Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Price Pointing

A short time ago, BBC Radio 1’s website Newsbeat featured an article by Dan Whitworth, calling attention to a British price hike for the upcoming Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The new Call of Duty will apparently retail in the UK for £55, rather than the usual £45. Apparently UK gamers are up in arms about it, although judging by the reactions from Dan’s interviewees, it’s not going to affect their purchasing decisions. Maybe that’s because they’re already willing to pay the equivalent of US$75 for a game Americans only pay $60 for. What’s another $16?

We Americans saw a similar phenomenon in the US around the inception of this latest generation of console gaming hardware in 2005 and 2006 when the price point for a new video game jumped from $49.99 to $59.99. I don’t remember a particular fuss being made about it at the time, although debate still rages in the community as to whether games were worth $50 in the first place. It’s this ‘price point’ mentality – this idea that no matter what the content of a video game (or, for that matter, a roleplaying sourcebook), it is worth a certain amount of money simply because it belongs to a certain class of commodity.

It is difficult to argue this point about video games because of the multiple genres involved, all of which have very different standards of quality. For instance, I may find it ridiculous that Halo 3, a ten-hour game, retails for the same price as Lost Odyssey, a 50-hour game, but that is largely because I am a roleplaying gamer, unlikely to get much enjoyment from Halo 3’s robust multiplayer system. But on the other hand, it is a often a challenge to find two games in the same genre that are wildly disparate in content, largely because the games with lesser content often suffer from other failings that cause them to be panned by the community.

Fortunately this generation of games has at least one example I am very familiar with. Take Shadowrun, another contemporary of Halo 3 that shares both the ‘shooter’ genre and Halo’s publisher, Microsoft. Shadowrun has no single-player content, which suggests a lower price point, but its matchmaking is also vastly inferior to Halo 3’s, and its bot AI is considered to be so bad that Halo 3’s complete lack of bot AI is preferable. These latter elements mandated a lower price point, and one was eventually reached – through market pressures. The game was retailing new at $29.99 only a few months following its release.

But the point is that both games started out at the same place, in terms of cost to the consumer: $59.99. Why was a game so clearly inferior to its contemporaries priced so highly?

Admittedly, in recent years we have seen game publishers set lower prices for ‘second-string’ video game titles, between $25 and $40, but this typically has nothing to do with quality or quantity of content and everything to do with brand. The big releases are all still right up there at $60, not including ‘special editions’ that can run anywhere from $70 to $120 or more. Now, I’m not saying that video games on average are not worth $60. That’s an argument for a different post, and probably a different blog. What I’m asking is, “Why is EVERY game worth $60?” It seems to me that gamers need to use some of that consumer market pressure that drove the price of Shadowrun down so quickly to convince game publishers that we are smart enough to notice that not all video games are equal. Maybe this means some of them will become more expensive than $60. But it sure as heck should mean that many of them become significantly less expensive.

This same phenomenon is visible in the roleplaying game industry. Wizards of the Coast raised the cost of the core rulebooks for Dungeons & Dragons, 3rd Edition, from $20 to $30, and we all grumbled but didn’t argue. Their press releases were right, after all – the price point on the books had not risen for twenty years. It was time. I do not begrudge companies responding to the forces of inflation. Now, books a fraction of the size of those core rulebooks retail for $35, and major sourcebooks can retail for as much as $50. But the real issue is that again, these numbers are irrespective of content! Page count for a $35 sourcebook can range anywhere from 100 to 300 pages. So I’m forced to ask, “Why?”

Why is a 100-page book worth the same amount of my money as a 300-page book? Why hasn’t the community used its collective consumer power to do something about this? Why are we so content to throw our money away on these hobbies?

It’s certainly not that we aren’t aware. People notice these things; I know they do. I’ve heard them complain. But no one ever seriously eschews making a purchase as a result. Video gamers might wait until a game hits the shelves used to pick up the occasional title, but if it is something we really want, we’ll buy it new – or as soon as it shows up used, in which case we’re essentially paying full price anyway, and for a lower-quality product.

Perhaps we ignore these ludicrous price-point strategies because we recognize that spending money on these things is a waste to begin with, and we acknowledge this at such a basic level that we are not enraged by the blatant discrepancies. Personally, I think it’s time we all got a bit more active and conscientious about the value of our dollars. We owe it to ourselves, but more importantly we owe it to the hobby.

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