I am thrilled to end my overly long blogging hiatus with an entry on an ongoing event that I fully support. On May 24th, an enormously large amount of indie games were discounted as part of the Because We May sale, which celebrates developer control over pricing. From the website:
“We believe that developers should have the freedom to price their games how they like, without interference from the online stores that sell the games. Why? Because it allows us to promote our games more freely, as we are doing here! We rely on the ability to promote our games for our livelihood and control over pricing is an important tool for this purpose.”
The importance of the idea of developer controlled pricing cannot be understated, for it is the key to a successful transition to digital distribution for both developers (independent AND triple A) and consumers alike. I am a firm believer in digital distribution, but until this model becomes the de facto standard it will always face consumer backlash and games will be creatively inhibited.
Mandated price points are among the largest creative inhibitors that exist in the video game industry today, and unsurprisingly they are found chiefly in the hapless console market. Console games have traditionally relied on retail for sales, where the console manufacturer essentially dictates a price point for all new games. I am sure most of you will remember just a few years ago when consumers nationwide were baffled that games would now cost sixty dollars. Think for a minute about the absurdity of the idea. All new games, regardless of content, length, or quality, would cost sixty dollars. Inevitably, this led to a creative drought in the triple A game industry where developers endlessly padded their games with recycled ideas and unnecessary content to match the consumer expectations of a sixty dollar game. When most consumers go to a GameStop or Best Buy with sixty dollars to purchase a game, they expect high production values, a minimum of eight hours of gameplay, and usually prefer a multiplayer component. Consumers are paying a high price point and thus they expect the most bang for the buck, and in absentmindedly imposing this price mandate on the majority of retail games console manufacturers are squashing the creative potential of big budget games.
The current generation of consoles also gave way to the first console digital storefronts in PSN, XBLA, and WiiWare, but console manufacturers did little more than slap the retail pricing model onto digital. They retained total control of digital pricing, somehow coming to the conclusion that these experiences should sell for around $10-15. While the prices are lower, the same inhibitors are still present, now influencing consumer judgments over the proper length and feature set of a downloadable title. Additionally, console manufacturers do little to keep up with their growing library of digital games, often neglecting to discount titles years after their initial release. A developer or publisher with a small library of games is unable discount at will, whether for generosity’s sake or for promoting their new games. Take a look at Super Meat Boy, which I just purchased on Steam as part of the Because We May sale for five dollars. The game launched originally on XBLA in October of 2010 as part of a Microsoft sponsored sale for 10 dollars, rising to its normal 15 dollar price point in November of that year, where it has been forced to remain ever since. In similar act of greed, Sony has taken to offering digital versions of retail games for identical or sometimes higher price points to their physical counterparts. By restricting price points to their own demands rather than allowing developers and publishers to directly respond to consumer expectations, their first foray into an all digital ecosystem with the PSPgo was an abysmal failure, and its successor is well on its way to keeping their track record intact.
As for Because We May’s celebrated havens (the App Store, Steam, etc), they offer a step in the right direction. Some suffer from an endless well of games with little curation, but that is slowly starting to change. The iOS App Store saw an unexpected trend in racing to the minimum price, 99 cents, to obtain widespread adoption. This trend allowed the 99 cent price point to become synonymous with casual games, while other price points offered different types of experiences, many of which can be found as part of the Because We May sale. While it is often advantageous to hardware makers, such as Apple, to enforce some restrictions on developers to strengthen their overall digital ecosystem, pricing is certainly not among them. An ecosystem’s strength rests largely on the ease and safety of acquiring content, in addition to the quality and diversity of content available to purchase. The latter is always best obtainable with developer freedom of price control.
What would BioShock 2 have been like if 2K set the price themselves? Would it have contained its multiplayer component, which many described as an afterthought? Would it have been $60? $40? Would 2K discount it now to promote BioShock Infinite? What about a game like Castle Crashers? I would like to think that they would have been priced proportionally to the content the developer created to enhance the artistry of the game, rather than to meet sales expectations at a mandated price point. Games are not like movies, where ticket prices can be set to consumer expectations of the standard runtime. They come in all shapes and sizes, and need a pricing structure to support the freedom to continue as such.
If you support the only plausible future for digital distribution, I highly encourage you to pick up one of the many spectacular games on sale this weekend. If you are vehemently opposed to the cause, you will likely have a blast playing these titles nonetheless!