Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Cost of games in the coming generation

Have video game costs actually gone down for the consumer? Are they on the rise again? Are developers finding ways around those costs? And will this coming generation be sustainable for developers?

"Money, it's a hit" Pink Floyed - "Money"

  Talking about money and video games is almost too broad a subject. There are literally dozens of things you could talk about, and now more than ever, dozens more distribution methods you could examine. I'm going to try and take a broad look at the rising costs of development, how they impact the prices of games, and take a look at whether or not we're actually paying more for our games than we ever have. There's also the aspect of whether or not the coming generation of gaming can maintain increasing costs, or whether this industry has perhaps overloaded it's slate.

  First of all, there's no surprise to see that consoles themselves have just been rocketing skyward each generation, although none of them compare to the long-term costs of owning a high-end PC. Handhelds have also seen this trend, with the Vita costing as much at it's launch as the Wii did when it launched 5 years later. (The Vita is arguably more powerful than the Wii, and handheld, so that's not terribly unexpected.) With the WiiU currently priced at $349 (we're going to forget the $299 model exists, okay?) and current consoles 360 and PS3 ranging from $250-$300 (depending on which bundle/deal you get), the only logical conclusion is that the next consoles are going to have two options. The first is to be unreasonably expensive ($599 US dollars!) or go the mobile contract route. Intersting, you can get an XBOX 360 for $99 but it requires a 2-year gold subscription for $14.99 a month. If I had to guess, Microsoft is testing the waters for the viability of that as a permanent pricing structure for the "720" system.

Is this our Console Future?

  As a bit of a side, I like to crack a joke at the $600 price tag of the PS3 at launch, but the NeoGeo was $650 at it's launch in the 1990's with it's games running as high as $200 a pop. So, I think we can all agree that we are far from the craziest pricing structures thus far.

  In researching the costs of games back then and now, the most noticeable trend I've found is that games are far, far more regularly priced now than they have been. I posit that it's related to the growing "legitimacy" of the medium for averaging out a price, much like music and movies. But back in the SNES days, you could find games ranging from $50-$60, and if it was a SquareEnix title, it could be as far up as $80. I remember a $70 dollar price tag on Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars being the reason I had to rent and re-rent that game to completion. My tiny, tiny allowances just couldn't make that difference in any reasonable time. These days, nobody's putting their game higher than $60 on a shelf, and if it came out on a 'last gen' system (read also, Wii) it was $50. 

I loved this game. I still do, but I did back then, too.

  Speaking of game prices, I think there's a lot of different perspectives of costs for games these days.There are so many ways to approach the concept of "value." Does a game like Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance justify it's $60 dollar price tag with a 5 hour story mode and some challenge modes? Does DmC? Why would you buy those when you can get Ki No Kuni for the same price, which features tons more gameplay time and content. Why are you buying any of these when you can get the nearly bottomless, insanely replayable (and arguably one of the best games ever made) Persona 4 Golden for the Vita for $40, or Etrian Odyssey IV for the same price on the 3DS? One step further, why would you buy any of that, when you can by $40 dollars with of 99 cent apps on your iPhone or Android, and get content-filled games like the unreasonably popular Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Super Hexagon, and so many others on a device you likely already own? It's a strange, strange market right now, and a lot of developers are using mobile and Facebook games to help make a quick, easy buck, which helps offset their crazy big triple A games like Halo, Madden, or Mass Effect. But, at which point are game companies going to look at this and realize that they could just make slightly better mobile games, and just make pure profit from those? It honestly seems crazy to think that Activision is still making console games when they could just keep trying to make an Angry Birds and make just as much of a profit.

Money Pig.

