Experienced Points

Experienced Points
The Price of Fun

Shamus Young | 20 Mar 2009 21:00
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The conventional wisdom is that the entertainment industry is recession-proof, but this thinking hasn't really been tested against the videogame industry as it exists today. No, I'm not talking about those modest economic downturns we get from time to time, like the amusing little dips near the end of a rollercoaster. I'm talking about serious recessions where a guy with an MBA is competing against a dozen other people with even better educations for a night shift job mopping the floors at Wendy's.

Experts disagree on how severe this current recession is. Of course, they also disagree on the causes, the solution, how long it will last, and how stupid they look in bowties. (Which sort of makes you wonder what the hell we keep them around for in the first place.) Some are predicting that any minute now a rainbow bridge will descend from heaven and link us to a magical dimension of free money which will make things a little better. Others are warning of the coming job jobocalypse where we'll fight to the death for minimum-wage jobs flipping burgers made of human flesh in a wasteland of suffering, cannibalism, and runaway inflation.

The one thing they do seem to agree on is that people don't have as much money to throw around as they did this time last year. Everyone seems to be taking note of this except the game companies, who continue to offer games at the same price points and never make any effort to reach out to lower markets. They price things as if all gamers were wealthy people with unlimited job security. I think that now would be a very good time for them to stop doing that.

Games appear on the shelves in the United States for $60. They might appear in other English-speaking countries for nearly twice that, even if the local economy is the same or worse. It would be cheaper to buy a game in America and mail it to Australia along with a brick than for an Australian to simply drive to the store and buy the game himself. Publishers never talk about or explain these reality-bending markups, and gamers can't help but feel they're simply being ripped off.

As games mature on the shelves their prices don't usually fall very far. They might drop $10 or $20 during their shelf-life, but an overwhelming majority of them simply vanish long before they hit the bargain-bin range of sub-$20 prices. The bargain bin tends to be filled with cheap shovelware, low quality games, awful movie tie-in titles, and "collections" of simple games that can be found for free online. Once in a long while you might spot a hit from a few years ago mixed in with the dross, but all too often it feels like digging for gold in asphalt using a shovel made of your own money.

How much a particular person likes a game can vary widely, and $60 is a lot to put at risk on something as dicey as whether or not this game will be an adventure into another world or an expensive port of Simon Says. You can point out that games are more economical in an hours-to-dollars sense compared to movies, but that's one of those things about economic lean times: People don't get that much dosh together in a single pile, all at one time. It's easier to come up with $8 for a movie than $60 for a game, even if the game is more economical in the long run. (Assuming that's even true. Lately games are becoming more and more like teenage sex: Risky to try, poorly executed, and embarrassingly brief.)

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