The business model for game pricing is in dire need of a change.
That’s probably clear to anyone that’s been playing games for a while, but in this generation, especially with the advent of downloadable content, it’s become more obvious that we can no longer follow a simple formula of “disc-based game=$60 at retail.” I’m thinking this because more and more, I’m encountering games for review that I’m torn on. Asura’s Wrath, the latest example of this, is a game that I absolutely love on the one hand, but cannot, in good faith, necessarily recommend to everyone at the traditional $60 price point. Were it a downloadable game, or were it priced at 25% or 50% off, I would probably be less hesitant to tell people to take the chance. But when you’re talking about a significant amount of cash that’s not necessarily easy for everyone to come by, it becomes much harder to say “Yeah, you might not like it, but you know what? Splurge.” Games, with the current business model, are very difficult to splurge on as a day one, impulse, brand new purchase. The decision to attend a movie is more of a reasonable impulse buy than the decision to buy a game.
At least, that was the case until the causal market became the dominant one in the sales department. With the advent of iOS platforms, Android devices, and even the debut of the Xbox Live Marketplace and Playstation Network, we’ve seen games enter the market from the oh-so-reasonable price of Absolutely Free, to $4.99, $9.99, $14.99 and many other points in between and beyond. Part of this is due to the lower budgets and production values allotted to such games, and while another reason is that digital games can be priced lower thanks to not having to spend money on distribution, physical reproduction, or packaging.
So where does that leave a game like Asura’s Wrath?
Asura’s Wrath is a niche game. We live in a market where console gamers are now only confident about spending $60 on a game if they know that it’s got “AAA” production values, positive reviews up the wazoo, with a 90+% overall average on Metacritic. Gamers want to know that if they’re spending $60, it’s going to be on a really, REALLY good game. Of course, like music, fiction and film, only a very small number of works are going to be at the top of the tier in any given the year. The rest will fall across a broad spectrum of “awful” through to “passable” to even “pretty good.” If the retail disc-based market wants to enjoy healthy sales across a broad range of titles, it needs to get its production budgets under control (another topic entirely for a future article) and continue to expand the purchasing options available to consumers.
The recent flood of HD remakes is a good example of tiered pricing for disc-based games. These titles average anywhere from $30 to $40. Each collection averages about three games, which translates to dozens of hours of gaming for something that’s half the cost of a modern game. Part the reason for this lower pirce is the understanding that these are games from the previous generation; it’s a built-in admission that a smaller audience exists for the collections, necessitating a smaller price to generate more appeal. Other titles, like those of the small publisher Atlus, can hit the shelves brand new, at lower prices simply because someone over at Atlus knows that they’re not making “AAA” games and can’t always ask for AAA prices. 3D Dot Game Heroes debuted on shelves, brand new, at $39.99. Again, there was a clear, objective understanding on the part of Atlus that this deliberately “low fi” Zelda-esque adventure was catering to a niche audience, and they acknowledged that fact in their price point. More publishers need to start looking at the broad spectrum of titles in their inventories and ask themselves if every single one of those IPs are going to sell in decent numbers at $60, or perhaps benefit from smaller profits, but greater sales at a lower point like $40.
It’s true that $40 for an entertainment experience still isn’t on par with the lower cost of going to the movies. But since games can last anywhere between 6 hours to well over 100, $40 for a fun experience that isn’t necessarily the greatest gaming experience of the year is easy to swallow for many gamers. Asura’s Wrath is not a $60 game for most people. But I think if they saw it for $30, maybe even $40, it would a more palatable expenditure on what is certainly one of the most insane gaming experiences of the year.