It appears we consumers are a gullible sort, always falling for the same promises despite decades of disappointment.

When downloadable content first began to seem possible in the early 2000s, there was a sense that our entertainment might soon become better priced and more convenient. By bridging the money-sink moat that retail and distribution chains had dug between providers and consumers, not only would people have immediate access to media, but the savings of cutting out the middle man might be passed directly to the consumer. The speculation was this could be the revolution that would drive down the cost of videogames, movies and music, as retailers would be forced to match the lower cost of direct-download media.
And, damned if we didn’t fall for it all.

As the dust from the Guitar Hero II downloadable content pricing flap settles from nearly universal offense to a mildly simmering annoyance, the real source of the animosity seems to be that gamers, yet again, suffered under the illusion that Activision, Microsoft, Harmonix or whoever the hell chooses the price for this stuff, wouldn’t naturally maximize the cost to the breaking point of what the market will bear. And, with what appears to be roughly 10 percent sell-through of Guitar Hero II‘s downloadable content, it’s difficult to say how many people a lower price would have drawn. So, people who once dreamed of downloadable content as a force for price reduction are faced with the inevitable realization that developers and publishers are more interested in making it a method for reducing costs and expanding profit margins.

Honestly, it’s amazing to me that anyone’s surprised. In our industry alone we’ve seen this all before, like when companies continued to charge and increase prices in the transition to and advancement of CD technology, despite the reduced cost of pressing and shipping a single CD instead of eight or nine 3.5-inch floppies, or when PC games moved to smaller boxes which were easier to produce and cheaper to distribute but never moved those savings into the retail channel. Companies have been proven right time and again in thinking that the only repercussions they must suffer for not meeting consumer price expectations is a few weeks of internet bitching and a mild PR hit that’s forgotten the moment something shiny comes along.

We gaming consumers like to think we live in a world where we dictate the market, and while we have the potential means to do that, we have neither the organization nor the will apparently. Companies think very specifically, both in retail and in publishing, about training their consumers, like wayward puppies, to do what those organizations want, and that’s the very short answer to questions like: Why is downloadable content as expensive as retail product? Why do retail outlets insist I reserve upcoming games? Why does Gamespot only discount used product by 10 percent or less? Why can’t I return videogames? Why do monthly fees for online games keep rising?

It’s because consumers resist mildly and without common ground before succumbing as one, like a stubborn mule eventually led to pasture by a bucket of oats. Corporations have very well established practices in place to make their desires happen. And, on the flip side, what do we consumers have? We have online forums where we whine about the industry, then feel better for having voiced our complaint and go right back to doing what we’re told.

It’s like working at the office where the suggestion box is just a lid to the trash can, and although everyone knows it, we just keep plugging our hastily-written thoughts through the slot having the audacity to think we’ve actually done something.

So, what can we do about it? That’s always the question, and this is the part where I’m supposed to tell you stop buying from them, stop reserving games, stop making purchases on the first day when you can’t return and all the usual nonsense. But from my view here in the cheap seats, it looks a lot more to me like we’ve already lost those battles. Unless the industry decides on its own that it wants to revisit issues like pricing and returns, there’s no point in kidding ourselves that the train hasn’t already left the station. Even the fight for downloadable content pricing ended when songs on iTunes became successful at the existing industry price points.

What we as consumers lack in power over the industry’s retail model is significant. We lack a unified voice for video game buyers. We lack interest from any official organization with power over publishers. We certainly lack political strength of any kind. And, most importantly we lack the will to get dirty in an extended fight, because once we’ve posted one or two really angry comments to message boards we allow ourselves to exist under the illusion that our words mean anything. Some of us take the step of organizing one-man boycotts, and from a personal responsibility angle I say good on you, but you’d probably have more effect on the industry by signing your name to an internet petition.

I realize I seem cynical, but my frustration lies not in the actual industry. A business is supposed to act like a business, and a consumer being angry that companies are maximizing their profits is like being the gazelle surprised that it’s being eaten by a lion. Even gazelles figure out that there’s safety in numbers, and until there is organized reaction to industry retail models, nothing is going to change, nor should it. This is, after all, a luxury market. The high price of toys is never going to get the blood flowing like the high price of bread or gasoline, and yet I rarely see the entire internet go aflame when wheat producers raise their prices. That the price of three songs for an Xbox 360 game has created such passionate outrage is too much emotion misplaced.

All I’m saying is let’s remember we’re talking about little bits of data fed to your brain for the purposes of entertainment, not the war atrocities that some seem to describe it as. Let’s just keep things in perspective.

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