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Why do game downloads cost so much on consoles?

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If you want to buy Assassin's Creed Unity on PlayStation 4 today, you'd better shop around. Comparing prices at major retailers, you'd find that they can vary by more than 50 percent.

Using Unity as an example, a PS4 digital code costs $39.99 at Amazon and on the PlayStation Store, but it's $59.99 at GameStop. If you wanted a disc, you could get one for $18.84 on Amazon, $29.99 (used) or $39.99 copy at GameStop.

Why? What explains the difference? And should we expect to see "more compelling digital pricing for newer catalog games?" That's what an analyst asked Ubisoft CEO Yives Guillemot and CFO Alain Martinez during an earnings call today.

"We tend to be more conservative on the digital side for console and more flexible on the PC."

The answer has several moving parts, including the relative number of physical copies in stores and how long it's been since a game was released. It's also, according to the executives, a function of the relatively new full-game download market on consoles like PS4 and Xbox One, both of which launched with more storage space than their predecessors and prominent first-party storefronts.

The PC game market, by contrast, has a much older and more competitive digital presence — and a much smaller physical presence.

Guillemot began by saying that digital versions are "more reactive" than physical copies in stores. But digital console games are not as reactive as their PC counterparts. That said, about a year after a game's release, digital games are "a lot more dynamic on consoles because there are less units in stores."

"It's a new business, a new trend," he said, "and we think that all this will get more in line with time. But for sure, at the moment, you see all sorts of prices, depending on who is doing the promo, also, for that specific week."

Console pricing and sales may become more like PC sales, but it's going to take time, he said.

At launch, CFO Alain Martinez said, Ubisoft will sell a game at the same price, no matter if you get a disc or a download. After a few weeks or months, that can change. He also echoed Guillemot's explanation that sales are inconsistent — sometimes, a promotion discounts a game on Amazon, but not at GameStop.

On PC, where digital sales are more established, Ubisoft is more "aggressive."

"As Yives said also, we tend to be more conservative on the digital side for console and more flexible on the PC," Martinez said.

"We think that all this will get more in line with time"

Guillemot ended the discussion with another reference to the physical copies of games sitting on store shelves, which have an effect on digital prices.

"And also, one thing to consider is, the stocks," he said. "If we have stock in stores, we tend to make sure we decrease the quantity of units in stores before going digital with low prices. It's also linked to those two ways to those two ways to sell products, which is less and less the case on PC — especially in the U.S."

Digital pricing is particularly important for Ubisoft, whose digital sales have become an increasingly important part of its business. In an earnings statement today (PDF link), the company disclosed that "digital segment revenues totaled €54.1 million and represented 56.0% of total sales versus 23.2% the prior year."

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