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There's a war going on in the video game world, but it's over dollar signs, not virtual land.
A boxed copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, the world's top-selling console game, costs $60.Angry Birds, the world's biggest mobile game franchise, costs $1 for software that you can download in under a minute. The pricing gap between what's traditionally considered the highest-tier premium games and the fast-evolving mobile, tablet, and social gaming market is widening, and it's spelling disaster for countless game makers caught in the middle.
According to The NPD Group, physical content sales were down 8% in 2011. This year hasn't been a cakewalk either, with sales continuing to slide. Though some of the blame can rightfully be foisted upon the decline of the once-mighty Wii, it's apparent that people aren't buying games like they used to, and the industry is scrambling to figure out why. But most agree that it begins — and likely ends — with the high cost of new games.
The sentiment that games cost too much is certainly not new. Wired's Chris Kohler recently outlined a list of reasons games cost too much and combated the argument that the used game market can be blamed. Nexon America's CEO Daniel Kim told GamesIndustry International that "Free-to-Play" games (often called "Freemium" because users are incentivized to pay small premiums for more content) are not going away and the traditional model will have to change.
He's right. $60 has always been an embarrassing, crippling barrier of entry compared to gaming's entertainment peers. A brand new book, DVD, or CD rarely breaks the $20 mark, and even the highest tier Blu-rays cap out at around $30. Why are new games so pricey?
Publishers have long blamed console games' high price on a plethora of issues. Skyrocketing development costs is a biggie, as is piracy. Most recently, publishers are taking aim at the used game market, charging that the buying and selling of used merchandise is taking cash out of their pockets.But whatever impact on profitability these concerns have, it doesn't change two monumental problems:
- Psychologically, $60 just sounds expensive. This isn't anecdotal, this is common sense. Unless you're financially independent, $60 outright repels a vast slice of the entertainment consumer populace that the games industry desperately needs to convert to grow and survive.
- People are having fun playing more affordable games. The choice and product quality at the bottom end of the pricing scale -- anything under $15 or so -- has grown tremendously in a relatively short period of time. Games like Draw Something, Angry Birds, and Infinity Blade aren't only played by 'casual' gamers.
The most egregious example of old-school thinking is the release of Plants vs. Zombies on PlayStation Vita. One of the rarer "crossover" successes, the game costs $3 on the iPhone but a whopping $15 on the Vita for an identical product. Why? Because it's a dedicated gaming device and core gamers are accustomed to paying higher premiums. How long can this madness last?
It's not just Facebook and smartphones that threaten to steal that audience. The consoles themselves have thriving online stores in Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, offering gaming alternatives with high production value and more relaxed pricing. Just look to successes like Battlefield 1943 (over 1MM units sold), Xbox's Castle Crashers (sold 2.6 million), and recent PS3 hit Journey, which quickly became the PSN's fastest-selling title ever.
If the Old Guard would just drop the charade that $60 is the only feasible price point, they might find an unexpectedly higher volume of purchasers to mitigate the reduced revenue per gamer. I realize that the $60 Call of Duty costs some tens of millions more to develop, market, and distribute than the $1 Angry Birds, but is there really a $59 differential there? Someone wiser than me in economics can surely model up a theory that finds a middle ground.
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