On Video Game Prices and DLC: Greedy Businesses Are Always Trying to Stay Profitable
I worried, for a while, when I realized the time was approaching when I would have no choice but to write the article you are about to read. I worried that the opinions contained herein would be extremely unpopular. Then I realized that as a journalist, sometimes it’s my job to highlight unpopular opinions for the greater good. And even more importantly, I realized that as an increasingly cranky old man my opinions are often facts. So let me tell you a few things, kids. I’ve been gaming on home consoles since the industry was but a mere toddler. I remember a time before anybody knew what a Nintendo was. I’ve seen the industry shift a lot over the past 30 years, but never have I seen so many gamers so convinced that they were somehow getting scammed. From gaming message boards to mobile app stores, it seems like “greedy developers trying to make money” is a pretty hot topic these days. From the $60 price tag on new games to Satan’s own marketing ploy, the dreaded DLC, gamers have their collective panties in a twist anytime anybody tries to charge them money for anything. And to that ever-growing and ever-more irritable substrata of game enthusiasts, I confidently proclaim, “You are objectively wrong. Untwist those panties, and stop being wrong, for once in your life”. Let me help you.
First, let’s address pricing. This might be the most popular complaint I see: “Video game costs are too high these days, and we as consumers let this happen! Boycott new games, this is why I only buy used, this is why piracy exists, abloobloobloo”. Yes, this is the first console generation to have the sheer audacity to reach a $60 standard price point for software. Why, back in 1979 when the industry wasn’t trying to make money or be a sustainable business and its only concern was looking cool and being your friend, games cost a mere $20! Check it out!
See, only $20-unless, that is, you wanted to harness the awesome power of virtual chess or backgammon. That would cost you $40. For that price, you got a game made by one or two programmers who did everything, from the graphics to the coding to the sound, over the space of about two weeks to a month. This game might be fun, or it might barely be playable. There was no metacritic back then, basically you just rolled the dice with that $20. The game might not even have single player programming, or like Activision’s Dragster, each play might be under ten seconds long. If it was a game that the publisher felt might be in high demand, that was justification for a higher price point, like the arbitrary $30 tag on Space Invaders when it first released. But at least they were cheaper, right? Wrong. $20 in 1979 money, after inflation, is roughly equivalent to $62. Meaning that a primitive chess game without the ability to play against a friend, in today’s money, cost approximately $125. That’s more than enough to buy a collector’s edition copy of Mass Effect 3 and likely all the DLC that will ever be released for it, or enough to buy a DS Lite. Or you could buy three copies of Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 so you can play online with your friends. But oh man, those sweet 1979 deals. Those were the days, right?
Now, you might be thinking that this was only in the formative, relatively unregulated pre-crash days. There was no industry precedent so the industry could do as it pleased, perhaps? Well, let’s travel forward to the second generation of the post-crash era, to 1992 and the heyday of the much beloved Super Nintendo Entertainment System. As we all know, Nintendo is all about the modern gamer on a budget-surely they were always a bastion of low costs and regulated pricing!
Look at that! These prices are all over the board! There are some great high-profile games in here, so it’s a pretty good cross section. Looks like in 1992 Super R-Type would have run you $40. Not bad for a classic of its genre that most people remember really fondly. Then we have Pit Fighter, a poor port of an arcade fighting game that wasn’t even good for its time, at $60. Odds are though, if you were a kid in 1992 scoping out this catalog, what you really had your eye on was Street Fighter II. I know I did! The game was tearing up arcades at the time, the home port looked amazing, and it was the must-have title that Christmas season. So of course, it’s the most expensive title on the page, at a staggering $70! Game pricing was so deregulated in the ’90’s, you wouldn’t even believe it if you didn’t see it with your own eyes. Literally anything could affect the cost of the game, from popularity of the license (which seldom led to a good game, see Ultraman and RoboCop 3 on this page), to the amount of memory on the cartridge itself, to extra features like the ability to save progress without cumbersome passwords. And again, just in case you’ve forgotten about our friend the inflation calculator, in 2012 money a Super Nintendo game would cost you, the gamer, anywhere from $64 to an absolutely mind-blowing $113.
