Just yesterday, I was perusing Best Buy's weekly newspaper ad insert, and noticed that they had Alan Wake, Bad Company 2, and Blur on sale for $40 each. I rented Alan Wake when it came out and absolutely adored it, and have evangelized it to my friends on a few occasions. Some of my friends were tempted by the offer, but ultimately decided against buying it. They were rightly concerned that with their huge backlogs of games, Alan Wake would just sit forgotten on the shelf for several months after buying it, only for the price to have further dropped by the time they actually got around to playing it. It's a legitimate concern, as money doesn't grow on trees, but it's also indicative of a much greater issue that has plagued every facet of this industry for years now, but few seem willing to discuss: the issue of price.
As we are all painfully aware, a shiny new Xbox 360 or PS3 game will set you back a full $60. While there was already an established used games market prior to this console generation, it didn't take off until $60 became the new $50, and publishers began to notice that they were somehow losing money. The current recession hasn't helped matters at all, as even those who could afford to buy as many $60 games as their hearts desired were forced to consider just how much they really wanted that new Final Fantasy or GTA. It didn't seem like a problem at first, since publishers futilely tried to delude themselves into believing that the games industry was recession-proof. While most gamers will beg, borrow, or steal to get their fix, most chose the "borrow" or "steal" options. Hell, I've even heard people suggest splitting the price three or four ways with some friends and sharing the game. Economically speaking, games still sit squarely in the realm of disposable income, which is always the first to go when the economy takes a nosedive.
"Excuse me, good sir, could you direct me to the nearest Best Buy?"
Common sense dictates that spending so much money on games not only means that we get to play fewer games overall, but that we have to justify those purchases we make to our spouses/parents/selves/bank accounts. Whenever I'm anticipating a forthcoming game, I'm always forced to ask myself if that game is really worth $60, or if I'm better off renting it, buying it used, waiting for the price to drop, et cetera. The answer is usually "no"; these days, the only games for which I will pay $60 are games that I already know I'm going to love or I feel obliged to support (think Heavy Rain or Demon's Souls). Everything else gets rented or bought at a lower price. My friends desperately want to play Alan Wake, but they were still fearful that if they bought it now for $40, they'd still get ripped off in the end. This is the dilemma gamers constantly have to face; every last purchase must be justified beyond any shred of doubt, or the game gets left on the store shelf. With that, gamers are left with fewer games to play and backlogs a mile long, while developers and publishers lose sales. Who is supposed to win from such an arrangement?
One hurdle to lowering game prices is publishers' perceptions of used game sales. Namely, their erroneous assertion that every used game sold equates to a lost sale. First of all, the very term "used game" implies that someone bought the game new somewhere along the way, so the publisher got at least one sale out of it. At lower prices, used games are more likely to be impulse buys for gamers, meaning that they likely never would have bought that game new, even if it were unavailable at a lower price. In a parallel universe where the commodification of used games was a capital offense, but new games still cost $60, gamers wouldn't buy more new games. If anything, they'd buy even fewer games than they do now, because they'd be stuck with every single purchase they made, so they'd have to be damn sure that they were going to like it. The only reason gamers even buy the number of games they do is because they know that, on the off-chance that they don't like a game they bought, they can sell it used and earn some of the money they spent. Some are even forced to sell most of the games they buy simply to finance their new game purchases.
To further illustrate my point, I took advantage of a sale on K-Mart's website last month in which I bought four brand new 360 games, all of which had been released sometime this year, for $30 each. They were games in which I had a moderate interest, but would likely never warrant more than a rental. Conversely, at a mere $30 each, the question in my mind shifted from, "Why should I buy these games?" to the much more palatable, "Why shouldn't I buy these games?" I no longer had to justify those purchases in my overly-frugal brain, and didn't have to deal with the persistent doubt that I was wasting my money. And I just basked in the fact that I got four games for the price of two. Thankfully, retailers are wising up to the fact that they can't sustainably sell new games at $60 each, making such sales and price drops more common than were just a year or two ago. While it's a step in the right direction, retailer price drops won't solve many of the other problems that currently plague the industry, thanks to the steep price point. Until publishers swallow their pride and lower the prices themselves, many serious problems will remain.
Even though the $60 price tag hits gamers' wallets the hardest, it also has a tremendously damaging effect on the developers' creative process. The hefty price means developers feel increasingly pressured to pad their games with slapdash levels, thousands of collectibles, superfluous mechanics (ex. stealth levels in an FPS), obligatory multiplayer, and other means to artificially extend their game's natural lifespan, all in an effort to justify a $60 purchase to consumers. This leaves gamers and critics alike more concerned with how many weapons a game has, or how long the campaign lasts, or if there's any co-op or competitive multiplayer, rather than if the quality of the core content is up to snuff. I'm much busier than when I was twelve years old, so I'd prefer to play a ten-hour game that's a blast from start to finish than I would to slog through a thirty-hour game with ten hours of good content and twenty hours of filler content. More importantly, that ten-hour game is more likely to keep a place on my shelf, while the thirty-hour game gets hocked. Some would argue that a game is not worth $60 if there's no multiplayer campaign or any legitimate reason to replay the single-player campaign, unless it takes forty hours to beat the single-player campaign alone. Developers have no choice but to respond to this if they want to stay afloat. Upon release, games like Dead Space and Bioshock were criticized for their lack of multiplayer to extend the experience, yet the response was largely negative when their successors were revealed to have multiplayer components, since the games' established worlds and mechanics are not conducive to heated deathmatches or overly-chatty co-op. Still, a bullet point on the back of the box next to the word "multiplayer" will go a long way to convincing gamers that it's worth their hard-earned cash, so apparently it's worth compromising a game's integrity for some extra sales.
