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The Price is … Wrong?

December 2, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Kob Monney

I came across an article on GameCritics titled The problem with blaming the gamer. The article was a response to an editorial written on GamePro about longevity and quality in video games. The editorial pursued the idea that developers and publishers needed to get away from the thought of long single player games filled with superfluous content rather than a shorter, tighter, more focused experience that could delight as much as a lengthy opus would. The GamesCritic article countered that pricing needed to be taken into account; a 3-4 hour game could not sell for $60 against behemoths like Call of Duty. This point interested me more than the initial GamePro article. If the price of some games were lower, would they sell more?

So the GameCritics article argued that a more appropriate pricing strategy could have a positive impact on units sold for some games (emphasis on some). His example was Enslaved, a game he couldn’t justify recommending because the amount of content on offer was at odds with the price it was selling for. Initially I agreed. A lower price would make a game more competitive especially if the content comprised of just the single player element but then after giving it more thought a game’s lack of success cannot be the result of just its pricing strategy. There was this nagging thought in my head that there had to be something more to it than just an inflated price.

Oh, and apologies for the amount of questions in this essay. Sadly I don’t have the answers but maybe you could provide some.

A few thoughts floated around; the first was that Enslaved is not a ‘name’ or marquee title. Each year a pattern emerges within the games industry. It seems as if they are three tiers (maybe more), a hierarchy is formed and with it comes certain expectations. The first tier includes the behemoths, your Halo’s, Call of Duty’s, Gran Turismo’s, Final Fantasy’s, GTA’s and your Super Mario’s. Year in year out these titles arrive with huge expectation, even bigger marketing budgets and a license to print money. Then we have our second tier, in this tier you can find the majority of games. They aren’t as spectacular in comparison but sell more than their fair share. Here you have your Mass Effect, God of War, Assassin’s Creed, Pro Evolution, Left 4 Dead etc. Then the third tier, games considered either specialist or niche in design and appeal and here we find many Japanese RPGs, action games like John Woo’s Stranglehold, Bayonetta or an FPS like Operation Flashpoint and so on.

Using Enslaved as an example, which tier is it most likely to appear in? It could possibly be the second because of its production values but more likely to be the third; the less popular area where games that have designs on selling several millions of units do not want to be in. It’s based on material made popular in the seventies and comes from the studio that made the solid, rather than excellent Heavenly Sword. In its first seven weeks (according to VGChartz) it sold 280,000 units across the Xbox 360 and PS3. Compare that to Halo: Reach which sold 6.27 million units since the 14th September…

…On one console.

We look at the CODs, Halo’s and see that what a game requires is a name and a definable one at that. A name that is synonymous with quality or a certain type of experience. As with any franchise there is a safety net, a certain expectation about what kind of game is being offered and the assurance that your expectation will be met.  This expectation may be why top tier games for the most part have stagnated gameplay wise. Why stray from what is considered to be the game’s defining characteristic and risk alienating your audience? Now while I’m led to believe that Enslaved has a genuinely good story and empathetic characters; from what I’ve read and played those qualities tend not be as important as the experience in ‘top tier games’. Reviewers acknowledge the weakness of the story/characters but gloss over them, slapping an 8 or 9 or even a 10 because the game does well enough in other areas or has a wealth of content. Halo has its thirty seconds of fun; COD has its twitch mechanics, GTA its brilliant open worlds. I’m not against these games, in fact I love Halo’s combat but its story can be as confusing as it is epic. It’s worrying that Enslaved may be considered a financial failure rather than a step forwards. It cannot compete with the fifth game in the Halo series or the seventh COD, it can’t even compete with the third God of War (PS3 wise) but if doesn’t make a splash now you worry if anyone will remember it in a few months.

So we’ve ticked of the most obvious reason and here’s another rather obvious one, a lack of awareness. I know Enslaved was advertised, I remember seeing the ads on TV, the “if I die, you die” ads (remember?).The game went on sale and whoosh, the ads vanished. Another single player game called Vanquish appeared with a whimper and disappeared in much the same fashion.  I cannot remember a concerted marketing effort for that title beyond a possible WHSmith commercial in the UK. Can you remember the ads for Call of Duty? Was it the announcement trailer with Eminem/Alicia Keys “won’t back down” or the pre-order adverts that were on two months before it came out (Which I thought was a brilliant idea)? Or was it the continuous advertising before and after release? Combine this with the reputation of COD and you have this surge, this momentum that accompanies every release. It’s deafening like a freight train. It’s relentless.

