The Invisible Hand of Adam Smith Extends its Middle Finger

12 06 2009

As I get ready to trade in another 6 games I haven’t played in a while to Gamestop just to get one new game, I am reminded of the problem the game industry has with the cost of games. Ever since this console generation, game prices have shot up to $60, something we hadn’t seen since the N64 days. We were told that the switch to disc media would benefit the consumer because game prices would go down. That hasn’t happened. I doubt it will even with this current economic crisis. Now while some people blame Gamestop for their trade-in policies, I choose not to. After all, used games was how I built up the game collections of my Genesis, my N64, my PS1, my PS2, and my NES. The problem is that Gamestop has to make money off of the secondhand games market, and sadly with game prices the way they are now, they can’t drop prices dramatically on used games for the current generation of consoles.

So we’re back to the big problem, the price of a new game itself. ranging from $40 on handheld systems, to $50 on the Wii, to $60 if you’re buying for the PS3 or 360. These are pretty much the highest prices each company’s current-gen console has had for a game, apart from the aforementioned $60 N64 titles.

When the Gamecube came out, it seemed like Nintendo switching to disc media had been a good thing. Games were frequently only $40, as opposed to the $50 being offered by the Xbox. But now the Wii’s game prices are frequently set at $50, while the PS3 and Xbox 360 games are at $60. What happened?

Well quite simply, the budgets for games, as well as the size of development teams, increased dramatically. The desire to produce better-looking games has in effect resulted in the price of games staying high despite the assurances that we’d be experiencing lower-cost games. Now of course this is not uniformly true, but it’s the most prevalent cause.

Personally I think the problem is that we’re focusing too much on visual quality instead of presentation as a whole. I mean look at Valve. They’ve used the exact same game engine (with upgrades) for the past 5 years now. When Left 4 Dead came out one of the biggest complaints was that “The Source Engine is showing its age”. Why should that matter? The engine still has everything we take for granted now (physics, ragdolls, good AI mechanics, mod-friendly, etc.), and now we’re deriding something for still being used to produce and excellent game? Unreal Engine 2 was around for almost the same amount of time and I don’t recall anybody ever saying it was “showing its age”. Again it’s a testament to how well-built something is if it can stand the test of time in the face of something that “looks” better…at least if we were anywhere else but the video game industry. And now of course Epic is working on Unreal Engine 4 which won’t even see the light of day until the next generation. Granted this means they plan to have Unreal Engine 3 around for up to a decade if necessary, but still.

The problem is that we’ve gone too fast. The explosion of the industry has resulted in use becoming slightly decadent in our ways, and we need to do something about it. Now I’m not suggesting all game prices drop, but what I would suggest is a better chance for smaller studios to get a chance to shine. The problem being they can’t do that because they don’t have the money to do as much marketing as places like EA or Valve or Blizzard. WiiWare, Xbox Live Arcade, and the PSN do allow for indies to get a slice of the pie, but at the same time the reviewers need to bring these games to bigger attention, moreso than has already been done.

Hmm…it occurs to me this tirade about the price of games also became a tirade about graphics, but oh well. My point again is just that we need to step back a bit, especially in these tight economic times. Focus on the whole product, not just the graphical flair. And maybe, just maybe, find a way to make games a tad bit more affordable.

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