Let me entertain you! (and pay me)

used-games

25 US Dollars – the price of a cinema ticket in London.

30 US Dollars and up – the price of a theatre ticket in any major city in Europe.

20 US Dollars and up – the price of a new release DVD, CD or book.

50 US Dollars and up – the price of a concert ticket for a mid-range band.

35 to 90 US Dollars – the price for a ticket to a normal season sports event.

 

Most of the things I list above provide entertainment for around 2 to 3 hours. The exception being the CD or book (and perhaps the DVD if you really like a movie and watch it more than once). So that averages out to more than 10 USD per hour of entertainment.

I’ll get back to the cost of things above in a little bit. First I’d actually like to briefly talk about what entertainment is.

There is a long explanation on wiki about this (can be read here) but principally entertainment is something that provides us human beings with diversion, pleasure and delight. To give us a bit of a break from what can often be a tough work life, stressful times at school or any other kind of hardships we might like to forget for a little while. And, for us in the reasonably well off west, we like to pay for our entertainment. Instead of coming up with our own way of finding diversion and pleasure, we let others entertain us. Essentially we let others have a tough work life, so we can enjoy our time off.

But while we take some cost for granted, see the ones listed above, other cost seems to be just too much. Yeah we might grumble at the high cinema prices (hell I remember paying 7 USD for a ticket only 12 years ago), but in the end we just take them for granted.

Not so much with video games though.  60 USD for a game that, on average, provides more than 10 hours of entertainment, is seen as too much. Hell even 1200 MS points on XBLA are often seen as excessive. So people crack games, put them on torrent sites or buy them second hand. Without really thinking about what this means for those companies that are trying to provide the entertainment in the first place.

Yes, the movie and music industry has to deal with similar issues, but a much tighter release schedule, at least in the film industry, means illegal copies take longer to make it onto the net (at least decent quality – non-cam versions) and the second hand market only comes into play a lot later, after DVD release.  Not to mention that going to the movies is a very social experience, something you do with friends or your better half, while (let’s face it) most video gaming is a solitary experience (or an online social experience at best).

So games companies are trying to adjust to this, utilizing various approaches to varying degrees of success. Ubisoft with a hard, always on DRM bowed to public pressure. Steam used to have an always online requirement, as did recent games like Diablo 3 and the new Sims game. Other companies are trying to diversify, creating some cheap or free to play titles as part of their portfolio. Because it seems people want entertainment for free or at least as cheap as humanly possible. Yes by all means: entertain me! But pay for it? Not if I can help it…

But of course this is bollocks. No company can just produce entertainment product without ever wanting to get some money back, preferably a lot, so that a profit is created (there are investors, share holders or bankers behind the capital after all).

Having entertainment completely free of charge would be like asking the NY Yankees to not charge for spectators for a year. But! (everyone will say) That’s impossible due to high player wage!

Well guess what, those people making games also have a salary! And while it is a fraction of a sports player, when you add up all the people who make a game, it is a pretty sum. That money has to come from somewhere.

The truth is, those of us working in the industry slave away, often working insane hours to try and get a high quality game into the hands of people who want to be whisked away from their day to day lives for a few hours and just be entertained. Should we then, who help others get pleasure, not get paid so we in turn can afford things that give us pleasure and diversity (or in many cases: just pay the bloody bills)?

An excellent example of how much of a right people think they have for free entertainment is shown by an interesting experiment, where a studio modified a game they made before releasing it as a “hacked “ version. The game confronts pirates with the consequences of their own actions, and they don’t like it! (Surprise surprise)

While I personally don’t think that piracy is that much of an issue (I think the average gamer is too lazy or incompetent to get torrents or modify his console – and I really don’t care about PC that much), I strongly believe that second hand sales hurt the games industry tremendously.

Partially it is our own fault if the games we make end up in second hand shelves. I had a look at my local Game store yesterday and I found 8 copies of Bioshock: Infinite. By all accounts a good game, but effectively with zero replay value. Still, on average it should provide a gamer with around 8 to 10 hours of entertainment – and for 60 USD at full retail price that’s still well below the average I stated at the start of my blog.  Yet Bioshock will struggle to run a profit, perhaps even struggle to break even, if rumors of it costing 100 million USD are true (again the consumer is not to blame for that one!).

So yes, we as an industry need to try hard to make games that players WANT to hang on to. To this day it will be hard to find a used copy of Skyrim and there is a reason games like Battlefield and Call of Duty stay in the sales charts for years. We also need to look at making games within certain budgets and not go excessively high on cost.

But then again, not every game will have huge replay value, or only be worth replaying after a few years. This has a striking resemblance to films really, where you hang on to a DVD of your favorite film and watch it again a few years later, but few people will buy every DVD out there.

So this is then is on us, as an industry! Make games that players want to keep. Games that retain their value. At least to the point where the revenue reaches break-even point or perhaps even generate a slight profit. I still have all my Mass Effect copies. I will play them again in a few years time.

