Opinion: what are games really worth?


So I’m reading this piece in Gamasutra, an interview with SCE Worldwide Studios’ head Shuhei Yoshida.

He’s talking about the death-vice crushing mid-sized (30-50 man) teams between triple-As and indie developers. Mid-sized developers have been struggling, he argues, because it’s difficult for him to see what’s special about a mid-tier game when it’s priced at $60, implying that they can’t compete with triple-As on quality and can’t compete with indies on price.

So Yoshida consolidates. Yoshida shutters some of the smaller teams, merges them into triple-A powerhouses.

“Yoshida, you’re wrong,” I think to myself. Mid-tier developers are where the really interesting games come from –  they don’t need to aim for the multi-million extravaganza, but have the resources to really deliver on unique ideas. You’ve got to support them! But it’s an accusation made with a guilty conscience: in defence of plucky developers against the Big Bad Publishing Model supposedly undermining them.

Because maybe I’m part of the problem? Maybe the reason these games aren’t doing well is because I can’t see what’s special about them, either? Or at least enough that I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is. I’m that person: the one who’ll complain miserably about the latest Call of Duty but buy it anyway; who’ll wait for the Steam Sale or Bundle Bonanza to pick up certain games.

I need to be able to justify just what these games are worth if I’m really going to be able to say, with conviction, that he’s incorrect.

Actually, bugger that; let’s start with him, first.

The unmysterious games of gold


Value is traditionally driven by scarcity and perceived value. Games aren’t scarce –  if anything, they’re cornucopian in their abundance. So the perceived value is what really matters here, and in this the triple-A model is deeply entrenched. Say what you will, but they’ve defined the metric by which most of us assess the value of our games.

We’ve come to equate massive open worlds, hours upon hours of content and graphical wizardry with the $60 mark. It’s a system that doesn’t brooch wriggle room. And they’re our baseline, because they’re in our face 24-7, with advertising and press junkets and previews and pre-release trailers. It’s price signalling, and used ethically with the right target audience and platform it helps cement a fair price for a product.

Yoshida’s statement ignores some pretty obvious avenues for mid-tier developers. The first would be to stop trying to sell their games at $60. There is an underutilised niche for games in the $30-$40 arena; games that cater to a specific audience. It’s the one way these games can distinguish themselves from the triple-As.

The second, and probably the biggest, is leveraging the digital platform more effectively. For all the harping on Sony and Microsoft have made about the new digital revolution, they seem anchored to an analogue model; one where physical retail continues to drive the price despite its waning relevance. They seem loathe to to create any disparity in pricing and refuse to acknowledge that the digital platform removes a lot of the overhead costs associated with the high price games demand.

Although I can see why they’re perhaps hesitant. We haven’t exactly sold them on the idea of the digital revolution.

A generation on sale


Digital platforms are becoming known for their tremendous sales – particularly if you’re a PC gamer. Freemium, pay-what-you-want and digital sales have altered how we value games. Deep discounts get you a certain type of buyer: one whom can’t pass up a good deal but might have little to no interest in the game itself.

There’s an increasing number of gamers for whom the mantra, “I’ll wait for a sale” has become the default mode in which they engage with their hobby. While deep discounts result in sales numbers, they don’t exactly inspire loyalty. There are developers that attest to their multiplying power; there are some that argue that discounts distinguish your product and build your brand for future titles in a flooded market.

I disagree, which is a strong opinion to have given the strength of the arguments above. I think both the triple-All-Or-Nothing approach and timed sales model are insidious in the long-term. Firstly, the discrepancy between the two price points is enough to warrant comparison by the buyer but not subtle enough to allow for gradation. You have the excellent Desktop Dungeons being released for $14.99 and then “professional financial advisors” stroke their beards and declare that it’s really a $5-$10 game, tops. They’re wrong, but they’re also right because the market supports their argument. There are a number of games that promise a similar experience to Desktop Dungeons at a fraction of the cost. I’m not saying that they deliver, but the fact they exist is enough.

For thirty pieces of silver…


So have we sold our beloved games to the Romans to save a few silver coins? No. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a good deal. But we have a responsibility to the industry as well in keeping it vibrant and diverse; something players and publishers alike have perhaps lost sight of in favour of short-term gains.

Like Pandora’s box, it’s difficult if not impossible to correct once buyers have an entrenched idea about what games are worth (just ask mobile game developers). GOG’s managing director Guillaume Rambourg said in an interview that regular sales at huge discounts certainly boost sales, but train us to make bad purchasing decisions. We’ll buy games we haven’t fully assessed because false scarcity created by timed sales forces us to purchase more than we can reasonably get through or have interest in. It promotes mediocrity and shovelware that can be sold at pittance for profit1.

Publishers are wont to talk about gamer entitlement, and players about publisher’s duty to their consumer base, but perhaps the accusations should be reversed. Let’s talk about publishers ‘entitlement’ issues to expensive price tags, and players responsibility in fashioning the industry and games they want through proactive consumerism.

Games are worth what you say they’re worth; that sounds like a cop-out given the question asked in the headline, but it’s true nonetheless.

PlayStation Plus offers you a growing  games library at a very reasonable monthly subscription; money which by some reports at least filters back to the developers. Kickstarter provides a means to allay the initial cost of development – removing it from the final price equation. Humble Bundles let you pay what you want but also provide an indicator of what most are paying through the average price.

If there’s a scummy pre-order incentive tied to a game (I’m looking at you, Metro:Last Light), don’t pre-order it. If you voted for something on Greenlight and it’s successfully Greenlit, seriously consider buying it on release. When companies try to force free-to-play economic models onto games that you already bought, call them out. Digital platforms allow you to converse directly with developers and publishers – use it to your advantage; challenge them on price and see if they can’t persuade you to think otherwise.

I’d like to throw some stern words to publishers, but I don’t speak their language – it’s a dialect of greenbacks and denominations delivered through that mythical channel of transactions. Words hold no sway there, only hard numbers.

So when you have a chance to add your two coppers to the scales, make sure they count.

1 It’s worth noting that GOG has since engaged in the deep discounting they previously derided in this interview, going as high as 80% off certain titles.