What is a Game Worth?

Someone made the comment to me yesterday after my post about No Man’s Sky that their biggest issue with the game wasn’t that it was a bad game, but that they didn’t feel it was worth $60. I have some complex thoughts about this.

via http://www.techspot.com/article/771-cost-of-making-a-game/

First: I feel like it’s not hard to wait a little bit and see what people are saying about a game, if you’re really on the fence about whether or not $60 is what you want to pay for the experience. Second, you have to decide for yourself the value of playing the game on Day 1 rather than some other time. For me, that sense of newness and discovery is worth a lot– I like to be able to tell cool stories right away, when everyone is still finding out new stuff. Other people don’t care about that at all, and would prefer to play a game when other people can give them tips to save time or ease frustration.

Third, I feel like we are, on the whole really bad at assigning value to games. Sales and indies and whatnot don’t really help this much.

A bit of math:

The standard $60 USD price point for games started, broadly, with the Xbox 360 era; about 2005 or so. Despite being categorically untrue, the accepted cost of games before then was $50. To compare it with another popular media, movie tickets in 2005 cost, on average,  $6.41 USD (source). Assuming no major fluctuations or advances (we’ll assume, perhaps incorrectly, that games and movies have not gotten significantly more complex to make relative to each other in 10 years), we can compare the cost of a movie ticket versus a game now. Movie tickets in 2015 in the US cost, on average, $8.43, a 31.5% increase since 2005.

As a bit of a standardizing metric, we can also compare that to the inflation rate, to see how much the “real” cost of movies has gone up. $6.41 in 2005 was worth ~$7.78 in 2015, so the “real” cost of going to see a movie went up about 8.3%.

Games have been $60 since 2005. Adjusting that for inflation, games *should* cost ~$72.82, but notably they don’t. If games had gone up in cost commensurate with movie tickets, they’d cost $78.86, almost $80. Instead, the real cost of buying a new video game has gone DOWN 17.7% in the last 10 years.

Both that ~$80 expected price point and the 17.7% drop in real cost are interesting to me, for different reasons.

First, that $80 price point looks really familiar. It just so happens (nothing ‘just so’ about it, this almost certainly isn’t a coincidence) that almost every “deluxe” edition game costs $80. You know, the ones that have some fun extras but aren’t a whole collector’s edition, and are some of the most popular pre-orders of major titles. Fancy that.

Second, that price drop seems telling. The “real” cost of games has dropped 17.7% to… what would that be in 2005 dollars? oh! $49.43, check that out. It looks like we’re paying less in real money for our games. This mostly wouldn’t make sense unless our assumption above about the relative difficulty of making movies vs games weren’t true, and, well, it pretty much isn’t. The difficulty of making a game has gone up less from 2005 to 2015 than the difficulty of making a movie.

“But Tam,” you say, annoyed by all this math because you still feel like you paid too much for a game, “that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t think the games I’m playing are worth $60, even if economically that price point makes sense!”

How much is showing off screenshots of your cool new game worth? Watercooler talk about what everyone is playing this week? Online conversations that you want to be relevant for? Not being spoiled? Can you put a dollar value on those things? MMOs can, and have been for years. There’s significant, quantifiable value in being able to play a game before other people, or being one of the first to play it. This wasn’t always the case, but now that Everything Is The Internet, it pretty much is now. It used to be that you had to buy a game when it was still on shelves, and if you waited too long it simply wouldn’t be available or you’d have to watch for it in the used games bin, which was pretty random (but you didn’t pay full price). It’s worth noting that when the used game bin became more reliably predictable, you started paying closer and closer to full price. Now, you can be pretty much assured you can buy it at a time that’s convenient for you, and if you want to play it when it’s relevant to most other people, well, you pay a “premium” (i.e. full price) for it.

If you don’t ascribe value to playing a game when everyone else is, then you can wait until it’s less relevant and get it on the cheap. Plenty of people do that. If you’re not sure you’re going to like a game, it’s probably best to wait, so that you can find out whether or not it’s a game you’ll actually like. If jumping right into it while it’s relevant is important to you, though, you need to recognize that you’re paying a quantifiable amount for that. For myself, I jump into story-driven games right off the bat because I want to see the story for myself and not get spoiled. In MMOs, I want to get in close to the start, because there’s an advantage to doing so. For other games, I care a lot less about that, and tend not to pick them up until much later.

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