Games Shouldn’t Cost More

There are better options than price hikes and lootboxes

A stack of $100 bills. Photographer: John Guccione

Ubisoft is the latest company considering upping the price of their titles to $70 for next-gen titles. While Matt and I agree that no one should pay more than five bucks for another Assassin’s Creed, I do wonder if the price of games in general should go up, or whether, as Matt covered in his piece on the mobile market, games could be funded by other means. Especially for indie titles.

Of course, gamerz raise hell when the prices of games go up, but I’d like to approach the topic from a different perspective. First things first: it’s difficult to even say how much a game should be worth. Some games are an experience that lasts only a few hours, others last hundreds. Some games are only lines of text, others are full productions with 3D cinematics, orchestral music and haptic feedback. Some games are made by one guy working for free on the weekends, others are collaborations of thousands of people costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Given all that, it seems strange that games aren’t priced on a sliding scale from free to thousands of dollars.

While there is of course some variation in prices, the market standard seems to be $60 for a AAA game, and $20 for an indie title. I’m not sure that has changed much since I bought Donkey Kong Country 2 for SNES back when it came out. It was $60 then, but apparently there were games around that era that cost more (I just don’t remember it).

Back in 2018, Extra Credits placed the creation of the $60 price point in 2005 with the rise of HD consoles. The same video argued that not only did inflation put the realistic price point at around $75, but the cost of AAA game production had also quadrupled. Their conclusion? We had only two options: Pay more for AAA games, or put up with season passes, launch day DLC, and loot boxes.

But it’s hard to buy this argument when films similarly cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce and theater ticket prices pre-pandemic were around $9. On the other hand, a common gripe among developers is that a movie experience lasts around 2 hours, so it should be no problem to pay more for ten — or a hundred — times the amount of content.

All of this seems relatively moot to me, however, because I don’t have much sympathy for AAA studios. With all their market research power, they can choose to produce games for less. More and more, it looks like releasing a pared-down title on the Switch is wiser than releasing a top-of-the-line blockbuster on the PS5. Top-of-the-line graphics come at the cost of brutal crunch and broken releases.

We also haven’t touched on gaming’s vastly expanded audience. Raising prices is one way to raise revenue, yes, but selling more units is another. During the pandemic, the game industry has made bank with a captive audience.

With the audience for games expanded, there has been an explosion of indie developers knocking it out of the park with smaller budgets … along with shovelware slapped together by grifters. Especially on Steam and mobile platforms, it is increasingly hard to get noticed. As a result, there are perennial complaints from some indie developers that the price for indie games should go up.

It’s a strange complaint, because there is no international regulatory body setting the prices for games. For indie and AAA alike, the price is set by the publishers (though in many indie cases, the publisher and the developer are one in the same). The only reason game prices stays steady is because each publisher is too afraid to release a game that costs more. If a developer believes the market will support a higher price for their game (and with the price hike, the AAA publishers are betting it does), they are welcome to charge that price. The debate, then, is pointless; the proof will be in the pudding.

But it’s not pointless to debate whether loot boxes should be normalized. Extra Credits saying they’re inevitable if we don’t pay more for games has kind of stuck in my craw for the past three years, and since the price debate isn’t going away it seems worth addressing.

There are two important trends with loot boxes when it comes to this argument. First, there’s gamer outrage. Games like Star Wars Battlefront 2 and Middle Earth: Shadow of War sold considerably worse (at least, initially) due to their inclusion of loot boxes, not to mention the various gambling lawsuits brought against the publisher. Second, indie games don’t seem to include loot boxes very often at all.

Instead, the indie success model seems to revolve around creating a high quality hit and selling it for a premium price (which is, again, only about $20). Once an indie becomes a hit, the model is to just rinse and repeat by porting to other consoles and localizing to as many languages as possible.

Indie games make their money off of popularity and quality. That means I feel comfortable paying more for a good indie game, even one I might not be familiar with. Whether the price of indie games will creep up remains to be seen, but it’s hard to imagine the microtransaction craze hitting indie games any time soon.

AAA titles can learn from this. When I feel nickel-and-dimed by a game, even a moderately enjoyable one, spending any money on it just seems like a scam. I’m willing to pay a premium for, say, Hitman 3, but when they’re so concerned with piracy that they won’t even score the level without being connected to their server (and the server is a major pain to connect to), I feel cheated. I’m then less willing to buy any extra content or recommend it to my friends. Here, indie has another advantage over major publishers: most indie developers aren’t concerned enough with the terror of piracy to design their game around it.

There are things indies can take from AAA as well. Though the value of tchotchke-filled Collectors Editions are debatable, indie and AAA games alike have supplemented their income offering digital art books, soundtracks and even developer commentary — items that feel worthwhile, attractive and optional in the way that “$20 for double experience points!” never will.

So, that’s where I stand on the price debate. Should games cost more? For AAA, probably not. For indie, sure. Will they cost more? Almost certainly. But whether it’s AAA or indie, I don’t see anyone being happy about it. There will likely be fewer sales of both, at least in the short term. For studios looking for a sustainable way to stay in business, I do think the models I mentioned above can increase their products’ value (and price) without significantly increasing the cost. Trying to trick people to pay more, on the other hand, or offering the same product for more money aren’t the right ways to go. Contrary to Extra Credits, I think those business models are neither inevitable, nor viable for video games in the long run.

-Nic Barkdull

Playback aims to deliver thoughtful discussion about the past and present of video games.

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