The transition between console generations has always been a little bumpy. People are gonna grumble a bit about the trade-offs that are made when the tech gets pushed further. The two major bugaboos have tended to be backwards compatibility (or lack thereof), and increasing game prices.
Sony and Microsoft both promised backwards compatibility with the PS5 and Xbox Series X’s predecessors, so that’s one issue averted. The other issue, however, is coming in hot. The price ceiling for standard editions of games has increased from 60 to 70 dollars. Launch titles such as Call of Duty and Godfall are already taking advantage of the price hike.
Now obviously my knee-jerk reaction was to furrow my brow and sigh. Who wants to pay more for games, right? Especially at a console’s launch, where you’re putting down 400-500 dollars PLUS an extra 10 per game. Once I thought about it a little more, however, it does make sense. Development budgets have swelled over the past few years, what with the golden pixels games are made of these days. Meanwhile, games are technically the cheapest they’ve ever been. Something has to give here!
Of course, publishers have already turned to alternative sources of income. Microtransactions (MTX) aren’t anything new, but boy have they become more popular over the past few years. Games like Destiny and half of Ubisoft’s catalog are designed around encouraging you to spend extra money. It’d be silly to say that these poor publishers NEEDED to add MTX to their games or risk going broke. Plenty of games that feature them also sell stupidly well; it’s about maximizing revenue to ungodly levels, not averting bankruptcy.
Still, I am in support of a blanket increase of prices to $70 IF it means publishers are willing to axe MTX. It seems like a strange trade-off to make: why willingly pay more upfront when you could just pay the $60 and ignore MTX? Well, it comes down to one major issue: game design.
Short History of Game Prices
But before I dive into that, let’s back up a smidgen. You may have noticed my claim that ‘games are cheaper than they’ve ever been’. This might confuse you if you remember paying 50 dollars for games only 15 years ago.
Well, the key to that claim lies in inflation. I don’t wanna get too in the weeds about economic theory, so I’ll just quote the dictionary.com definition: “A persistent, substantial rise in the general level of prices related to an increase in the volume of money and resulting in the loss of value of currency.” If you’re interested in learning a bit more about it, I recommend watching this Khan Academy video.
Anyhow. Using the US Inflation Calculator, we can calculate what game prices of yesteryear would be worth in 2020. Using the PS1 and the shift to using CDs as a starting point, we can see that:
- Though game prices weren’t quite standardized in the ’90s, most PS1 games floated around 40-50 dollars. From 1996-2000, this would roughly equate to ~60-75 dollars depending on the year.
- With the following generation, most game prices were standardized to 50 dollars. From 2001-2005 this would equate to about ~66-75 dollars.
- Finally, in 2006, the HD era brought on our current 60 dollars standard. In 2006, this would equal ~77 dollars.
Point being, price shifts have been fairly common in shifts from generation to generation, especially as inflation starts to kick in. As a matter of fact, we’re actually quite overdue for a price increase. 14 years at a stable price point is unprecedented, and might speak to why DLC and MTX have been pushed so hard.
Why A Higher Entry Fee Is Worth Ditching MTX For
Again, it would be churlish to argue that most AAA publishers NEED MTX to cover costs. Games like Assassin’s Creed sell stupidly well, and are almost surely still producing decent profits even before MTX are taken into account. Most likely, they aren’t going anywhere even with this price increase.
This hasn’t stopped people from questioning why they’re even bothering with the price hike if MTX are still going to be around. Surely, one would rather have the option to choose to pay more, rather than HAVE to. Indeed, I agree that it’s a bit predatory to have both forms of extra income still around, and that we SHOULD be pushing back on having both. The question, of course, is why I favor the universal price hike, rather than the optional MTX.
As I mentioned, it comes down the issue of game design. MTX have fundamentally altered the design philosophies of many AAA games.
The Assassin’s Creed Example
It used to be that success in Assassin’s Creed was determined by your ability to sneak around and get the drop on targets, or failing that, your skill in the counter-heavy combat system. It was never the most challenging series, but at least you knew that the main factor in whether you were doing well or not was your skill as a player.
Starting with Origins, however, they introduced a ton of quantification. You had a character level, you had weapons and armor with stats that determined strength and defense and the 2% stab resistances, etc. This isn’t inherently bad, but suddenly the series wasn’t just about your skill as a player; it was about showing up to fights with big numbers.
Now I like RPGs, but modern Assassin’s Creed crosses a certain threshold for me. I dislike that showing up to fights slightly behind the enemies’ levels means you can barely do any damage, while enemies hit like a truck. Sure, there’s skill involved in the Dark Souls-ian loop of strafing, shielding, and dodging. At the end of the day, however, if you were even slightly under-leveled, you were screwed.
Of course you could grind out minor missions and standard enemies, but most mainstream gamers tend to get turned off by grind. At this point, many of them would just abandon the game once they get bored of getting slammed around by high-level mooks, reselling the game on eBay or microwaving the disc in frustration.
Oh, but oh, what about this tab in the main menu? Why, it leads to a digital storefront that allows you to get around all the grinding with just a couple of extra dollars! Buy yourself a better weapon, some better armor, there you go! Now you don’t have to microwave anything but your next Hot Pocket, because you’re back in the action!
The Sunk Cost Fallacy
You see what I’m getting at? To make back development costs and fund the next game, publishers start tricking you into the sunk cost fallacy.
They want you to go, ‘Well, I just hit a massive wall in this game that I already spent 60 dollars on. I could spend hours of my life grinding out repetitive combat encounters or jogging from icon to icon for mind-numbingly tedious mini-objectives… OR I could just put down a couple of extra bucks to skip this.’
Repeat ad naseum. A lot of these games are deliberately designed to be suffocatingly dull, but just interesting enough to prod you into continuing. It used to be that this sort of grind was relegated to MMOs and the like. It was the massive success of games like Destiny that pushed it to the forefront of gaming.
Look, I know I’m not breaking new ground by explaining how microtransactions have decimated the design philosophy of a lot of modern games. I feel like I need to lay it out to explain why a 70 dollar flat fee could help. Instead of trying to nickel and dime you through discrete gameplay structures, they could just take the extra money upfront and deliver a less padded package.
Recouping costs wouldn’t be such an arduous process in this scenario. We wouldn’t have as many cases of games like Tomb Raider, that have to sell such an insane amount to break even. I would have suggested just reigning in the ridiculous excess, but the industry is in too much of a graphics arms race. It’s too late for any of the biggest companies to concede without falling too far behind.
But again, this thought process is largely predicated on the notion that we get to pick and choose. We can certainly argue whether MTX and a flat 10 dollar increase up-front will be better for us, as consumers. Left to their own devices, however, there’s no doubt that AAA companies will gladly double-dip.
Without leaning too hard on ‘Gamers Rise Up, We Live In a Society’ rhetoric too much, I would remind readers that their money has power. There have been plenty of instances in gaming where enough public push-back has caused publishers to cave. This is a pretty clear point where you can exert a little consumer savvy and say, “Hey, we shouldn’t have to pay this much upfront and still put up with games that clearly want me to continue paying more and more money just to get the most out of them.”
Just a thought!