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The Price is Right?: Changing notions of value in a post-App Store world

Features
23 May 2011

As game prices plummet and it’s now easy to pick up quality releases for next to nothing, what effect is that having on our perceived value of them? games™ investigates…

The Price is Right?: Changing notions of value in a post-App Store worldThey say there is no such thing as a free lunch. That may be true. But there is such a thing as a free app. Our phones are awash with them, whether it be from Apple’s App Store, the Android Marketplace or the other myriad virtual shops which exist today and will no doubt multiply in the future.

We have handy free apps such as Facebook and Twitter but, more pertinently, we have thousands of games available to play without having to splash out a single penny. Want proof? There’s the modern Thrust-like game Dropship, tilt-based Cube Runner and the self-explanatory Real Racing GTI to name but three. And yet people still complain. Take a look at the comments of any app and you will see someone moaning about some aspect or other, knocking off points for the slightest of faults. The free apps are just as harshly criticised as those costing a few quid. Remember Apple’s iTunes 12 Days of Christmas App, which gave away a selection of songs, videos and games such as Broken Sword: Director’s Cut, which usually sells for £3.99? Scathing comments even appeared there.

Over the past few years, the value people place on games and applications has been shifting. And it is not just affecting mobile phone apps. The rise of cheaper games and DLC on download services combined with the availability of mega-games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which are incessantly played online, are skewing what gamers see as good value.

On the one hand, players are getting something lightweight for mere pennies, or even free of charge, and on the other they are spending upwards of £40 on a game that will see them lose a huge chunk of their life. And in the middle of all of that are the premium-priced games which deliver traditional slices of gameplay that take maybe 20 hours to work through, while the likes of Shank have been criticised in some quarters for being too short; some believe £10.20 for a minimum of four hours of gameplay is too costly.

Throw in some DLC which tags an extra bit on to the end of a game, yet simply fails to satisfy (Prince of Persia: Epilogue was a key offender here) and it leads to questions over what exactly represents good value in gaming nowadays and how much bang we now expect for our buck. “At the bad end of the spectrum, the publishers have nickled and dimed for some DLC that is really unfair; they’ve charged too much,” says God Of War designer David Jaffe. “And on the other end, you’ve conditioned gamers to pay 60 dollars for a brilliant game like Modern Warfare 2 that gives them hundreds of hours of gameplay. Everything sells at that 60-dollar price point at retail for the most part, and it’s kinda like gamers are confused, because they don’t know what the value of a dollar means in this space anymore.”

The issue for developers and publishers, then, is how they can nail down the worth of that dollar in videogaming. It is an area of great interest to Ian Bogost, an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, who feels gamers have already become accustomed to paying low prices for their games. “There used to be a saying: ‘you can sell 1,000 of anything’,” he says. “It’s still true but the only difference is that you’ll never make a living doing so.”

The Price is Right?: Changing notions of value in a post-App Store worldThe app and download services have pushed the purchase price of games down almost to nothing, particularly among independent titles. We are entering an era of massive striation within gaming and the wider media, where highly leveraged and marketed commercial successes will sell a lot of copies even at low prices and still do well, while everyone else risks making nothing or next to nothing. This could clearly have major repercussions for creativity in the future. “The problem isn’t expendability; it’s value,” continues Bogost. “In general, people don’t think media has value enough to exchange for currency. The alienation of labour has become so old-hat that we even celebrate it now: don’t sell media, give it away and sell T-shirts!”

Even the top publishers appear to be confused as to the value of their own products. EA was criticised for its pre-Christmas sale when it discounted many of its games to 59p on Apple handsets, knowing it could take advantage of a period with the heaviest sales volume. The effect was to flood the App Store charts to the extent that EA dominated and independents were largely squeezed.

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    One of the problems I see is something you see in the ebook market as well.  The value of digital media vs physical media.  On Amazon you see hundreds and hundreds of ebooks that are the same price as the physical book.  It sends a message to some people that the publisher is just greedy.  The high price of a newly published hardback book is in the printing costs and binding and distribution and the like, overhead that the publisher has to make up for.  Now you’re taking the exact same book digitally at theoretically zero overhead cost (other than converting a PDF into whatever ebook format you’re using) and charging the same for it?  I understand the publisher point of view, you get to pocket the extra money, but basically you’re “ripping off” the customer by not saving THEM the production cost. 

    In video games you see this in downloadable titles on XBox Live and the like.  When they’re charging the same price for a downloaded Greatest Hits title as you would if you went out to Wal-Mart or GameStop or anywhere else and physically bought the game.  It costs them nothing to reproduce the game digitally, so why isn’t the savings of not having to physically press a disc, print a manual and mold a stupid plastic case passed on to the consumer?  And even then, you can go out and find it used and actually save a little money.

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