The bar for going to see a movie in theaters rises from being curious to having to actually be interested. Take the upcoming Crazy Rich Asians as an example. I’m certainly curious about the movie, what with it having an all-Asian cast and being set in my sometimes-home of Singapore, but I’m not terribly fond of the book and don’t really find the narrative to be one I’m super into. So whether or not I see it is certainly up in the air.

I can get a pass to buy a movie ticket for around $10. Which isn’t that bad, given that a regular ticket in New York runs around $16. And I like movies, so $10 is certainly worth it. The question that’s begged, however, is why don’t I think it’s worth it? Because the debate inherent in this rant essay is the semi-arbitrary demarcation of value produced by comparing a subscription based service with the standard model. Am I more entertained by, say, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom knowing that my viewing of said movie was effectively free, given that it was included in the same fee that allowed me to see Sorry To Bother You and Eighth Grade that same month? Is part of my enjoyment of ‘bad’ movies due to the lack of attachment that comes with the background knowledge that this movie isn’t affecting my budget in anyway?

In many ways, it’s a sunk cost fallacy in another form. If I’m paying x amount of money for something, it had darn well better be worth the money. Does the knowledge that some of my hard earned cash was paid for this movie in particular affect my enjoyment of it? Or, if art is inherently worthwhile because folks put time and effort into it, shouldn’t I respect that and be willing to pay the money since, well, I’m supporting creators?

I don’t really have a good answer to any of these questions. In many ways, this is me rambling and exploring my own attitudes towards entertainment. I don’t know where this self-introspection will lead. I don’t know if it even should lead anywhere. What I do know is that, should MoviePass go sideways, I’m really gonna miss the reckless abandon with which I’m available to enjoy movies right now.

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The Economy

I think it’s time we talked about The Economy.

In video games.

A lot of games have an economy of some sort, where you earn something and spend that something on a something beneficial. In Super Mario Bros. and Crash Bandicoot you collect coins and wumpa fruit (respectively) and when you get a hundred of them it’s an extra life. It’s a simple enough exchange, one that, like provides impetus and rewards for doing stuff.

You’ve got the other end of the spectrum, of course. Finance simulators like Zapitalism (a wonderful game from ’97 that I played a lot of in the early 2000s and remain wonderfully inept at) has you running a store by managing upkeep, stock, prices, a stock market, salaries, import rights, building permits, government bonds, betting on how long someone can stand on one leg, corporate sabotage, loans, insurance, etc. It’s a delightfully complex game, and really is a game all about economics. Now, while Zapitalism teaches you many principles and pitfalls of unrestrained capitalism (eg: having money makes it easier to make more money and so the rich get richer), it’s not quite the economy I’m thinking of right now.

For that, let’s talk about Pokémon. Any of them, really, but we all know Gold and Silver are the best. You get money in the games by beating other trainers, money that you can then spend on PokéBalls or healing items like potions. If you wanna catch ’em all, you need that money to catch more Pokémon. Now, if you lose a battle and all your Pokémon faint, you black out and lose a chunk of your money; thereby providing consequences for running your team into the ground. The nice thing about Pokémon is that money is a renewable resource, insofar as there’s always ways to get more money; even after you beat the game you can still challenge the Elite Four for their precious precious money. Earlier in the game you can also sell items you’ve collected along the way for an influx of cash. Even though there are (economic) consequences to losing, they’re remediable enough.

Not so in Mass Effect 2. The money (credits) in this game is earned by going on missions, in other words you get credits for advancing the story and pursuing optional side-quests too. It’s a clever system, since these credits are what let you buy new armor and weapon upgrades. Basically, the more of the game’s story you explore, the more stuff you can get. The problem is there is a finite amount of missions in the game and thus a finite amount of credits. Which wouldn’t be that bad, except for the fact that Fuel and Probes cost credits, and depending on how you play the game, you can bankrupt yourself on Fuel and Probes and thus not have enough credits for, y’know, making your guns shootier.

Speaking of making guns shootier, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker introduces a resource management aspect. Your combat unit generates GMP (Gross Military Product, you are running a non-governmental/national private military force out of international waters, after all) which you can then in turn use to research and develop new weapons and other tools for use in the field. It’s a fairly simple mechanic, of the GMP earned you allocate x amount to whatever project, do a mission, the project completes, you can then reallocate those funds elsewhere.