I could keep going here, from generation to generation, but I think you see where I’m going with this. If you honestly believe deep down in your heart that games are too expensive these days as a direct result of publishers or developers getting “greedy” or “money-hungry”, or “forgetting about the gamer”, you are absolutely and objectively wrong. I’m not even taking into account the monstrous increase in development costs, the addition of voice acting in games that can easily have more dialogue than any film, the increasingly competitive marketplace and rising advertising costs…none of that. If it took one guy to develop, say, Mass Effect 3, you would still be paying the same price and getting a much better value per dollar than you would have with Pac-Man on the Atari 2600. And EA/Bioware didn’t pay one guy to make Mass Effect 3, they paid hundreds. Increased development costs passed on to you, the consumer? Zero dollars.
So, my budding junior economists, how are developers and publishing houses to continue to turn a profit without raising sticker prices and inviting the full wrath of today’s angry consumer down upon themselves? If only there were some way they could give interested gamers the option to pay more. If there were some sort of content one might download if they felt a game worthy of further investment. I don’t care when DLC was developed, and I don’t care when it was released. It doesn’t particularly matter if it’s on the disc or if it eats up a chunk of my hard drive. Frankly, in that scenario, I feel like on-disc with an unlock key might be preferable. I might not agree with it all-for example, I miss unlocking new characters and costumes in fighting games instead of buying them-but I understand why it’s there. It’s hard to look at all the studios closing their doors for good and imagine DLC as a means for those greedy game-developing fatcats to sip 80 year old scotch all day on the front porch of their solid gold mansions. To keep using Mass Effect 3 as my example, is the much-reviled Day 1 DLC really cause for torches and pitchforks? Is it important to the story in the main game? Sure, why would they write a chapter that wasn’t? Is its inclusion necessary to enjoy the game, especially if you don’t know what you were missing in the first place? Absolutely not. The presence or absence of that chapter makes the game no more or less playable, nor does a lack of that content significantly shorten the game’s generous 50-plus hour runtime. It is simply there as an option, for people who want more and don’t mind paying more. Say two people buy the same model of new car: one gets the CD player (I hope this analogy is chronologically relevant…), and one opts for radio only. Did the person who chose radio only get “screwed”? Did the evil car manufacturer “rob” him of anything? No, he simply made his choice and paid less.
As it stands right now, after more or less a full console generation of evolving DLC implementation, you cannot point me to a single case where additional paid content was required to play a game. Slippery slope arguments have no place in this dojo. If you bring up EA and “Project Ten Dollar”, which I know you’re going to do, you’re only helping me make my case. The industry as a whole is reacting to an environment where they are making less and less money at retail in relation to their rising development costs. If you enjoy video games but honestly feel like you should be able to save yourself $5 by buying used and still be entitled to all the features of a game for which you paid neither the developer nor the publisher, we can’t be friends anymore. Do I feel like the industry should “lock out” used games in the upcoming console generation? Absolutely not. Sealed game costs would skyrocket on ebay, scalpers and opportunists would be the only winners. Do I feel like the industry would be totally justified in requiring, say, a $5 unlock key to access the full content of a used game? Absolutely. Nobody likes working for free, guys.
So next time you’re raging on a message board or giving a zero rating to a perfectly good game on Metacritic (that’ll show ’em!) because you feel so betrayed by the industry that used to swing by your house once a week and give you free games (?), stop and think about it for just five seconds. Please. Try to decide if you want to go back to the way things were, paying more in adjusted dollars for less play time and riskier quality levels, or if just maybe we as gamers actually have it pretty good these days.
Posted on March 29, 2012, in Video Games and tagged Atari 2600, Day 1, DLC, Game Industry Rant, mass effect 3, My Opinions are Factual, Prices, SNES, Video Games, Whiny Gamers, Xbox 360. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.