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Warning: Value of Games May Go Down as Well as Up

Feel Good Hit of the Summer: Battlefield 1943

Feel Good Hit of the Summer: Battlefield 1943

Battlefield 1943 is one of a number of games hitting Xbox Live Arcade and the Playstation Network this summer, countering the traditional summer lull. For just $15 (or £10 for my UK brethren, or 1200 Microsoft Space Bucks for everyone else), one of the most perfect knockabout multiplayer experiences can be had. Want to fly planes into tanks? How about flying a plane above a tank and parachuting on top of it? How about flying a plane into a tank, jumping out at the last second, and watching debris shower over your head? This is gaming, my friends.

At $15, it is one of the best bank per buck games one can purchase, described by John Davison as an “evergreen” title, destined to be supported with fresh maps and gameplay for many, many hours.

With such value to be had, what happens to the $60 game (or the criminal £55 game)?

Full-price release games are being squeezed by three economic directions:

  • the used market, championed by GameStop, but now Amazon and others
  • downloadable games, where price sensitivity (hello 99 cent iPhone apps) has drastically altered the pricing landscape
  • rental services, such as GameFly

Note that I’ve left out World of Warcraft for the time being, but you could easily argue for its inclusion on the list.

A great many developers and publishers are worried about the used market, and look to choke it by moving to downloadable games, where there is no legislation that forces the games to be tradeable after first sale, unlike every other non-software item that you can possibly purchase. And yes, I don’t agree with it.

However, then we reach the price-sensitive download land, although savings have been made by no longer packaging titles and paying retailers huge cuts. Games can be provided to the consumer for a profit, at a fraction of the cost it would have taken for a physical disc. Win, win! However, a fear of devaluing games appears: will the market only support the bitesized, cheap thrills games that dominate the iPhone App Store? Steam would suggest not on the PC, and Battlefield 1943 suggests not on the console either.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the percieved value of games is GameFly. For those unfamilar with the service, it offers game rentals Netflix-style: get one in the post, send it back for free, get a new one. All-you-can-eat gaming. As you gorge on gameplay, your tolerance for games that do not please weakens, some games being instantly tossed back in the mailbox to spin the game rental wheel again. Cheerio, Pure! Hello Red Faction: Guerrilla! The value placed on each individual game is minimal.

All three squeezing points act to reduce the perceived value of individual games, acting against the rising tide of the multimillion development budget. The market acts as if the consumer will be willing to pay an ever greater sum to justify those budgets, the elephant in the room is that no-one seriously believes they will. In fact, it’s turning the other way.

This is where EIS comes in, particularly the Content Generation research group of which I am a part. One of our aims is to make the boring, mechanical things fast and easy, leaving developers and studios to the actual work of creating games, not data structures. We don’t try and make things cheaper par se, but faster, and time is money.  Our work can equally benefit the smaller, downloadable game, or the one with a $120 special edition and cat helmet. The value of the retail release may change, but the value of developer time is always high. Eventually, throwing money at the development of R&D won’t cut it, and hopefully there will be many more labs like ours ready to accept the challenge of the research.


About the author:  Chris Lewis is a British PhD student researching the intersection of software engineering and video game development. Read more from this author


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4 Comments

  1. Posted July 30, 2009 at 3:54 PM | Permalink

    Another squeeze is, as with music and novels, from the back catalog. For years, game developers managed to mostly avoid competing with the back catalog by making it always appear so obsolete as to not even be worthy of consideration, mainly through graphics improvements. But as everyone who comments about such things has noted, there’s a bit of a graphics plateau now. So why buy some 2009 FPS when there are perfectly serviceable FPSs from 2007 out there? Maybe the avid gamer who has played all the games out there always wants something new; but for most people, huge swathes of the past 10 years of gaming are still new-to-them.

    I know when I approach games, I don’t ask, “of the games that have come out in the past year, which should I buy?” Instead, I ask, “of all the games I haven’t played that exist, which should I try next?” More often than not, the answer, as with novels, isn’t a 2009 title.

  2. Mike Treanor
    Posted July 30, 2009 at 4:29 PM | Permalink

    This whole 99 cent game movement is offensive to developers and players alike. Shame to all involved! *boils with rage*

    See Persuasive Games: I Want My 99¢ Back. Thank god I am insulated from reality (in academia) where I can make games about toilets in peace.

  3. Posted July 30, 2009 at 4:37 PM | Permalink

    As part of the Characters and Narrative research group, we’re working towards big advancements in narrative technologies. There will soon be games designs that present new challenges and revolutionary solutions. It will be interesting to see how this yet-to-be-seen variable fits into the industry of video games. The way we play and make games can potentially change a great deal in the years to come.

  4. Posted August 1, 2009 at 1:02 AM | Permalink

    @Mark
    Yes, the long tail is another squeeze, Steam and Good Old Games are seeing to that. If you haven’t tried Beneath a Steel Sky, I heartily recommend it. And it’s free!