  Interestingly, if you look at the costs of games back in the old days, you'll find that, despite price-offsetters like Downloadable Content (DLC) and Special Editions, we're getting way more for our money now than we ever have. According to an article at 1UP.com, when you start filling in for inflation, you'll find that games were almost twice as much as they are now. It's a tad abstract of a concept, but I think you can also thank the growing rise in video game popularity as one of the ways publishers can offset game's costs without throwing the price up. If you look at 1UP's chart, a copy of Street Fighter 2 was $74.99 back in 1992. Factor in for inflation, and you're looking at $121.99, were that game to come out today with the same profit goals. Compare Street Fighter II to Street Fighter X Tekken right now, and there's no doubt that we are getting more for our money. More characters, more stages, better visuals, online play, tons of features and modes. Arguably a less competitive game, but I'm not touching fighting game talk with Kilik's 10 foot pole. But for as much slag as Capcom seems to get for their on-disc DLC, and rightfully so, I think it is fair to say that they're still giving us a better deal. Right now on Steam, you can get SF x Tekken, with all of it's character costumes, new characters, weird gem things, and more, for $69.99... just $20 more than the game itself, and still $50 dollars cheaper than Street Fighter II cost. (Again, conceptually speaking). But then again, even if you don't look at inflation, Street Fighter II was -still- five dollars more.

  Have your own favorite game from the $90's? Use this awesome Inflation Calculator to find out how much it would technically cost if it came out today!

  So if we're "technically" paying less for games that are miles above their predecessors in terms of necessary manpower, visual fidelity, live orchestra soundtracks, online server maintenance, voice actors... what are publishers doing to make a profit? In a lot of cases we're seeing DLC become more and more prevalent. Map packs, exclusive weapons, character packs and now Season Passes, allowing you to get everything for a cheaper up-front price. In fact, for many, DLC is the only way they make money. Look at the mega-hit League of Legends. It's a free game that you could play forever without paying a dime, and eventually earning all of the characters and levels yourself. But, for a very small fee, you can unlock favorite characters early, as well as tons of costumes to dress them up in. It's all strictly for the looks, but it's proven a lucrative business model for them. And it's a model that continues to grow. Most MMO's have taken a Free-to-Play style similar to that, where the only profit comes from additional benefits. Team Fortress 2 relies solely on it's Mann Store for profit, and most mobile games have entirely micro-transaction based constructions, like Jetpack Joyride. Heck, even Triple A games are starting to do it. Mass Effect 3's multiplayer allows you to earn trading card game style "booster packs" filled with weapons, consumables, and characters, that can be bought with either currency earned in-game, or with micro-transactions.Technically, you're essentially buying "Ain't nobody got time for that" cheat codes to help speed things up for you. It's hard for me to figure out whether or not I like this. I mean, I don't -have- to buy a thing. But I want that top hat on my Medic, damnit!

  Remember when we used to bitch about in-game advertisements? Kind of starting to miss those. At least they didn't cost me anything.

I'm not going to lie. I bought all of the Mass Effect 2 costumes through this that I could. I wonder how much this helped offset costs.

  So this is all fine and dandy for smaller games, and multi-player titles, but what about the next big Infamous? What about all of those neat little games Sony showed off at their press conference for the PlayStation 4? How will they offset their costs? Will they just raise the prices? Will there b e some sort of subscription service to help keep it low? Will Sony rely on some other methods to keep things priced low? They haven't even announced the cost of the console itself yet, so it's really hard to get a feel for what we're going to b e experiencing soon. If I had to make a guess, I would say that Nintendo, of all people, is going to be the only place you find the standard pricing structures for games stay in place, at least for the next few years. I foresee a lot more Season Passes, Free-to-Play Content, and micro-transactions in the future.

  All this makes me wonder: have video games grown to large? How many studios have we lost in the last generation? THQ is the most recent example, and they were all about a lot of these pricing models. Just look at the DLC page for Saint's Row the Third. Does that mean these models don't work? Or do they just not work unless your games make a certain sales threshold? Are there better ways of doing this? And despite being some big gang-buster of a game, how do you argue yourself against something like the Humble Android Bundle, which gives you 6-10 games available on Steam, and -all- of your Android Devices (including phone and tablet). And those games cost whatever you want to pay. Sure they incentivize you to spend a little more, but you still never pay more than $10 bucks to get the whole pack.

All of these for a dollar! (if you're a soulless monster)

  I think I've left a lot more questions than I have provided answers, but that's for two reasons. I haven't decided, myself, how I feel about all of these. Obviously if I think something's too gross I just won't buy the game, but there is kind of a point where being in -every- game is too much, right? I also just wanted to throw down some numbers and let you think about it yourself. Has this made you realize that we're not as bad off as we thought, or are you still just as dubious as ever of game purchases? And, finally, which of these do and don't cross your mind when making judgement? I'd love to see if maybe there's something in particular people like or dislike, and discuss on that further!


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