I still see adverts for Halo: Reach (only a week ago). It’s astonishing and with each release these blockbuster games make a statement by saturating the market and giving the consumer the sense that the game is the most significant one until the next avalanche of onslaught. When there’s little to no marketing for a title it’s like a tree falling down in an empty forest, no one will hear or see it, it happens and we’re none the wiser about it.

So if there is little presence in the market and it’s not a name title what else could it have going for it? The director? Voice talent? Did you know that Shinji Mikami directed Vanquish? Did you know that he was the man behind Resident Evil 4? I had no idea. Was his name bandied about in any advertising? If it was would you care? Would the game interest you, excite you or would you be indifferent since it’s not COD, God of War or even Metal Gear Solid?

The topic of voice talent seems mute (ha!) as unlike films games don’t make much use of “stars” outside of the game. Who knew that Sam Worthington was the voice of Mason in Black Ops (apart from the dodgy accent)? Very rarely will voice talent have the appeal to invoke a purchase and in the rare exception like Fable 3 did the TV ads and print marketing ever concentrate on the voice talent? I don’t believe so; it was more about starting a revolution. A leading cast of comedy/acting talent and they focused more on the ‘feel’ of the game than the talent behind it. There’s an identity there (revolution) but it feels abstract, something I can’t quantify or relate to.

Having an identity is important, obviously, you stand out from the crowd. We don’t see Harry Potter as Bloomsbury’s novels, its J K Rowling’s: It’s not Roc-A-Fella’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, its Kanye West’s; it’s not Warner Bros. Inception, its Christopher Nolan’s. Games have none of the lustre or interest that films can lean on. Look at a poster for Inception and the names stick out (Leonardo Di Caprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon Levitt and Michael Caine). The biggest point of interest may even be the following words “From the Director of The Dark Knight”. Film studios base their properties on something identifiable, something relatable whether it’s a face, a name or a past film. If you don’t have Mario or the Master Chief whom can you rely on?

A lower price may make a game more attractive, but the reason why is because of the initial high price. Is it not true with the Steam sales that their popularity is down to a game being kept at a stable price (let’s say £30) and then reduced to something ridiculous like £6.50 therefore inducing the thought that there’s a bargain to be had?

While I think lowering prices can be a good thing as it lowers the barrier to entry it also represents a risk. Beyond any faults of a game, unless it’s a ‘top tier’ one it won’t have the necessary wherewithal to make an impact and I cannot see what difference lowering the price would have on remedying that. As publishers shuffle out map packs for $15 and with the proliferation of DLC I can’t see games getting any cheaper. In fact they look as if they’re going to get more expensive if Activision and Microsoft’s sneaky price rise of Modern Warfare 2 and Forza Motorsport 3 is any indication. Buying a game, single player or multiplayer, is not just buying the complete package but gaining entry instead. The difference between Enslaved’s sales figures and Halo’s is unhealthy and places pressure upon new IPs to succeed right out of the gate lest they receive the dreaded “did not meet expectations” corporate speak. This cannot go on and something has to change otherwise games will turn into the yearly procession of very familiar experiences while the more unique ones will fade into undeserved mediocrity.

What are your thoughts?

Copyright Kob Monney 2010

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Categories: Essays
  1. December 2, 2010 at 11:40 am

    There’s a definite issue with “lower tier” games, as very few people would be willing to pay £40 for a game they’re unsure of. With Halo and CoD, you know what you’re getting. There are exceptions to this, for example I’ll happily pay full price for a BioWare game (after checking early reviews) because I know that the quality will be high, if a little predictable. Then again, I suppose that’s what this is about, predictability and expectation.

    The problem with reducing the cost of a game to reflect the amount of content is the expectation: if I see a new game releasing for £25 or £30, my immediate feeling is that it can’t be worth my time, when that’s probably not the case at all. Indie games are easier, as they can easily be sold for less. Big budget, low tier games like Enslaved will find an almost inpenetrable market.

    The other problem is games journalism itself: whether online or in print, organisations rely on advertising, which means dedicating a lot of wordage to the likes of CoD and Halo, a) to encourage advertising money from big publishers and b) that’s what most gamers want to read about. The problem is, these gamers would probably still buy these games if half the amount was written about them, and that would leave more room for the smaller games. Unfortunately, anyone dedicated to sticking up for the little guy will struggle to find much of an audience.

    Great piece, by the way!

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