"Enjoy hours of fun as Isaac Clarke or one of his 15 identical twins in Team Necro-Genocide mode!"
The steep price of admission directly affects criticism of games, as well as how much value gamers place on reviews. In place of quality gameplay and storytelling, many critics emphasize game's length, replay value, and multiplayer content. All too often, I've seen games get docked a point or two because they were ten hours long or lacked any form of multiplayer, with the reviewer judging the game on the imagined merits of what it didn't provide the player, rather than what it did. Ultimately, many reviews simply aim to answer the million-dollar question: Is it worth $60? It's also common for gamers to question a reviewer's opinion on a game because he didn't have to pay $60 to play it, and may have otherwise scored the game different. Because the answer to that all-important question of money towers over all else, many of a game's merits may get brushed under the carpet, simply because it's not long enough to be worth your hard-earned money. By extension, the price also attributes to the gaming community's unfortunate over-reliance on sites like Metacritic and GameRankings. A quick glimpse at a metascore can easily become the deciding factor in a potential game purchase. If a gamer with only $60 to spend is deciding between two new games, and sees that one has a metascore of 70, while the other has a 90, which one is he more likely to buy? With such a heavy financial investment on the line, games that aren't tied to an established property are more likely to fall by the wayside in favor of the safer option.
The most obvious defense against lower game prices is that it costs more to develop games than it did in previous generations, therefore the price should reflect the increased development costs. While I hesitate to compare games to other entertainment media, the film industry provides some compelling evidence to the contrary. We all know that blockbuster movies cost far more to produce than games do, yet they manage to recoup their investments solely on box office and DVD sales, both of which cost a fraction of a new game. What this proves is that game publishers grossly underestimate the value of impulse purchasing, which I mentioned earlier. At $60 each, games fall far outside of impulse purchase territory. Each game purchase is a calculated decision that requires research and deliberation. Gamers often visit their preferred retailers with the intention of buying a specific game, rather than simply browsing to see if something jumps out at them. On the other hand, moviegoers are just as likely to abruptly decide to see a movie on a lazy Saturday as they are to make plans to go see it with their friends. Or in the case of DVDs, a shopper may be looking for a specific movie, but also decide to grab a second one that they spotted on the shelf at the same time. Price accessibility goes a long way to maintaining the mainstream appeal of movies, and game publishers would do well to take note. You can show off as many new motion-controlled, family-friendly games as you like, but as long as they still set consumers back to the tune of $60 each, most will probably be just as happy to spend a day at the movies or buy a few new DVDs for the family to watch instead.
Interestingly enough, movies were in a similar position as games not too long ago. Back before VHS tapes or DVDs, the only way to see a movie was to go to a theater or catch it on TV. Once a movie left the theaters, it wouldn't show up on television for several years, and broadcast premieres of movies were a big deal. VHS tapes presented the first opportunity for people to physically own movies and watch them at their leisure. Studios rationalized that consumers should pay for the privilege to watch a movie as many times as they liked, and set the price of VHS tapes at $80 or so, which would be even more money now, thanks to inflation, everyone's favorite economic nuisance. Needless to say, few people could afford the luxury, forcing studios to eventually lower VHS prices to a more realistic range. Once that happened, VHS players became a household staple until DVDs came along, and the process repeated itself, to a lesser degree. If publishers were to lower game prices, far more people would buy new games, thereby balancing the decreased profits of each individual sale, but simultaneously increasing overall profits.
"Play the second half of the game for free when you buy it new!"
While publishers remain adamant to keep prices high, they can only maintain that position for so long. Their latest attempt to delay the inevitable is by charging gamers for otherwise free DLC or even online access if they buy a game used. I believe EA started this with Mass Effect 2 and the Cerberus Network, and many other publishers have followed suit, but this ploy isn't going to net the desired results. Not only is this stunt not winning them any admirers, but even those who are sucked in by it will eventually realize that it is still to their benefit to buy the game used. For instance, say a publisher releases a new game with this qualification: If you buy it new for $60, you'll have free online access, but you'll have to pay $15 to play online if you buy it used. Now, say a customer gets a used copy for $40 at his preferred retailer, and pays the $15 fee. Sure, he paid $55 overall, but he still came out ahead by five bucks, and the publisher gets a cut of $15 instead of $60, thereby making less money from the sale. Perhaps it's just an attempt by publishers to extract their pound of flesh out of used game sales, but it's not a sustainable long-term solution by any stretch of the imagination.
As long as it costs $60 to buy a new game, video games will never be a mainstream form of entertainment. By manufacturing the games we play, publishers are providing a service to us, and we're doing them a favor by paying for their games and keeping them in business. We only do that because we love our games, but the non-gamers of the world have no such obligation, and if you were to ask them, they could probably list half a dozen ways in which they could better spend $60. The creative freedom of developers will continue to be restricted while they are obligated to provide $60 worth of content, and many will go under because no one was willing to take the financial chance on the games that attempted to deliver something different. Games will continue to be judged quantitatively rather than qualitatively, with arbitrary numerical scores determining their true value. Lowering game prices won't magically fix all of these problems overnight, and there are other factors that have caused these problems, but it would open the door for a brighter future. A future in which games other than gratuitously violent first-person shooters and cutesy motion-controlled shovelware can be profitable. A brave new world, in which I don't have to either work eight hours a week or guiltily beg my parents just to get one new game. A future in which someone other than the suits at mega-publishers actually wins, for a change. What a wonderful world that would be.