Consoleation Opinion: The Price Is Wrong
I talked last week about something called an HD Tax, which is what I define as the extra $10 that Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 owners are paying for software versus what consumers paid for games a generation ago. This extra cost tends to accumulate over time, so if you average buying one new game per month, you wind up spending an additional $120 over this time five years ago. While some games have arguably “earned” the right to charge this premium, many others (take the recent disaster Iron Man 2, for example) don’t. While this tax/premium seemed like a more reasonable idea at the start of this console generation, times have also changed since then. Unemployment is hovering near 10% nationwide, the cost of living has increased, and disposable income is decreasing. This partially explains why some consumers look to buy used, as it’s money saved and still allows for the ability to play newer or recent games at a lower price point. I know that I’ve gone over this argument a few times here, but it’s a prelude to a related topic that’s at the center of today’s opinion.
Inexplicably, we’re seeing the average price of downloadable titles marching higher. Both of last week’s Xbox LIVE Arcade releases– Zeno Clash: Ultimate Edition and RayStorm HD— were priced at 1200 Microsoft Points, or $15. These examples are the most recent evidence that the $15 mark is the new standard for these games, after $10 (or 800 Microsoft Points) was the standard for a majority of the Xbox 360’s life span. In fact, in the platform’s infancy, there was a decent split between $5 retro/arcade titles and $10 original releases… but titles like Braid and Shadow Complex broke the previous $10 barrier and sold for $15. We’re not only seeing the new $15 price point become more prevalent, but we’re seeing that the quality of these apparent premium releases is arguable at best.
While I’ve not yet played Braid, reviews and impressions that I’ve read seem to indicate that the game is worthy of the premium price point. Shadow Complex was a fantastic game with decent length and options that certainly earned the $15 that I spent on it. Conversely, releases like 0 Day Attack on Earth, NBA Unrivaled, Invincible Tiger, and Fret Nice don’t come anywhere close to deserving a $15 premium. Other games in the $15 range, like RayStorm HD and Scrap Metal, are questionable at best. Of the 21 XBLA titles released so far in 2010, 9 of them are $15 titles– that’s 43%. Compare that with 24% of XBLA games released in 2009 (21 out of 91) that were more than $10, and you see a significant increase. Almost double, in fact.
The price point for RayStorm HD was quite unsettling to me, as the cosmetic changes are not all that drastic and that the new modes of play really don’t break any new ground. Considering that you can buy Taito Legends 2 for the PlayStation 2 for less than $10 new and that RayStorm is but one of 39 total games included on the disc… $15 is rather steep. Yes, it’s got Achievements and Leaderboards, but are the additions made to the original arcade version of RayStorm that significant? I don’t think so. 0 Day Attack on Earth is another example of fleecing; it’s short, repetitive, and relies on expensive paid DLC to extend the experience… and you’re still expected to pay $15 for the base game. Where’s the precedent here? Is it because the game uses satellite imagery of actual cities for background visuals? I certainly hope not. There’s just no rhyme or reason to what qualifies as a $15 game anymore. It used to be the exception, based on a variety of factors. Now it seems to be more of the norm, a 33% increase over what XBLA consumers have generally been accustomed to paying for quite some time now.
Speaking of paid DLC for XBLA games, it’s getting ridiculous. Square-Enix is getting a reputatiion for gutting content from their XBLA releases in order to resell that content as DLC shortly after launch. Many of these games are Taito offerings, like Bubble Bobble, Arkanoid, and Qix. This is not to say that paid DLC has not existed previously for XBLA games, but these examples are the most egregious ones. The base games may sell for $10, but the DLC is $5 or more in order to make the game complete. Capcom’s DLC releases for Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10 are clear revenue builders and arguably should have been part of the original releases as space was never an issue. For publishers, these are great ideas… but unsuspecting consumers are getting fleeced, and there’s no end in sight to this trend.
I’ve always been a proponent of downloadable games for services like Xbox LIVE Arcade or the PlayStation Store. These can be impulse purchases and some of these games can really be impressive, like Battlefield 1943 or Shadow Complex. As prices begin to creep up to the $15 range, however, the danger exists that there will be less impulse and more caution on the part of consumers. Downloadable games are not refundable and you can’t trade them in or sell them, so you’re basically stuck with what you buy. Dropping $5 or even $10 impulsively on a game and walking away less than impressed stings a bit less than dropping $15 on a stinker like 0 Day Attack on Earth or NBA Unrivaled that you inevitably either wind up deleting or just forgetting about… and consumers won’t forget after they’ve been burned. If $15 is going to become the new standard, then the level of quality needs to be higher. Something has to give.
As prices go up, it becomes harder for me to be an impulse buyer. The same situation applies to the HD taxed disc-based games and to downloadable titles… in fact, it applies more strongly for downloadable games in my case. Unlike the price of gasoline breaking through psychological barriers like $3 and $4, $15 downloadable games aren’t necessities. I’ll simply learn to play what I have and wait for the right title to come and earn my $15. Killing off the impulse in consumers has the potential to hurt the market in the long run, but the industry will continue to be to self-centered to notice until it’s too late.