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No one knows how expensive video games should be

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Everyone has an opinion, no one is an expert

A photo of the Steam Summer Sale front page Polygon

There is no “standard” price for a video game in 2017, and that’s a good thing for developers, publishers and fans.

We can fool ourselves into thinking a video game is something you can buy in the store for $59.99, but that ignores the host of special editions that will be released for so many games. It also leaves out the inconvenient truth of how quickly modern games go on sale after launch.

The tiered pricing system that used to separate things like Xbox Live Arcade games from “real” games has also been obliterated, and then further destroyed by the “free” games you get for subscribing to Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network.

I had assumed Sonic Mania would be a full-priced release based on skimming the news about the game, and was pleasantly surprised to find it to be a $19.99 download on the Switch. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was released at $29.99. Sales happen frequently at both retail stores and online storefronts. All bets are off.

Are the prices too low?

A recent SteamSpy article claimed that indie games are, as a whole, priced too cheaply.

“This is especially true for pre-orders,” SteamSpy founder Sergey Galyonkin argues. “I see many indie companies offering discounts for pre-orders, sometimes going as high as 33 percent. Why would you charge your most loyal fans less? Maybe, instead of asking for a lower price, add more value to the pre-order, like the big guys are doing? ... They’re pre-ordering your title not because it’s cheap, but because they believe in you and want you to succeed, so let them help you.”

A discussion about pricing best practices is more likely to start a debate than lead to anywhere productive, and Galyonkin’s article led to a few spirited conversations online about how games should be priced and why. Jonathan Blow even seemed to put The Witness on sale as a sort of cheeky rebuttal to the article’s praise of the game’s relatively high price relative to other indie games.

Dude? Dude.
Twitter

Using The Witness as evidence of anything in terms of pricing is tricky anyway, as the massive success of Braid put Blow in an enviable financial position heading into development of its follow-up. Having a previous hit from an era when being on Xbox Live Arcade meant something also gave Blow and The Witness a massive advantage in terms of press coverage.

Jonathan Blow is operating from the same place of privilege as bands like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead, who toyed with offering albums with no set prices; these are creative entities who get to take advantage of the new flexible pricing models after using the older studio system for promotion and building wealth. Some people get to operate in the present after using the industry’s past practices as a springboard. Most developers don’t have that luxury.

Which means no one really knows how expensive their games should be. There is no formula to use that will give you a reliable idea of how to sell the maximum number of copies at the highest price, especially when getting attention at all is so difficult, nor is there much transparency in what games cost to make.

And even if there were, what would it matter? A ticket to see the new Star Wars movie usually costs the same as a ticket to see the latest low-budget horror movie, and even then we’re seeing more movies debuting on streaming services, anyway. Budget and pricing aren’t as related as some people like to pretend.

Games are unique in a number of ways, but it’s not like many industries think price is a settled issue. Coke and Pepsi are two of the most marketed products in the world, and the base products have remained relatively unchanged for a very long time. You’d think they’d have optimal pricing figured out, but you still see new sizes of cans and bottles sold at new prices with a fair amount of regularity. If no one has figured out the perfect way to price sugar water yet, don’t expect the pricing of games to be settled any time soon.

This may be an unnerving situation for developers who are trying to make enough money to eat and maybe make their next game, but the good news is that price is rarely an indication of quality or length. You can’t assume much about a game based on how much you paid for it, and experimental pricing means that there will likely always be some new release out there you can afford.

Game pricing is chaos, and if we’ve learned anything about chaos, it’s that it’s filled with opportunity. Everyone may have an opinion, but no one is an expert. And the next sale is likely a day or two away.