Why does a video game cost what it costs? Growing up, almost all games were priced in the $50 range, which is kind of insane because that’s remained pretty constant over 30 years. Now, with games that can be measured in scale from your billion-dollar Call of Duty types down to the smallest one-creator Twine game, there’s a lot of room to speculate wildly over what the art is worth.
Steam has become a den of crybabies in this respect, where almost every pricing announcement is met with pushback from people who think they deserve for it to cost less. When Jonathan Blow’s The Witness was announced at a $40 price point (opposed to his smaller first game Braid releasing at $15), people were furious. Steam is an especially stupid place to have this argument, because once every two months or so, they do a site-wide sale and every game you’ve ever wanted gets discounted by some outrageous percentage. So if you’re OK with not playing a game on Day One, you can probably grab it for a few bucks next quarter.
There’s been a general kerfuffle on the site of late in regards to a new all-encompassing refund policy, which some claim unfairly harms indie games and allows smaller, more intimate games to be played to completion and then returned for full price. One of the Firewatch developers actually responded to a heartfelt comment in the forums, where one gamer claimed to have loved the game but that it was too short, so he wasn’t sure whether to demand a refund. The response to it was very open and understanding.
That brings us back to the politics of general price points. The game Brigador, which is in early access now, is a game about using a mech to blow up a dystopian city and save the world. The small indie team set a price point at $20, and users weren’t thrilled.
Some claimed that it should be $15 or even $12. Some thought, based on the trailer, maybe even $10 was a better number. The publisher went to the Steam forums to respond. The entire thing is worth a read, but here are some excerpts that are pretty fantastic:
“Brigador was made almost entirely from scratch, and when it ships will contain 2 hours of original music (small sample), over 100 different enemy units (spoilers), a story campaign, a free play mode, and a playable landmass of ~2 mi² (split between 20 maps) — roughly the size of downtown Chicago or the urban area in GTA III — hand detailed all the way down to street lamps, trash cans, stop signs, etc.”
So that’s a good understanding of the size and scope of the game. The developer then proceeds to list off all of the things he could find that cost more than $20, including a Nickleback poster he found online.
“It’s bad enough there’s a Nickelback poster worth more than the game we’ve spent the last 5 years building, worse still to have people come along and announce that in fact our game is only worth about as much as this other more common Nickelback poster. I hope you can understand the frustration this inspires.”
“$20 a copy, once you factor in Valve’s take and taxes, gets cut down to about $10 a copy (we live in Illinois which has the highest state income tax rate in the US at 5%). Pretending we don’t have to pay contractors or have any other development related expenses, to pay ourselves minimum wage for the time we’ve put in requires selling 25,000 copies of Brigador. Factoring in contractors and any kind of reasonable living and that number jumps up to ~50,000 copies. While not unheard of, that’s already getting into long-shot territory, especially for a new company that has no pre-existing ties to games media or the backing of a publisher. And people’s reticence to pay what amounts to a pint of beer more for the game means adding another 33% or 16,000 copies to see the same results. That increase alone amounts to more units than many independent releases ever sell.”
Then the developer acknowledges my earlier comment about how complaining on Steam about price, with the frequent sales, is borderline insane.
“We’re not asking for pity or charity, nor are we saying you should buy a game just because people worked hard on it — it’s possible to struggle valiantly and still make poo. But quality, depth, innovation all require time, and projects of this scope demand full-time work. If Brigador is not worth $20 to you, that’s fine, by all means wait until it goes on sale. But understand that you’re making an already extremely difficult job that much harder. Brigador took so long to make because we wanted to take a risk on building something unique rather than just reskinning an existing game. We wrote an engine from scratch so that we could create fully destructible environments and still have good control over performance. Iterating on design, creating something even only partially new takes a tremendous amount of time, and if people are unwilling to pay a price commensurate with the labor involved in creating games like this then fewer people will take those risks, and many of the ones who do will get starved out the industry.”
I’m going to buy this game now. Not many people in 2016 can quantify their existence in juxtaposition to a Nickleback poster. Game respect game.
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