It’s the sequel, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain that takes things several steps forward. Your combat unit still earns GMP, but this time it’s earned periodically and once GMP is used it’s gone until you get more. Rather than the budget allocation that defined Peace Walker’s economy, Phantom Pain is built upon the more ‘traditional’ earning and spending of funds. The twist of the game’s economy is that research and development programs aren’t the only things that cost GMP. Going out into the field will cost you GMP, in that you have to pay for your ammunition, weapons, helicopter fuel, and so on. Once out in the field, GMP is spent if you want to call in a helicopter for air support, swap out your sniper support for your pet dog, extract enemy combatants/vehicles by balloon, and even get an ammunition resupply or catch a ride out of the area of operations by helicopter.

Sure, you get more GMP by completing missions and side ops, but making aspects of missions cost funds encourages the player to play a little smarter and has them taking economic factors into consideration when planning missions (“I could swap out my sniper rifle for a rocker launcher to take down that enemy chopper, but if I sneak into the enemy outpost and get control of their machine gun nest instead I could save some money to develop a new shotgun”). It adds another dimension to what could easily be just another Open World Shooter, plus it has the player make more interesting choices (“Alright, I didn’t’ bring a rocket launcher, looks like I’m gonna sneak up to that tank and extract it via fulton balloon”) which, hey, isn’t that what games are about?

Though somehow I doubt anyone expected an action-stealth series like Metal Gear Solid have such  strong focus on financial planning.

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Bang For A Buck

Movie tickets here in New York short you around $15 a pop. Which is a lot for a movie, but we go anyway because, y’know, movies. So it’s worth it, price of admission and all that for those two hours.

Conversely, your typical new video game costs $60 at base, ignoring deluxe editions, special editions, and inevitable DLC. Which makes it come up to around a lot; Star Wars Battlefront totals out $110 if you buy the bundle for all the expansions, which I haven’t though I really enjoy the game and would appreciate the depth those expansions offer. $50 seems too steep, y’know?

The same goes for Destiny‘s newest expansion, Rise of Iron; it’s a hearty forty quid and even though I’ve already bought all the other expansions, I’m not quite ready to invest more cash. I don’t know if it’s worth it.

Then I check my playtime in the game. I’ve invested over 210 hours into Destiny. Woah (I didn’t check the number until just now). For how much I’ve paid, that’s better than 2 hours for each dollar I’ve spent. Or, in perspective, $1,575 worth of movie tickets. By that metric, Destiny has so far proven almost $1,500 cheaper. So picking up Rise of Iron seems like a steal.

So that’s it then; entertaining-hour per dollar is the way of measuring whether something is a good deal. Buy more games, go to the cinema less often. Easy.

But what about theatre?

Plays don’t come cheap, Full-price tickets for Hamilton will short you around a $100 (roughly Battlefront+expansions, if you’re keeping track) for a single viewing of a two-and-a-half hour musical. Discounted tickets to shows like Fun Home and Vietgone, plays I’ve raved about, are $30 a piece. If we go back to our entertaining-hour per dollar metric, then plays are crazy expensive, far more than a movie and definitely a video game.

That is, of course, if you take things at a mathematical face value.

Was Fun Home worth those thirty dollars? Holy crap, yes. Seeing something live has a different aura than watching something on a screen. With a play, I figure you’re not paying your money for the story, but to have an experience. Hamilton tickets fetch such a high price because  it’s such an experience to watch it live. Similarly, the wonder of watching Fun Home done in the round, with the stage playing the role it does and being in a room full of other people is part of the ticket. And my own experience of Vietgone wouldn’t be the same without a particularly great piece of live feedback from an elderly woman during the introduction.

The whole entertaining-hour per dollar metric really falls apart as soon as you realize that entertainment isn’t just a blanket term. Of the over two-hundred hours I’ve spent playing Destiny, I can point to the experience of spending six hours venturing into the Vault of Glass with a six-person fireteam of strangers online and beating Atheon as being a highlight worth my purchase. That was an experience, of retries, strategizing, and, eventually, victory. It’s hard to capture that lightning in a bottle again, and that might be why I”m holding off on Rise of Iron.

When I buy a game, I’m after an experience. I want to be thrilled by Uncharted 4 or haunted by The Last of Us; if I get that, the money was worth it. Same goes for the stage; I want to see something that I could only have seen on stage, something made special by how and where it’s done. I’ll shell out a hundred bucks on a LEGO set because I love the process of putting it together (with a record playing and a nice glass of whiskey).

It’s why when Rogue One tickets go on sale I’m spending the extra money to see it in IMAX 3D: I want the experience, I wanna be there. And at the end of the day, that’s what you’re really paying for.

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