But it’s not all on the games industry. A huge chunk of blame for the blossoming of the second hand market lies with retailers. Go into any Game shop today and ask for Bioshock: Infinite. I would bet you 10 to 1 that the shop guy will either give you a used copy or, if you bring up a new copy to the counter, will ask you if you want to save 10% by buying a used copy. If you have a copy of Bioshock, bring it back to the store and you will get 80% of the buying price back. This is how shops like Game up their margin, because any profit they make on the sale of used games is theirs to keep. Nothing to share with publishers or the studios.

Publishers in the past have tried to negotiate with these retailers, but nothing ever came from it – both sides were probably unreasonable in some ways. So other ways had and have to be found.

EA tried the online pass. If you are the owner of a used copy, you have to pay 10 USD to use online features of the title. You can still play offline and enjoy the game as is, but you can’t play multiplayer or get DLC. What was the result? Split opinions really, some people (the rational people) saw the reason behind it and also realized that it would not affect anyone buying the game brand new. Others however felt it was another money grab by EA and that consumer rights were infringed (like this brilliant chap here).

I think it was a great move, a bold move, and EA took a lot of flak for it, but it was a move that started to signal to the retail industry: NO MORE! And that was needed.

So now we are approaching the dawn of a new console area, and if there is one thing the console manufactures would love to get rid of, it’s the second hand market.

Sony has already announced and, in my opinion, caved to the vocal minority. Denouncing any plans for requiring the console to be always connected was high on their agenda.

Microsoft will announce in a few weeks and I personally have high hopes they will stick with the (rumored) plans of requiring always online.

No, I don’t like the thought of having to be online 24/7 when I play a game, but I don’t think that’s what “always-on” has to mean. I believe always-on can simply mean that your console has to be online when you first play a game. Put in a new disc and boot it up, be online so that the console can verify you are a legit (read: first time) user. I don’t think ANY console would ever boot you out of the game if your connection drops. My guess is the system would work similarly to the current XBL system – you get notified and you keep on playing.

Diablo 3 can get away with true always-on because they have dedicated servers for that particular game; most console titles won’t have that.

On top of such an online requirement games SHOULD allow some form of play from a used copy. The second hand buyer might be able to play the first few levels before being prompted to buy the rest through an initiative similar to EA’s online pass for example.

This way gamers will think twice before buying a used copy. They will consider how much value they get out of a used game for the price they pay. It would probably mean used prices drop significantly (and are not 90% of the new price) and from that it follows that people might actually buy MORE used games at cheap rates just to try them out (in an extended demo experience).

To me always-on would also pave the way for a true digital distribution network for games. Which hopefully would mean lower prices – and yes it would be up to publishers to action that price drop, something they currently are not doing for digital copies (something I can’t understand at all).

It would be a bold move by Microsoft to go into that direction, just as it was a bold move by EA to introduce the online pass. But it is these actions that are needed, I fell, to curb the second hand market (and piracy) and ensure people making the entertainment products get paid and get paid enough to continue making games.

I like making games and I like entertaining people with them, giving them joy and helping them escape for a few hours at a time. So let me entertain you!

Next time you think about buying a game, think twice before buying used. Compare the value you get from a game with what you spend on cinema tickets, gigs and sports events – you will find that USD value per hour of entertainment is actually quite good!

Comments

  1. Well, I have practically never purchased a DVD or Blu ray for a movie. I always rent it online or at a store.

    But I do have 30/40 games for PS3/Xbox, very expensive ones (compared to movies). Although they do contain more “hours of fun”, I have to save every dollar I can to keep buying games “$50/60 a pop”.

    Our industry needs to find better monetization strategies, one that is natural and confortable to consumers (no, no, not microtransactions or anything like it). I would be more than happy to play a game for 3 hours and be done with it, for a lower “rent-like” price, but our industry keeps trying to push 12 hours or more to justify the $60,00 price.

    Game companies are still trying to fit games into the $60,00 price, and that is almost like wishful thinking (not to say that some games – the blockbusters – do not call for this premium price). Some games are not worth $60 (or even $30), not because they are bad, but because people have to decide wether to invest in them or in the blockbuster that comes out next month. They will save those $30 dollars.

    So, lets see: People find time to watch movies, sometimes many of them, but they can’t finish a single game in the meantime. People want to play many games, but they don’t because the costs ramp up uncontrollably.

    I’m certain we could do much better, but publishers need to open their eyes to modern needs. I think we need shorter, more diverse games to fit our time and budgetary constraints.

    And yeah, I undestand that much of the cost of a game is poured into making the first 3 hours of gameplay, but its not hard to think of solutions. To lower the asset creation costs, publishers could create a “world” in which many stories happen, for example. As I said, be creative.

