Massively Overthinking: Are modern games too cheap?

    
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This week’s Massively Overthinking topic is a submission from reader and commenter camelotcrusade, who takes the industry’s current fight over monetization in a different direction from lockboxes. “Are modern games too cheap?” he asks, probably slowly reaching into a can of worms with a wicked gleam in his eye.

“When you think about it, many other things we buy have increased in price over the last decade but AAA games are still expected to be a maximum of $60, with many of us waiting for sales (or for free-to-play). Meanwhile, games everywhere are adding shops, post-release content, and DLC galore with increasingly aggressive pricing models. How much of this is to make-up margins they can’t capture up-front? How much should an AA game cost in 2017? $75? $90? Is there a price point where lockboxes, gambling, and in-game stores could focus on value-add instead of survival? And how did we get here? Whose fault is it? And how do we get out of this, or is ‘would you like a game with your store’ the future as we know it?”

Let’s talk money!

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): While games are mostly the same price, you forget the trend towards deluxe collectors editions while also going digital. Deluxe versions of games gives companies ways to pad the bill, while digital helps them cut costs. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I bought a physical MMO CD. Maybe the last one was Wrath of the Lich King?

It’s not an MMO, but one of my favorite games (Undertale) is by an indie developer, and I suspect his ability to finally move out of his parents’ house isn’t from his ability to sell his game but push merchandise. Not only is he getting cash from his game and game music, but t-shirts, plushies, and now emoticons for a popular Japanese messenger service. It’s something AAA game companies can pull off too, if the game resonates with its audience. I’d bought a few Asheron’s Call things from the Turbine store back in the day, plus some World of Warcraft stuff, and that’s just MMOs.

For digital content, I feel like we’ve seen people eat up DLC and skins, especially when it doesn’t kill the playerbase or threaten competition. I’m probably sounding like an old record, but seriously, look at Overwatch. It’s massively successful, but mechanically, the game’s OK at best, struggling in the pro scene, and has a sinful way of releasing most of its lore (out of the game!). That being said, I feel like that last reason also works as a strength: It makes the world more accessible to casuals and even non-gamers. Blizzard gets to skip balancing scenarios and units in favor of animated shorts that help drive up sales of merchandise. It’s a little scary to think about until I realize it also further pushes gaming into the mainstream consciousness.

It’s the fault of companies like EA that prey on people’s psychology to make light content that continually asks for a gate fee and upkeeps. The recent Battlefront 2 debacle is a good, recent example of this. Like Overwatch, its a full priced game with lockboxes. However, BF2 also is largely a multiplayer game, gates actual content, and allows the content wall to be bypassed with real money. It’d be one thing if the content were just skins or horizontal progression (i.e., being able to change a powerful but slow sniper rifle into a medium strength, rapid reloading one a la Splatoon), but it’s raw power.

We may all feel differently about grinding, in that some love it and some hate it, but gamers in general have shown that they strongly dislike games where people with the biggest wallet get the biggest advantage. Developers constantly try to tell consumers that their game won’t do that while still selling stat-granting items in their stores. I’d say blame the consumers for buying things, but I don’t believe most consumers monitor their behavior or spending habits half as well as modern marketing teams. It’s like blaming a deer for getting shot in the woods: It doesn’t stand much of a chance against its predator.

Sadly, self-monitoring is one of the best ways to get out of this. Taking to the streets (or social media) when you realize how abusive these companies are helps too. Supporting business models you like (and also taking that to social media) furthers this. I don’t think we’ll be stuck with digital stores with a side of game as the norm, but we’re in a quick-sand filled jungle at the moment, and it may be awhile. I think focusing on making a good games, AAA and indie, followed by fair, non-stat-associated bonus content (in both digital and physical options) is going to continue to propel good games forward, not only in terms of making their developers a nice profit, but in societal awareness outside of the gaming sphere.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): It depends. As camelotcrusade noted, AAA games are being built completely cognizant of the fact that pay isn’t frontloaded anymore; they know they are going to milk DLC and microtransactions later, so if anything, they’re more expensive to the end-user than they ever were, but the fleecing is spread out. Those studios aren’t selling games, anyway; they are evolving IPs into unstoppable forces, so they don’t care whatsoever about their effect on the rest of the market.

A/AA games are offsetting their lower prices by backloading content and quality, and thus we’ve see the rise of early access and the slow death of the mid-budget MMO.

I do think that gamers have become jaded when it comes to ballooning marketing budgets and dirty tricks, and that’s made many consumers far less willing to pay through the nose to be fleeced some more on the other end. The frustration for smaller studios, I know, is that the brunt of that loss of consumer trust is borne by them when it comes to business models, not by the megacorps that drove the trend in the first place. (And yes, I blame the megacorps.)

There will always be games that eschew the “would you like a game with your cash shop” model. We need to pay for and play them and not fund the scum. You have to support the people who are doing things the right way. It is the only way out.

