Why Games are Never Going to get Shorter and Cheaper

May 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

VP of Namco Bandai Partners Olivier Comte was quoted as saying last week that video games are “too expensive for the audience”. Her words resonated with me in a way lots of industry buzz has been doing recently.

To my mind there’s no question about it, video games are far too expensive for anyone other than the hardcore enthusiast, and even those individuals are paying a premium price for content which many could happily go without.

I realise much of this is personal opinion (though a couple of industry veterans such as Randy Smith and John Davidson seem to share my views), but personally it’s a struggle for me to play a lengthy game to completion. Unless a game holds a massive amount of variety in its gameplay, holding my attention for longer than five hours is a rarity, and after that it feels like time wasted just to see the story wrap up.

Aside from this writer’s own opinion though, is there really any reason for the industry to change?

Economically lower price points make sense. Games would be considered by many (though I’ll go out on a limb here and guess this doesn’t include many of Bitmob’s readership) to be a luxury good. Usually consumers of luxury goods are going to be very responsive to a change in price, and as such a drop in price is likely to result in an increase in total revenue. Put simply, the increase in game sales would theoretically make up for the reduction of the price of every unit sold.

The second hand games market would also suffer a serious blow. How many people will trade in a £10 DVD to buy the latest releases? The temptation is understandably there with a £40 game, but reduce the cost and people are less likely to need to pawn off their collections to keep up with this week’s must-haves.

Piracy may also be affected. A major excuse cited by pirates is that they’d buy games if they could afford them, but since they can’t, their only option is to steal them. Morally ambiguous this argument may be, but if games are cheaper, then it would certainly act in favour of getting them into the hands of gamers by more legitimate means. That said, if a ‘Pay What You Want’ model for a DRM free charity release isn’t enough for 25% of people that played the ‘Humble Indie Bundle’ then piracy may well persist no matter how cheap games get.

Despite all these very utopian ideas, games – or at least the big budget releases that make up the majority of sales – aren’t going to get any cheaper any time soon. The reason for this lies in a little Economic theory called ‘Economies of Scale’.

The theory of economies of scale states that as your total output increases, your long run average costs will decrease (until diseconomies of scale set it, but that doesn’t really apply here). For example, a large supermarket can sell vegetables at a much cheaper price than a small corner shop because they can bulk buy and pull all those other neat tricks to pass the savings on to you, the consumer (at least in theory).

What this means in terms of games is that as a game’s hour count increases (in other words, its output) the cost of producing each successive hour of content decreases. Getting a five minute demo up and running is a hugely costly endeavour for a developer, but once they’ve got a graphics engine chugging away, a character modelled, and enemy AI all implemented, its comparatively much cheaper to craft another hour’s worth of content for the third quarter.

Why should this mean games are naturally longer? Well it means you can double the length of your game, double the price from that of a downloadable to a retail release, all without doubling your budget.

Downloadable games have exploded this generation to scratch the itch of time-strapped gamers everywhere, but for those such as myself hoping to see games such as Uncharted make their way to us in more bitesize chunks, it might be a long wait.

So over to you. Is it ridiculous complaining that games are too long at a time when games are shorter on average than they’ve ever been before? Do you find yourself lusting after more when you finish a game, or has your enthusiasm peaked well before the credits roll? Would you be willing to pay half the price for a game that’s half as long? Do you have enough time to play games to completion in the first place?

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