Talkback: Paying it Forward

Talkback is a featured series for cross-blog topics.

What’s a good price for a game? Personally, I won’t pay $60 for a game any more, even though I used to pay $100 back in the 90s. Everyone has their limits. I guess age has made me a penny pincher. Or it could be my increasing poverty …

All the same, developers have to eat. Gamers want cheaper games and are increasingly unwilling to pay more than $40. How do I know this? I think the trends in free to play gaming and presence of micro-transactions show that companies need to lower the barrier to entry significantly if they want large crowds to pay for their games. The greatest barrier to entry is the price of a game. Yet free games and those with item shops have dubious quality. Even though we might download that free app, the advertisements which make it possible can be very intrusive and even ruin the experience.

So what do we do? How do we demand better games and ensure that those developers are around the following year to keep making them?

A recent report on discusses how the console wars have resulted in more expensive games than last generation’s. The report mentions that games like Forza – a great example of a gaming replacing the intrinsic value of its features with monetization – are giving you less game for $60 while making features formally included in the box price available as DLC. This isn’t the first time we’re hearing of this  either: Mass Effect 3 did the same thing almost a year ago. While Steam seems to be walking the opposite end of the price spectrum by birthing the sales model of Outrageously Under-priced Games, gamers and developers are getting mixed messages about what this next generation of gaming should cost us. I think digital should be cheaper in most cases.

There’s some research that has been conducted on whether our games are cheaper today than they were yesterday, but they tend to focus on costs and price. They don’t look at value (what you actually get in terms of gameplay fulfillment), which can, admittedly, be difficult to measure on a game to game basis. I think DLC is one tool developers use today that chip value from our games even as they’re only intending to add value. Where a game may have usually come with 10 levels, now they come with 8 and 2 are sold as additional map packs.

There’s also the fact that technology isn’t just getting better thanks to Moore’s Law, but also getting cheaper each generation. The relatively stable price of video games makes it seem like the games are cheaper, yet compensating for inflation we can see that console prices are pretty stable. They should be decreasing if our games are cheaper, so why are they getting more expensive?

One reason might be the huge development teams behind AAA titles. Teams 400-700 developers have been par for the course. As technology gets better, the need for ever more specialized experts to wield it increases. Or at least that seems to be the case. Destructoid published a piece last year questioning whether more developers actually made for a better game. In two examples in the article, the author pointed out that the games with large development teams suffered from inconsistency which negatively impacted the gameplay experience. More cooks in the kitchen did not a quality meal make.

Years ago I predicted that MMO games would go toward niche markets in the future. At this rate, all games will. The AAA mega hit is clearly little more than game snobbery – the Bugattis of gaming, if you will – and are priced for people who make enough money such that they can afford not to care about prices, or who scoff at them while they blow hundreds on pixels in the item shops. The rest of us get Steam, GoG, and Humble Bundle sales. There’s a strong portion of gamers out there who simply don’t have $60 to throw around, and most of those gamers are people who have been consuming games for decades. Gamers like me. Current pricing trends seem to price entire demographics of gamers out of the market. Going forward, I think there’s a few things happening in the industry which gives the poor gamer something to look forward to.

1. Indie Development

While more risky than the typical 9 to 5, indie development allows developers the maximum professional fulfillment. They get to make the games they want to make and decrease publishing and distribution costs. This has really taken off in recent years as digital media continues to evolve and become more accessible each year. Where in the past developers relied more on the PC markets to thrive as indies, consoles have really improved their platforms for digital distribution and as a consequence indie development has been brought into the mainstream. The fact that gamers are widely aware of such a thing as Indie Games is clear proof of this phenomenon. The bottom line: the bottom line (100% of money goes to the developer).

2. Indie Distribution

Stores like Humble Bundle and GoG help new developers by providing an additional distribution channel and it helps that they are usually DRM free. While most games featured at these stores are older, they are still a mainstream way to make these games visible to the most people. Indie developers know that the best marketing they can get is putting their games into as many hands as possible. Decreasing the cost to make a game through such channels is roughly equivalent in value to saving on billboard advertisements, so while the game has a lower price, almost every cent goes directly into the pockets of developers. These distribution methods typically also provide the option to distribute the money between the devs and charities. It’s the optimal win for all involved. Players get to name their price AND determine who gets the money. It’s a wonderful thing and I patronize these shops as much as possible these days.

What else can we do to make sure we’re giving enough money back to developers without completely stripping them of their ability to charge the fees they need to develop the games? This generation, through globalization and digital distribution, is bringing the cost of everything down to Free, but not with its own unique risks. It creates an industry in which only the richest companies can afford to compete. A perfect example of this right now is the development of Everquest Next as a free-to-play MMO. Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) has massive resources to pour into a AAA quality game while also charging players nothing to play it. Indie developers looking to join this market will find it near impossible to compete with such a behemoth. Free to play doesn’t always translate into fair and healthy economic activity.

Over the past year, I’ve made the decision to buy more independently developed games. I figure I can at least be sure I’m paying developers for their work while also supporting games which are considered outside of the mainstream market. I also make it a priority to purchase things in free-to-play games if I enjoy the game. Nothing is truly free. If I can afford it, I support the developer in any way I’m able. I figure I can help keep the game free for gamers who truly can’t afford to pay.

What do you think: are constantly declining prices for games good for developers?

#f2pgames #indiegames #gamertalk