Darn it.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): This is going to be long; I apologize in advance. But it’s a complex question, even if the simple gloss is that it’s not so much that games are too cheap, just that our expectations of value and price have advanced at a different pace compared to costs. I don’t think a simple “have games cost more” is going to fix things because what games cost is no longer as simple as the box price.

It’s entirely accurate to say that the price of $60 for a new game hasn’t budged much over time; I remember paying that for a brand-new game when I was in high school, which was nearly 20 years ago now. A lot of other things have changed their prices since then, but game prices have remained fairly fixed. What hasn’t stayed the same is the price of hiring a programming team, and perhaps more importantly, how long that team is expected to keep working on the game after launch.

MMOs, in some ways, broke this as soon as they started existing. Buying an SNES game meant that I got the game, and that was it. There would be no further updates, not that I expected them. That meant that the team who developed Legend of Dog Punters 3 could immediately start working on Legend of Dog Punters 4 once the former shipped, often times using a modified core from the previous game. With an MMO, though, you’re expected to have the game still running in a year and still have to develop based on that game. Online connectivity meant that games were suddenly expected, more and more often, to be supported after they launched.

Seriously, expansions make a lot more sense when you realize that, in some ways, they were always a patch on a business model that already wasn’t working.

Beyond that, the cost of making a game didn’t just go up with inflation. More and more people are required to make a game that can keep pace with contemporary games, for much the same reason that you’d have a very limited audience selling a new car with ’75 stylings. That’s not to say that every single game needs to have graphics so realistic that you can see every bit of stubble on a male character’s face or every single twitch of the female lead’s eyes as she facilitates his emotional development, just that you need to at least be seen as keeping some pace with modern games on a triple-A budget. If you want to put out a credible modern FPS, you simply can’t release a game built around sprites and basic vector mapping.

So games cost more to develop because of inflation, they cost more to develop because of features and graphics, and they cost more to develop because of expected longer tails. You can even see the roots of this in the 32-bit console era, when “longer” became a selling point for a lot of games, and the runaway success of Final Fantasy VII meant games would sometimes ship in multi-CD cases that contained only one CD. That appearance of bulk made a difference.

Oh, and let’s factor in one more fun element: It’s very possible that at this point, your company is noticing that you’ve hit a certain barrier in terms of how many people are going to play games, period. As long as you have a certain box price, a certain list of hardware requirements, and a certain social image, you’re not going to get more players.

So what’s the smart move? Remove some of those barriers. And that box price is definitely a barrier, but that brings in a new problem, where you’re making a more expensive game and expecting it to make more money while costing less. And so we get lockboxes, and nasty free-to-play schemes, and lots of other things that are still engaged in the messy business of figuring out how you can make games cheaper to get into while making more money in the long run.

Can we just make games more expensive? In part, this isn’t going to work simply because the long tail of service is part of the problem. Selling five million copies of Battle for Azeroth is, in all likelihood, not going to pay for a year of World of Warcraft updates, two years of server maintenance, and so forth. And that’s assuming that there are no issues that require extra development or patch time, no unexpected problems, and so forth. People get tetchy enough about paying extra for collector’s editions that usually actually contain some extra stuff; selling an expansion for twice the price is not likely to earn goodwill and buckets of money.

That isn’t to say that stuff like Star Wars: Battlefront II isn’t being mismanaged to all hell. Here we have a pricey game I am absolutely certain cost a lot to develop and has a lot riding on its success… and the publishing company has already shot it in the foot in terms of long-tail support because of early and aggressive monetization. By poisoning the well, EA ensured it’s less likely that the game will actually make money.

What can actually be done? I think we’re going through a period of some growing pains with regards to budgets and what can reasonably done; it’s very possible that the current model of “very big budget for a blockbuster game” isn’t actually going to be sustainable for much longer. But I don’t think that just asking for more money is going to fix the problem, especially when so many other games are competing for attention and eyes. One of the things that I’ve said repeatedly is that subscription MMOs have a problem of needing a base to sustain them when their competition is everything else in the world; asking for $15/month can feel like a lot when I can get 90% of the same experience over here for $0/month.

The trick, as was discussed the other day, is in making people feel like they want to spend their dollars on this game. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): It is bizarre and disheartening to see the falling profit margins in fixed-price video games result in more and more aggressive revenue streams. MMO players are no stranger to these, of course, but now it’s really spilling over into all areas of the market with little consensus of the best approach and price points.

Personally, I am not willing to spend over $50 to purchase a game, and if I do drop that much, I expected it to be a “premium” experience with no cash shop tomfoolery. I really don’t mind buying expansions, but I am disgruntled at the practice of withholding content from a launch version to sell to players later at DLC (EA is the undisputed master of this, but that studio is far from alone).

Frankly, I feel that these AAA titles are a runaway train that are not worth the bother of pouring so much resources into them and requiring a large return. That reminds me of the collapse of Hollywood blockbusters and the insanity of gambling with so much money on an unsure return. That’s why I’m more than glad to turn my attention to smaller, leaner studios and their games which can be made for a lot less and don’t require as aggressive a monetization scheme to support it.

Your turn!

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