By Kenny Cai
The right price that customers should pay for a game is always a hotly contested topic within the gaming community. With the rising costs of games and the prominence of social media, this topic has become very heated from all sides of the argument. With more demanding expectations from specific customers and higher costs needed to develop greater game engines, finding the right balance is becoming increasingly difficult.
This article will be my thoughts as it looks at the various causes that contribute to this trend.
Rising Costs of Developing Games
How did the cost of developing games increase, and where did all the money go to? According to the Economist, one such reason is attributed to Moore’s Law. Computer graphics have taken so many leaps and bounds over the years. Naturally, more processors have been used to help power this demand for breath-taking graphics in games. Using an instance for comparison, Doom was written by a small group of friends in 1993, whereas Destiny had a team of nearly 500 team members, even though both are essentially shooter games.
Similarly, with better computer graphics technology for rendering, game art is also learning to utilize the advantages of such technology. The thirst for more detailed content to go with games directly contributes to this rising trend of increasing costs. Characters, level environments, items and visual effects, all these have become an art in itself, and publishers are aware of it, releasing such additional material as pre-order bonuses or standalone material to generate revenue.
In addition, as gaming culture grows to become a big deal, other aspects of video games, such as audio and animations have also contributed to the increasing cost of development. A lot of these ramping up of production values stem not only from being a beneficiary of advancing technology, but at the same time from the growing expectations and demands from consumers. With better graphics technology, consumers will naturally want their games to visually match, or even surpass, the quality that is currently available. These things, in turn, will require money, and lots of it, to make that vision become a reality.
For instance, Grand Theft Auto V set a record for being the most expensive video game to develop, setting back Rockstar US$265 million for development and marketing costs combined. An indie game developer can only dream of having that kind of money to make their desired games. This ever mounting cost of development is not looking to drop any time soon, especially with customer demands for pop entertainment.
A screenshot of Grand Theft Auto V from Rockstar Games and Rockstar North taken from playstationlifestyle.net.
Much of this advancement in graphics rendering technology can be traced back to customer demand, mainly from players. This can both be a good and bad thing, which will be discussed in the next section.
Customer Demands and Hype
Gamers are a strange and fickle lot. Sometimes, it can be hard to really decipher what gamers actually want in their games. In addition, with the prevalence of social media in this modern era, disgruntled gamers have a lot of options they can use as a loudspeaker to voice their displeasure. Sieving through genuine feedback or criticism is now a lot harder than before.
Even though gamers are often criticized as fickle-minded and unable to decide what they want, there is a noticeable trend, according to Business Insider and their list of the top ten best-selling games in 2015. 2015 is, in this writer’s opinion, considered a “down year” due to the many controversies that revolved around the gaming world, but it still gave a good insight of what games people are buying. Sequels to popular franchises remain unchallenged on the list, and this goes contrary to the perception that gamers demanded innovation. This, ironically, proves that in the end, even though gamers may crave for innovation, they still prefer to play games that they are familiar with, such as sequels to popular gaming franchises.
While this writer does encourage game developers to listen to their customers and provide them what they want, the failure of “Wildstar” by Carbine Studios should serve as a cautionary tale. It’s a classic case of shooting for the moon, and missing by a wide margin. Although initially well-received, the game soon fell into obscurity post-release. When player interest in the game faded, it never recovered from such a blow. Even though the game was well-received on launch and delivered on what it believed customers wanted, it ultimately means nothing when customers left the game in droves.
A screenshot of Wildstar from Carbine Studios and NCSoft taken from Wildstar’s official website.
The prevalence of hype culture in gaming is also a big factor with the high requirements expected from games. This sometimes sets the bar way too high from a gameplay or technological standpoint. Generating interest on a game certainly helps with attracting customers, but it is also a double-edged sword. The popularity of social media only exacerbates an already dangerous possibility of overhyping, to the point of no return at times. More hype results in more demand, and if unfulfilled, can definitely lead to disgruntled customers using social media to show their displeasure.