    • Some good points Diego. Certainly it is a question of “how much is a certain form of entertainment worth to me?” and also “how much value does a particular product hold for me?”. Case in point is Bioshock, with about 8 hours of gameplay and pretty much zero replay value (at least not in the short run) compare that with a game like Skyrim (at the same price tag) with up to 100 hours or more if someone really is into it.

      Consider this though: what about XBLA/PSN titles? People seem to forget those. PID, Limbo and similar games clock in at a few hours and cost about 10 to 15 USD. People seem to forget that games of that length and in the lower pricing category do exist.

      Telltale tried a different approach with episodic content of Walking Dead.

      Not to mention there are countless games on mobile and tablet – all offering bite sized chunks of entertainment to fill every need we have.

      I believe we actually have games for every need and every situation, on multiple platforms, and of varied enough price range to satisfy most gamers.

      I am 100% with you on the idea of creating a world in which many stories happen and in which games of many different genres take place.

      Imagine a game world where one person plays an RPG on his PC, another and FPS on the console and a third enjoys racing on a tablet.

      • diegoleao says:

        Also agreed! But I was thinking more about the chackles imposed by major _publishers/manufacturers_ to AAA developers when pricing and defining their games’ scope. Either you have a “small cheap game” or a “super expensive ginormous beast of a game”.

        I don’t want a flood of “B Games”, like we used to, those died for good reason. They were AS expensive as the other AAA releases, but not nearly as good – a horrible deal for consumers.

        I just wish our gamming world was filled with 2 hour bioshocks, 15 minutes Walking dead game episodes, 45 minutes Call of Duty campaigns, 8 hour full-featured-next-gen-JRPGs, 10 hour Limbos, all priced well for their scope (as cheap as possible), achieving “mass consuption”. I want publishers to realize that they don’t need that fixed price and scope (I’m looking at you $60/12 hours console games!).

        In short, my point is about “AAA” game characteristics breaking free from fixed price and scope.

        Yeah, the last Tomb Raider was very “cheap” on digital download for PC (if you pre-ordered it) – $20/25 in some places – but I’m talking about a change in the culture of publisher funding. Some games are released cheaper, but their huge budgets were not made for that price point, and the game become a “failed” endeavor, even if the game is a hit in the eyes of players. The publisher then restarts the “circle”, looking for the next messiah that will create the next call-of-duty-like-sure-hit franchise.

        So again, my beef is with publishing heads, failing to understand that entertainment experiences have different needs, budgets and scopes.

        I haven’t forgot the Indie games, today I play them as much as AAA games, if not more. But I see that many Indie games would be so much better given more publishing support (yeah, money) and adequate scope to spend it.

        Thanks for your article too, made me think.

      • diegoleao says:

        Also, I would like to note that I do not think that publishers are “everything in the world”, or that Indie games are not as good as they could be, or that having a publisher is good for your game (for many, many – many – people it isn’t).

        Its easy to get distracted when it “reads like” I have a prejudice, or that I’m shortsighted :) Have faith :)

        I’m talking about the impact that publishers/manufacturers could have (even if only on AAA games), if they just evolved from the current model of fixed price/scope/mechanic/characteristics/etc.

  2. Again good points. In particular the comparison between small/cheap and expensive/huge. I think you do kind of answer your own point there with your initial comment though: a lot of time, money and effort goes into the first few hours of the experience. And once you spend that money on assets, mechanics and systems, i think it is inevitable to use what you created more often – thus stretching the game.

    Not necessarily a good thing. Some games definitely feel stretched out, with too much repetition (as do many movies recently by the way). Dead Space 3 was a game like that for me recently – it could have been 50% shorter and that would have felt about right (to me anyway).

    I do think though that many games have adopted to the gaming habits though. If you think about mission and chapter lengths in games, you will probably find that a CoD mission will take you between 10 and 15 min, a chapter about 2 hours and so on – so even if the game overall might be long, they do break it down into smaller segments that are more manageable.

    Only bad games these days have insanely long times between checkpoints, missions and chapters. The last of these games i remember was Black (i am sure there have been others since), where checkpoints were deliberately placed far apart to make the player re-play large chunks of content and thus drive up overall game time. I would say this is very rare these days.

    The industry as a whole needs to adapt and deliver content the consumers want, and accept that there are a wide range in consumer desires. We definitely need more than the next slate of AAA shooters or GTA games. Mobile, tablet and XBLA/PSN as well as Steam are already helping with this. Kickstarter is another option i do have hopes for (and incidentally, if done right, Kickstarter makes sure the developers themselves get paid, and paid what they deserve).

  3. “While I personally don’t think that piracy is that much of an issue (I think the average gamer is too lazy or incompetent to get torrents or modify his console – and I really don’t care about PC that much), I strongly believe that second hand sales hurt the games industry tremendously.”

    Well, piracy kind of killed off the PC platform except for multiplayer and MMO. The reason we ship our games on PC too is that our games are developed mainly on PC so we can just as well ship a PC version, despite the rampant pirating.

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