Should Video Games Cost More? Statistics Say No
Over the past few weeks and months, there has been much discussion about the price of video games. After listening to a recent podcast episode from the Wulff Den, wherein they advocated for the price increase of video games to $70, I realised it was time to speak out on the subject. This is, of course, not an affront to Bob and Will Wulff, who remain some of my favourite content creators, but rather a wake-up call as to why we should be thinking critically about what we’re saying — especially if you can influence a large audience.
But Video Games Have Always Been $60 (Or Your Regional Equivalent)
Let’s start with this little nugget. Yes, this statement is factually correct, but it fails to account for the nuance of the changes in our lifestyle over the past thirty years. The cost of housing in the UK has trebled since 1999, for example. “ [The] cost of a home in 1999 stood at around £91,000, compared to £279,000 now,” says a leading financial website.
Groceries have also gone up, increasing by at least double since 1990. This is attested by the Bank of England, who state that a pint of milk cost just 25p that year, as opposed to the 55p charged by Sainsbury’s today. But you would expect that wages would have also gone up over this time to account for inflation, right? According to an 2019 article in the Guardian, “Research by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that the average worker has lost £11,800 in real earnings since 2008 ... Workers have suffered cumulative losses in inflation-adjusted pay ranging from just under £5,000 in north-east England to more than £20,000 in London.” If the average person is struggling to pay their bills, they certainly don’t have the disposable income for a luxury like video games.
Looking at statistics is never the epitome of fun, but it is essential. They tell us that while the price of our necessities and accommodation has increased by double or more over the past decades, our wages have stagnated. We now have less disposable income than ever, so the argument that the price of games has never gone up with inflation is a fallacy.
There are many factors at play here, and if we look back to the 90s, game prices were all over the place. Former IGN journalist Colin Moriarty drew attention to the price of gaming in a 2013 article, where he shows inflation-adjusted statistics for consoles going back to the Atari 2600 in 1977. The trend being that from the 2600 to now, prices have more or less constantly decreased with every console generation. Combine this with the fact that, as we will see later, the games industry is growing exponentially, we can infer that pricing was a contributing factor prohibiting a more widespread adoption of video games in the past. Essentially, selling something cheaper leads to more units shipped, which then leads to more profit in the long run. If this trend holds true and we see prices start to rise again, we will see less adoption from consumers across the board.
Supply, Demand, and the Popularity of Video Games
Everybody knows that the popularity of our medium has skyrocketed. So, you have to ask the question: why did games cost $60 to begin with? The answer is intertwined with the basic supply and demand of free-market economics. Games were expensive because not many people bought them compared with today.
In 2011, the games industry generated $65 billion in revenue. By 2017, this number had jumped to $108.9 billion, and the video game industry is considered one of the fastest-growing recession-resistant industries on the market. It is clear that although the price of games hasn’t increased, the numbers at which they are selling has, and that’s not factoring in microtransactions.
Companies want your money — pure and simple. Any excuse or narrative that they push is in an attempt to justify their actions. This might sound cynical, but it’s true. There is no place for emotion in business; they only exist to make money. The consumer, however, does hold a lot of power, but only if you wield it. If you say, “Actually, I think you should charge more for games,” then they will. And this ties in with why console manufacturers want an all-digital future.
The PlayStation 5 will have an all-digital option, and this is convenient for many. But a shift towards disc-less media financially benefits the likes of Sony and Microsoft hugely, because this will destroy the used-game market. Every time you buy a used game, you are depriving publishers and platform-holders of revenue. If consoles go all-digital, like PC did many years ago, then they not only get all of your revenue, but they also dominate the market. This means they can set prices at what they see fit because you can’t just go pick up a cheap used copy of a game.
The mistake that many of us make when contemplating arguments like this is that they sound nasty: “But the company made the game, it’s only fair that they get paid. It’s only a little price increase, and prices haven’t gone up in decades.” These are justifications because you, as an individual, have morals that make you feel good/bad. A faceless corporate entity, however, does not have such qualms because it is not a person, and the people at that company who do make financial decisions are looking at graphs and statistics, working out how to make you give them more. Not to mention that as we move towards an all-digital future, where games are purchased directly through a platform holder’s store, they will receive more revenue, even if prices remain as they are now.
The Hollywoodisation of AAA and the Indie Factor
It’s uncommon to see an indie game cost the same as a brand-new AAA title. Yet, they are often more charming and original than their bigger counterparts. This is partly subjective, of course, but it’s also largely objective, too — it can be argued that the design of Ubisoft games has changed very little in the past decade, for example. It could be argued that they have attempted to innovate in games such as Assassin’s Creed, where we have seen the series shift towards more of an RPG style, but these changes are superficial, and Ubisoft will use the new design until we are talking about this again in five years (Origins, Odyssey, and now Valhalla all share similar designs). And fundamentally, we’re still climbing towers to unlock new areas like it’s 2007. The series’ creator even apologised for introducing the ubiquitous “Ubisoft tower.”
But indies have less overhead; they don’t spend money on all of the goodies the AAAs have, like motion capture. Excellent point, imaginary person, which brings me to my ultimate argument: nobody asked the AAA studios to balloon to Hollywood levels. If AAA studios are having trouble making enough money — which they aren’t, they just want more and more — then maybe they should be scaling back their production value. Ubisoft, for example, are creating ever more expensive and expansive worlds, but their basic design philosophy remains “Climb tower; make map blips appear; make blips go away.”
The continuing popularity of the adventure genre, where pixel art is still common, is a testament to this. Making a good game does not mean making an expensive game.
We’re facing an uncomfortably long and trying period at the moment, and we should be looking after the needs of each other as individuals. Worry about your own mental and financial well-being first and foremost. Video games can help get you through tough times, and if they are more expensive, that will put them out of reach of many.
If you have any kind of platform, and this goes for any individuals in media or content creation, help look after your audience’s well-being, too. Put yourself in the shoes of those that aren’t as fortunate as you and understand that what you say has more influence than you might realise.
If you work with the video game industry in any way, it’s easy to lose sight of what an average consumer can actually afford. Getting press keys pinged at you left, right, and centre can skew your perception of a product. You might think that game you just played was a fun time, but do you ever stop to think whether you would spend your hard-earned £50/$60 on it? Especially if it was the only game you could purchase for the foreseeable future?
You don’t need to buy into what big business is selling you — literally or figuratively. Vote with your wallet, and consciously support practices that you agree with. If you like where the indie scene is going, then give them your money and support. Then maybe, one day, indie developers will be able to afford bigger studios and compete with the rigid corporate mentality that kills originality, which is displayed by so many of the entrenched AAA studios.
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