What’s Behind The Cost Of Games: Part Two

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In the responses I’ve seen to No Man’s Sky being priced the same as Uncharted 4 or The Division, people seem to be trying to get to the heart of what actually constitutes a $60 video game. In February I tried to put down some thoughts about the factors that might go into it. After looking at all this I think there are two very important ways in which No Man’s Sky goes against everything customers have come to believe about $60 games, one of which people are discussing and one of which I haven’t really seen mentioned at all.

First the one people are talking about: cost versus content. It’s very easy and logical to think about video game pricing this way, but unfortunately I don’t think there’s always a direct linear link between a game’s production cost and how much “content” is actually in it.

Jim Sterling made a point in his video that we’re getting more and more $60 games from big publishers these days where most of the content either isn’t there at launch or there’s almost no content outside a few multiplayer modes. For years now people have complained about $60 games from AAA publishers where the singleplayer story mode isn’t even 10 hours long. The most recent and egregious example is probably The Order: 1886. Where did all that money go for games like this? It probably went into making the art assets look so beautiful and into hours of voice acting in half a dozen languages. The marketing budgets for some of these games is often at least as big as the cost of actually making the game.

I’ve seen some hypothesize that the biggest publishers like Electronic Arts and Ubisoft have sort of conspired to keep pumping out $60 games that look and sound like Hollywood movies to train customers to believe that’s what a game needs in order to be worth $60. Theoretically this would narrow the amount of competition in the $60 retail video game market since only a handful of companies can afford to develop games that look like The Division or Battlefield 4. A dozen people putting together an effectively infinite universe filled with emergent gameplay systems (we’ll see how that actually turns out in June) could be seen as a threat to that status quo if it draws people away from The Division or Battlefield for significant amounts of time. Dark Souls was probably made much more cheaply than most $60 games from EA but can still easily grab 80 hours of your time. How much does it really cost to design gameplay systems that can grant hours of entertainment?

That brings up a weird trend I’m seeing — the most ambitious game design I’m seeing these days is coming from the smallest developers. Scale like the 1:1-size planets you’re seeing in No Man’s SkyElite: Dangerous, or Star Citizen is something you’d think would only come from EA or Ubisoft’s open-world games. Instead it’s coming from Kickstarter projects or groups of a dozen people. Look at how AAA games have started to crib from Dark SoulsMinecraft, or MOBAs. Most of the innovation is coming from the small guys and then being parroted by the big guys. Y’know what? Part of me wants to see the big publishers eventually rip off No Man’s Sky and Elite: Dangerous. I want to see EA turn Mass Effect into a procedurally generated life-size galaxy with a deep BioWare storyline.

Could it be that these publishers are able to demand $60 for games like TitanfallRainbow Six Siege, and Street Fighter V because they carry some kind of prestige of high production value? Another element — the one I don’t see people talking about, is that these games come from trusted franchises or trusted brand name publishers.

People like Sterling are saying the backlash against the price of No Man’s Sky is because of some unwritten rule that “indie” games can’t cost more than $20 or so. Part of that is because these games are often made by far fewer people which means fewer people have to be paid. Another reason however is because indie games are often unknown quantities from unproven developers.

When a game shows up out of nowhere on Steam Early Access because the developer can’t afford marketing, and that game has some completely new and unproven concept, it’s a lot of risk for someone to buy it. Indie developers are accustomed to lowering that risk with lower prices. The ultimate extreme of this is the iOS market of free and 99 cent games. With No Man’s Sky this issue has been exacerbated.

First of all, developer Hello Games has been deliberately cagey about what players will actually find in No Man’s Sky, wanting them to discover things for themselves. That has really just made people more unsure about it. Even worse though, is that to certain people No Man’s Sky isn’t just a new intellectual property, it’s a new IP in a completely unknown genre.

Hello Games has made no secret about how much inspiration No Man’s Sky takes from games like Elite, but the people who’ll be playing it on PS4 have probably never played or heard of Elite, or anything like it. If a developer was being this cagey about a first person shooter, ordinary customers could at least fill in the blanks with their own preconceived notions from having played other FPSs. The space exploration sandbox game is pretty much unknown on consoles, so console-only players have no frame of reference to which to compare No Man’s Sky. It’s why people are still so confused as to what you even do in it. Many still think it’s a walking simulator like Proteus or Firewatch and aren’t aware of the combat or resource gathering. For those people, $60 for a game like this is the ultimate risk.

On the other hand, Sony’s involvement has changed things a little bit and it’s ultimately why I think the game costs $60. No Man’s Sky appeared on The Late Show. Live gameplay of it has been broadcast on national US television. Sony’s probably going to put some effort into marketing the game. Because awareness is probably up, sales expectations are probably up. Hello Games thinks it can sell a profitable number of copies of No Man’s Sky at $60.

BULLETS:

  • I feel like if this game does blow up it’ll be because of streamers and YouTubers. It seems like the perfect game for streamers. They already love those first person survival games, and no two people will ever be streaming the same places in the game.
  • I remember hearing about To Azumith a long while back. Now the Steam page is up with an announcement trailer: http://www.toazimuth.com/blog/2016/3/9/to-azimuth-
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