My partner and I recently made the pilgrimage to EB Games in Chadstone. Not to buy anything, but to cancel our pre-order for the Nintendo Switch, Nintendo’s newest console. We looked at our respective bank accounts and decided we couldn’t justify the $500 that the system would cost us. $500 is rent for a month, or the bills for half a year, or a year of myki money. Choices like this are common for us; we’ve picked a hobby that costs money. It just feels like video games cost so damn much.
In truth, gaming has always been expensive. No home console has ever cost less than $250USD at launch. The ‘Australia tax’ slaps up to 88% extra on to the recommended retail price of digital products. Downloadable content (or DLC) for games is now entirely pervasive within the industry, and very little of it is free. Add to that the fact that videogames are ludicrously expensive to produce, and so the prospect of squeezing extra money out of consumers is attractive for publishers. But it feels like additional costs are being built into the business model of modern gaming, and they are becoming increasingly difficult to avoid.
Types of Additional Costs
Additional costs take many forms. One of the oldest is the expansion pack, which adds anything from new items to entire storylines to an already released game, and often cost almost as much as the original. Recently however, The Sims 4 publisher EA Games came under fire because they were allegedly cutting content from the base game in order to sell it later in expansion packs. A recent and small example is the inclusion of a butler in a recent expansion pack for The Sims 4, a feature that was available on launch in The Sims 2. Whether or not this was actually cut from the base game of The Sims 4 is pure speculation. Regardless, EA have released no less than seventeen content packs for The Sims 4 since launch. All of these together will cost the Australian consumer $420AUD. You want the full experience? Be prepared to fork out the cash.
Another form is micro-transactions; small purchases (typically less than $5) that enhance the game in some way. Micro-transactions can be anything from cosmetic content that alters the appearance of something in game, to ‘pay-to-win’ content that actually gives the player some kind of advantage. Micro-transactions in major release games are generally frowned upon – many feel that paying for a fully-priced game should rule out needing to pay for extra content – but micro-transactions are common in them nonetheless. Gaming giant Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare contains micro-transactions in the form of random caches, where players can buy bundle of mystery (supposedly cosmetic) items. But it turns out some of the weapons given in the random drops have better stats than those the player can earn by simply playing the game. And keep in mind, Infinite Warfare is a multiplayer game. So now the costs aren’t even in simply owning a game, they lie in being able to experience it in a way that is fair.
One of the newer forms is the pre-order bonus; purchase a game before it releases and receive certain content that will never be available any other way. The benefits for the publishers are clear; if someone pre-orders a game, they’ve essentially bought it before any reviews of the game are published. Unfavourable reviews are circumvented because they simply don’t exist yet. In certain cases, this model has been pushed to the extreme. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided pissed just about everyone off with their tiered pre-order bonus structure; the more people who pre-ordered, the more pre-order content everyone would get. At the highest tier, the game would actually release an entire week early. Many perceived this as the publisher holding consumers ransom. You want the full experience? You better hope everyone else does too. And if you didn’t want the value of your purchase in the hands of countless, faceless others? Simply buy the Collector’s Edition, which contains all of the pre-order content –for $150USD. Within weeks the pre-order scheme was cancelled, and the developer issued an apology.
The Cautionary Tale of Evolve
No pricing scandal is more infamous than the 2015 shooter, Evolve, developed by Turtle Rock Studios. Before Evolve even launched, Turtle Rock shot itself right in the foot with convoluted pricing structure and an avalanche of additional content (and hence costs). Evolve would ship in three editions, the most expensive costing $100USD. On top of that, $60USD of additional, online only content was available to download at launch. Individual characters for the game could cost up to $15USD each. Individual skins as much as $8USD. The cheapest way to get everything Evolve had to offer at launch would set you back $185USD – that’s near $250AUD. You want the full experience? Well fuck you.
Evolve had every additional cost possible. The mountain of DLC available at launch went beyond accusations of cutting content from a game to sell later – it was a textbook example. The multiple ways to simply buy the game showed a focus on snapping up pre-orders over delivering a solid experience at launch. The ridiculous costs of single pieces of content made it clear that micro-transactions were built into the game. And embroiled at the centre of this controversy, the creative director of Turtle Rock Studios Phil Robb essentially pleaded with consumers to reconsider their anger. “I don’t like people thinking we’re doing underhanded, dirty shit” he said. “If we’re going to make money we want to feel good about the way we’ve done it,”
The issue isn’t about making money. The Sims 4 in its complete form costs around double what Evolve can cost. The issue is value. Where $15 in The Sims 4 will get you a bundle of new cosmetics, items and gameplay, $15 in Evolve will get you a single character. It’s not about being underhanded or dirty. It’s the unreasonable expectation that there must always be more to buy; that players should take whatever price they are given or have their game held at ransom until they can afford the rest of it.
Funnily enough, Evolve did terribly. The player base hemorrhaged after launch to less than 400 in the world. The game then became free-to-play, but still didn’t manage to sustain a healthy community. And less than a month after that, Turtle Rock Studios abandoned Evolve all together. Was it the huge backlash over the pricing that killed the game, or was it that Evolve simply wasn’t fun? Questions like these pervade every failed game and it’s unlikely that Evolve will be the last to upset players with its cost.
Gaming Without (Some of) The Cost
For myself and many other students with limited disposable incomes, it can feel like we are priced out of modern gaming. While most additional costs are entirely optional, it can feel like publishers are constantly dangling the carrot. Still there are some relatively easy ways to still choose gaming as a hobby without feeling like there is always more to buy.
Patient gaming: Most games eventually go on sale. Games with DLC often re-release as a bundle pack with everything included, in some cases cheaper than the original game. Sites such as IsThereAnyDeal can be setup to email you when a game goes on sale. In the case of Evolve and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, the pre-order DLC was eventually given to everyone for free after their respective controversies.
Be Informed: I know this sounds a little obvious, but simple things like reading reviews, watching a stream of a game or googling ‘Is [this DLC] worth it?’ will give you an idea of whether or not the actual content of a game is worth your money.
Make Use of the Market: Unless you are dead certain you will replay a game, trading in or selling old games is a quick way of saving money. EB Games does store credit for traded games, and JB-Hifi frequently do trade-in deals. On the flip side, you can also buy games preowned. The argument against this is that you are no longer giving your money to the developers, only the retailer – but that’s a question of ethics, and where yours lead is on you.
Older Games: By virtue of their age alone many games are ridiculously cheap. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo all offer older games for download to their consoles. Online PC game retailers such as Steam and Good Old Games keep libraries of older games and frequently send them to sale. EA Games’ Origin Store for PC allows players to access older games entirely for free and often to keep.
Indie Games: Indie games are currently experiencing a huge resurgence thanks to the widespread nature of PC gaming. Anything from rhythm games to RPGs to story-based adventure games are out there, all easily downloadable online and most under $20.
The One I Will Not Advocate: Also known as, ‘The One the Government recently tried to block but did so really poorly making it easy to continue to use but you didn’t hear that from me, no sir’
The good thing about videogames as a hobby is you can take it as far as you like. You can get all serious like me and lament the shady business practices of major games publishers, or you can just focus on saving money where you can. But that’s the best thing about videogames – the possibility, the interactivity – at the end of the day, it’s up to you.