This writer certainly put much of the blame on the rampant hype culture generated by marketing departments. However, blame cannot be completely lifted from customers and fans for overblowing expectations. The ever-growing superfluous thirst for the next-big-thing is not helping with mitigating the rising cost of developing games. It is also giving developers and publishers extravagant reasons to justify earning more money, some practices of which are skirting on unethical grounds.
The whole “No Man’s Sky” controversy ever since its release is a good instance to showcase the dangers of overblown hype for a game. It was a decent game at the very least, but accusations of lying over the nature and potential of the game by the developers has forever marred the game’s reputation. The fact that lawyers and the UK’s Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) had to get involved after complaints from disgruntled customers further highlights the dangers of rampant hype culture.
Marketing material taken from dualshockers.com of No Man’s Sky from Hello Games, one of the most high-profile cautionary tale of hype culture.
Publishing video games is a business in itself, and like most businesses, the goal is to turn in a profit. Building up some hype for a game’s release is a common marketing practice, but the instance of No Man’s Sky highlights the danger of hype culture in today’s video game society. Getting a game noticed encourages gamers to buy the product, but even marketing is not cheap. Publishers, naturally, want their return on investment (ROI) for the money they put in their games, but how far will publishers go to get that money back? Unfortunately, the predominance of mobile games has opened up the floodgates for some really shady and anti-consumer business practices, which will be explored in the next section.
Maintaining Ethical Boundaries
An extension of this rampant hype culture in gaming is also how unchecked pre-order culture had become over the years. Generating hype among gamers encourages them to pre-order games, and this poisonous trend has been noticed by publishers, who are very much shamelessly milking it to the detriment of the games’ overall quality. Such pre-order practices by publishers and retailers is very suspect to anti-consumer behavior, and the only losers in these situations are the customers.
Promotional material for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare from Infinity Ward and Activision.
The marketing that Activision did with the remastered version of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare highlights many dangers that rampant pre-order culture posed, especially with their business decisions. Not only did they bundle the remastered game to Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare to generate sales for the latter, but what really drew the ire of gamers was the inclusion of microtransactions, as well as the lack of free DLC for the remaster. The topic of microtransactions will be discussed eventually, but looking at this instance, it is easy to identify the dangers of falling to anti-consumer practices. A good portion of fans wanted to play the remastered Modern Warfare instead of the newer Infinite Warfare but was not given the option to do so. Instead, they had to buy a game they did not want in order to play the game they actually want. Even then, the presence of microtransactions means that they were not getting the full value for their game either. To add insult to injury, Activision released, without prior announcement plans, a standalone version of Modern Warfare months after this initial launch.
The relation this has to rising costs of developing games is simple: the potential for publishers to use false pretenses to charge higher prices. In the worst case scenario, this can lead to stagnation, or even worse, a decline of the quality of games at the expense of fans and customers. This kind of behavior is already present in the mobile game industry, and its exploitive aspects are already seeping into mainstream games. According to estimates, at least a third of the world’s entire population now owns a smartphone, and publishers are recognizing it as a viable source of revenue. Mobile games can now be bought and sold easily, and development of such games only costs a fraction of what big budget games require.
Most of these mobile games follow a “free-to-play” model. The most common design is either allowing players some sections of the game for free before paying for the rest or randomized loot boxes. In theory, this is actually a pretty good deal. More well-off players are able to access the whole game. Meanwhile other players get to play and enjoy the base game, paying for the rest of the content later if they wish. The dreaded word among mainstream gamers, “microtransactions”, originates from this model.
Unfortunately, exploitation of this model by game publishers in mainstream premium games is pushing the ethical boundaries of design into gambling. Rather than “free-to-play”, it becomes a “fee-to-play” or “pay-to-earn” model. While it may be lawfully acceptable as a business decision to recoup some profit losses, the backlash and arguments amongst customers from implementing such a system is immerse. In the eyes of consumers, paying for an incomplete game and still asking for more money gives the impression of being ripped off, destroying any trust between gamers and publishers. This is especially the case when players are prompted to pay additional money for randomized rewards.
