Thursday, March 12, 2009

Making a Case for the $50 Game

money money money Those among you who are hip to “the scene,” as we who are hip to the scene call it, will know that games cost more right now than they did a few years ago. A new game in a store cost $50 in 2004, but going to pick up a copy of Tom Clancy’s Hocks in a store today will set you back $60 – an extra ten dollars! Publishers’ cite the rising cost of game development as the cause of the rising cost of games. I’ve got to say, in the face of the crippling world economic crisis, that just isn’t cutting it any more. That extra $10 might not sound like a lot, but to the discerning consumer, it adds up – that money could be spent on something more essential or even saved, and if you wanted to buy ten new games in a year? That’s $100, for the liberal arts people out there, and it’s not insignificant.

Yes, it does take more work to push the high-definition visuals of which people seem so enamored, but to have these games cost $60 is just asking too much. If console games have to cost $60 now that they’re high-definition, explain to me why the PC versions of games haven’t always been $60? PC games have always had to support high definitions because of the higher resolutions of computer screens, and they have to scale down to run effectively on low-end graphics hardware. Yet, at this writing, an Amazon search for last November’s Left 4 Dead shows the list price for the PC version as being ten dollars less than the less-complicated console version. This is the norm for PC games – even in the last generation, they’ve traditionally retailed for $10 less than their console counterparts. Why can you sell me the PC version for $50 and not the console version? Please in the future make it a point to gouge me equally across all platforms.

Additionally, these development costs are being offset in some small part by middleware like the Unreal engine. For the uninitiated, let me describe middleware: Company A develops some tools for making a game, doing a lot of the really basic graphic rendering and physics stuff – think of it as the foundation (and maybe the scaffolding and support beams) for your game. Then, instead of having to start from scratch, Company B can pay Company A to use this software. That’s middleware! Gears of War, Bioshock, Mass Effect and The Last Remnant were all made and released by different companies, but they all make use of the same underlying technology. This has been common practice on the PC for years, but has only really been fashionable on consoles since the 360 and PS3 hit the scene. This makes for some major cost and time savings, and while it doesn’t make up all of the cost difference between developing a game in 2004 and developing a game now, it certainly does help. As more studios use middleware and find other ways to cut corners to save costs, wouldn’t it be nice if they sent some of those savings our way? Unlikely – even if they got costs down to 2004 levels, we’ll be used to paying $60 for a game, and they’re going to keep right on charging it.

The argument that we get more for our $60 than we did for our $50 is also a flimsy one to make. In 2004, that $50 game had to be 100% complete when you stuck it in that box – a game-breaking bug (or pseudo sex scandal) meant a complete product recall, which is a costly and time-consuming process. Now, games are regularly released to consoles that seem not to have been bug-tested at all – for a couple of months post-release, the Xbox Live release Castle Crashers had crippling issues with, um, Xbox Live. Killzone 2 had broken multiplayer out of the box, etc. etc. PC gamers are used to this release-then-patch process, but that this shoddy quality control has invaded consoles is unfortunate, and if I had to guess I’d say that cutting playtesters is a surefire way to cut costs, especially when you can use the first wave of unfortunates who buy your game as playtesters for free.

It’s obvious why GameStop is doing such solid business in spite of the fact that they are popularly seen by the larger gaming community as a leech, or a money-grubbing third-rate pawn shop. The fact of the matter is that if a gamer sees a $54.99 used copy of a game next to a $60 new copy of a game, they’re going to take the $54.99 every time, provided it is in good condition. $5 can make a difference, and $10 can make a difference. Lowering prices could be a potent weapon in what appears to be a mounting battle between publishers and stores like GameStop.

Consider also that the game market is bigger now than it ever has been, and also that the average gamer now has a family to support. I’m no expert, but I think playing to these people is probably important to the industry’s continued health, and you’re going to draw in more with a $50 price tag than a $60 one. You may even draw enough extra people that you make up the price difference between a $50 game and a $60 one, all while getting your game into the hands of more people. If more people buy your game, that’s more people who will know about your studio, more people to spread word of mouth about your game, more people who might want to buy your downloadable content.

While we’re on the topic of DLC, remember that it’s a revenue source no one had in 2004 – now, if a developer releases an expansion for, oh, say, Fallout 3, they can reuse the engine and most of the assets and all sorts of the stuff leftover from the development of the main game, netting a further $10 without having to swallow another major investment. If you paid the sticker price for Fallout 3 and then bought all three of the planned expansion packs, you will have paid ninety US dollars on one game. Tell me that doesn’t sound a little steep.

Price inflation isn’t just limited to consoles – portables do it too. In this respect, Square Enix is particularly egregious. The standard third-party DS game retails for a round $30, a reasonable price. The standard Nintendo-developed DS game starts at $35, for which people seem willing to forgive them just because they’re Nintendo, even if the game’s quality could perhaps be called into question. Not so Square Enix, who quite clearly consider themselves to be better than everyone else. The World Ends With You? Started at $40. Okay, okay, this is bold, well-reviewed new IP from a revered development house, I guess we can let that slide. The latest remake of Final Fantasy IV? $40. What? I mean, you had the graphics engine from the Final Fantasy III remake and all the actual game from something you did in 1991. Give me a break. The re-release of Chrono Trigger? $40! Okay, guys, I have played this game, and it is a straight-up port of a Super Nintendo game – I suspect that one programmer slapped this thing together in his free time in a week or two. If you can look me in the eye and tell me that you really think that this game is worth forty of my dollars, I’ll give you a Best Supporting Actor nod.

Tell me if I’m wrong, but didn’t we switch to discs from cartridges so games wouldn’t cost this much anymore? Developers and publishers can pout about it all they want, but it’s a matter of economics – your many layoffs and studio closings are telling me that consumer demand is not as strong as it was. You’ve got to compete for purely discretionary funds in a time when people have less of that than they’ve had since the industry’s infancy, and the best way to do this is to bring down the price of your games, please.