Games - what are they worth?

Written by Wil Harris

July 21, 2005 | 11:36

Companies: #steam

Let's return to the eternal question - what would happen if games were cheaper?

Generally, the arguments for games piracy run thus. Games are too expensive - they're not value for what they are. If games were cheaper, more people would be able to buy them, resulting in less piracy. As it is, people download warez versions of games because the prices are ridiculous.

As with music, there's also a feeling that not much of the money makes it back to the developer that has created the game - it all goes to the 'evil' publisher.

The flipside of this argument is that nobody suggests that it's ok to steal a Porsche because they're too expensive for most people to buy.

But the flipside of that is that Porsches are not marketed at kids and their pocket money, or students and their overdrafts.

So, in this column, I'd like to consider just a few theories of pricing and marketing, put forward some examples, and see if I can get some debate going amongst our readers, possibly challenging some viewpoints along the way.

Pricepoints for quality

How would you feel about abandoning the current model of pricing? Currently, new titles come out at £30-£40 ($50-$60), and after a period of time based on the success of the title, drop down into a budget range of anywhere between £5-£15 ($10-$20).

"Porsches are not marketed at kids and their pocket money"

A new game that is challenging this model is Aurora Watching. This is a new title, from a decent publisher, and is hitting the shelves at £20. The pricepoint is reflective of the fact that this isn't an A+ title, and it's not one for which there's been an awful lot of hype. It's simply out there at a more approachable price in the hopes that more people will approach it. Simple? Yes. Effective? We're yet to see the results, but I'll keep an eye out with interest.

The other end of this argument is the question of whether you would pay more for premium titles. £40 for Half-Life 2? £50 for Halo 2? Arguably, these genre-defining gaming experiences are worth a premium over common-or-garden titles that make up the meat of the release schedules.

The danger with a premium charge for A+ titles is that publishers would inevitably take the piss a little. Not many would rank Need For Speed Underground 2 as a premium, genre-defining title, but you can bet your ass that EA would take any sniff of an opportunity to put a price hike on its games, and EA would probably define most of its games as 'key titles' that warrant a premium.

Of course, luke-warm subsequent sales could do the trick.

Hike the development, hike the price

Would you pay more for better production qualities, and therefore less for simpler things? This may look the same as the argument above, but isn't quite.

For example: say the latest racing game comes complete with a pimpin' hip-hop soundtrack from all the big stars. Regardless of the gameplay, would you pay more to have that? Would racing games without the big-name endorsements be able to sell more, for less, as a consequence?

How about graphics features? Would you pay more for a game with full Shader Model 3.0 support? If a game simply supported a SM1.1 path, maybe charge £5 less, if it supported 3.0 then £5 more. Would you pay for better graphics?

This is an argument that is being used when it comes to next-gen consoles. The HD graphics and incredible shader support have, it is rumoured, sent production costs through the roof. It's all very well having insane hardware capabitlies, but it's no good if developers don't have the time or money to support them. There are rumours of a price premium for games on the Xbox 360 and PS3 - is this reasonable? And if it's reasonable, would it be reasonable to have the same premium on the PC version of titles published on both PC and next-gen consoles?

"Max Payne 2 - 8 hours gameplay at best"

Change the distribution model

Packaging, DVD discs, shipping - it all adds up. Perhaps one of the greatest crimes of the 21st Century is that Half-Life 2 on Steam was the same price as Half-Life 2 in the shops. There was a real opportunity there to break the mould when it came to price, one that was missed.

As digital distribution goes forward, though, would you pay less to have the game downloaded and burn your own backup, rather than having the box on your shelf? I know I would.

Pricing based on game time

Max Payne 2 - 8 hours gameplay at best, full priced. Zelda on the Gamecube - tens and tens of hours of gameplay, same price. Is this fair, is it value for the gamer? I don't think so. Why not pay more for a longer game, and less for a shorter one?

One of the exciting moves in this area is the announcement of Sin Episodes, short episodes of content - 6 hrs or thereabouts - made for less money and distributed on Steam. The model is almost more akin to an MMORPG - pay a monthly fee and get a new top-up of gaming action. Is this an idea that excites you?

More aggressive anti-piracy action

One thing is clear - it's impossible to stop people copying physical media. Cracks are available for games often before they've even been published - if it can be coded, it can be hacked, simple as that. Anti-piracy measures on physical media do nothing except annoy bona fide customers.

What's the only game not to be hacked straight after launch in recent times? Half-Life 2. The digital distribution and linking to an account with personal details virtually wiped out mass piracy of the game, at least at launch, although it did lead to phishing schemes to try to trick people out of their accounts. Whilst there are 'no-Steam' versions available, they're not as easily accessible or usable as normal ISO copies.

Could the way forward for cutting out piracy be to go all digital?

And what about torrent sites? I was pointed towards a torrent tracker this week that had no copies of Microsoft Office available for download, "following a request from the copyright holder". Most torrent sites are run by people without significant financial backing - is it worthwhile the industry going after these hubs? Undoubtedly the warez scene took a significant hit when Suprnova went down - a few more hits like that and everyone would be back on IRC, significantly cutting down the ease of piracy.

Would that be a good idea?


So, a quick summary. Why not pay for a game based on the quality of the content, or its likelihood of being a huge classic? Should we move to fully digital distribution and use that to clamp down on piracy? How about paying for games based on their length? Let us know your comments.
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