This writer needs to point this out: if done correctly, DLCs and microtransactions can be a sustainable source of revenue. Even though gamers may avoid games with DLC or microtransactions like the plague, much of this fear of being ripped off is actually unfounded. According to Ben Cousins’ article on Polygon, even though Candy Crush Saga has microtransactions within, King Digital Entertainment (the publishers of Candy Crush Saga) revealed that 70 percent of players reached the final level without spending a single dime. It is possible to play a “free-to-play” game without having to spend any money, despite the negative connotations that the word “microtransactions” brings.
Candy Crush Saga, perhaps the most well-known of match 3 mobile games, from King Digital Entertainment plc.
It is true that the costs and demands for better quality games are only going to keep increasing. Publishers are going to keep finding ways to get money off gamers. However, as much as it may be a business, exploiting the rampant hype and pre-order culture to justify slapping higher prices on games is not only avaricious, it is insulting to customers. The dangers of stagnating overall game quality is very real. Video game developers and publishers will do well to heed this warning before gamers become soured over buying overpriced, subpar quality games. In the short term, it may seem profitable, but in the long run, the lack of trust can lead to a complete breakdown of the game industry if left unchecked.
There is no solution that benefits everybody, but the need to compromise between sustaining the costs of developing games and satisfying customer demands cannot be stressed enough.
Money cannot buy you success. Even if the game appears astounding and cutting-edge, it ultimately comes to naught if gamers do not feel engaged with the game they spent their hard-earned cash on. This is probably the worst case scenario for aspiring game designers and gamers. As the costs for developing games continues to rise, perhaps it may be time to start prioritizing how that money is spent. Ensure that the budget goes into developing what is really important to a game, so both developers and customers get the most value out of their money being used to develop said game.
Game developers should listen and pay attention to customer demands, but at the same time, not get dictated by them. These developers need to plan their budget wisely, focusing on what is needed rather than “innovate for the sake of innovation”. The rising costs for developing games and the hunger from customers will never cease, but if game developers can focus on what they believe makes their games unique, at least they are spending money correctly. The rampant hype and pre-order culture plaguing the video game industry is not going to fade away anytime soon, and it takes the efforts of both gamers and publishers to moderate it. Just like how you need two hands to perform a handshake, both gamers and developers will need to work together and avoid being suckered into malicious practices.
Customers and gamers, in turn, should be wary against buying into hype and pre-order culture, and temper their expectations. Developing games is an expensive business, and money will always be needed to build the content that they crave for so much. Rather than outright demand for innovation, gamers should think about the essences that form the best aspect of a game, and what can be done to improve upon it. Even with rising costs, the amount of trust between gamers, developers and publishers is necessary to mitigate its effects, and ensure the critical and commercial success of a game product.
With advancing technology to power and render computer graphics, the demand for innovation from customers is not expected to drop any time soon. However, developing such technology and content are not cheap, and video game publishers and developers will have to keep splashing the cash in order to meet such demands.
Customers, in turn, should at least regulate their own expectations. As the old saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, and with the ever growing demands for quality content in games, game developers will need time to ensure they can deliver on these promises. Conversely, game developers and publishers need to realize that even though the costs of developing games are never going to fall, there should still be ethical boundaries when it comes to earning money. Using rising costs as an excuse to try and grab more money from customers is not only greedy, but also poor justification, especially when there are instances of the “free-to-play” model done right.
The debate on how much should be charged for a game will always divide consumers and game companies, and there is no straight answer to give. However, tempered expectations from gamers and meaningful innovation from developers and publishers can help to mitigate the issue. That way, both gamers and developers can still get maximum value for their money, ensuring a win-win situation for all parties involved.
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