Nobody likes being told they have to pay more for things they need or want, especially when times are tough for so many. So obviously, when 2K announced last week that NBA 2K21 for Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 would cost $70 USD (£65 in the UK, $100 AUD) while the current-gen versions would remain at $60, the completely understandable reaction from the majority of gamers who responded to our poll was to recoil in disgust and horror.
The other side of the coin is that publishers do have legitimate reasons for making this move that don’t seem entirely about greed when you put it in context – but the timing couldn’t possibly be any worse, given the current economic crisis that has put tens of millions of people out of work and deprived them of the disposable income they’d need to compensate for it. If price hikes are an unavoidable reality of business, that’s understandable. But we, as gamers, should get something in return – and that should start with fewer microtransactions in full-priced games.
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First, let’s look at the publishers’ side of things. Their argument is a simple matter of inflation and ballooning costs associated with creating increasingly complex and elaborately detailed games. Using pure inflation as a baseline, games will actually be cheaper at $70 in 2020 than they were at $60 at the beginning of the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 generation. Sixty dollars in 2006 is the equivalent of roughly $76 now.
IDG Consulting President and CEO Yoshio Osaki agrees. “The last time that next-gen launch software pricing went up was in 2005 and 2006, when it went from $49.99 to $59.99 at the start of the Xbox 360 and PS3 generation,” Osaki said in an interview with Gamesindustry.biz. “During that time, the costs and prices in other affiliated verticals have gone up.” By “affiliated verticals” Osaki refers to other types of entertainment, citing that “cinema ticket prices have risen 39%, Netflix subscription costs have gone up 100%, and Cable TV packages have risen by 105%.”
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That’s true almost universally: A gallon of milk doesn’t cost the same now as it did a decade ago, and neither does a gallon of gas. Season tickets to your favorite pro sports team go up (assuming we can ever go attend live sporting events again…). Increasing costs are an unfortunate, but unavoidable part of capitalism. But cost it isn’t as simple as calculating inflation – as expenses like housing and health care eat up larger and larger percentages of Americans’ paychecks without large wage increases to compensate, even an inflation-adjusted lower cost represents a greater expense as a percentage of our disposable income.
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Furthermore, the timing of this couldn’t be worse. Depending on which economist you talk to, we’re either in a global recession or teetering on the edge of one, with economic uncertainty hanging over the entire world for the foreseeable future in light of the coronavirus pandemic. That may be completely out of publishers’ control, but it is nevertheless an awful time to ask for more money from gamers.
But rising costs go both ways: just as costs for consumers have gone up, development costs have risen for publishers. As PCs and game consoles get more powerful, we all expect more out of our video games. And rightfully so! Why should we run out and buy the latest and greatest “most powerful console ever!” if games aren’t going to wow us with the wizardry they can pull off with all of those teraflops at their disposal? Of course, those jumps in realism and technical prowess don’t come easy…or cheap. Improved tools like Unreal Engine 5’s Lumens and Nanite certainly help attain those higher bars more efficiently, but to reach these lofty new heights you need a growing army of artists, engineers, and other developers armed with high-end hardware. As Osaki notes, relative to the previous generation of consoles, “Next-gen console game production costs have increased by 200% to 300%, depending on the IP, studio and genre, but the prices have remained at $59.99.”
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It’s certainly fair to say that if we want gaming to be a thriving industry and for new big games to continually push the envelope we need to be willing to make it worth the developers’ while – and why should a publisher risk $100 million or more on an ambitious new game if they didn’t stand to make a few bucks in the deal? Why should investors bet their piles of cash on games when they could just as easily back the next superhero movie franchise instead? The reality of the system is that we have to convince them that games are the best bet… with our cash.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “Maybe I’d be okay with $70 games if publishers weren’t constantly trying to reach into my wallet with microtransactions.” And I 100% agree with you. If next-gen games are going to tick up by 17%, we as gamers/consumers should reasonably expect more of the content to be baked in at launch rather than trickled out afterwards so we can be nickeled and dimed for it. Outside of the rare but commendable microtransaction/DLC-less examples of AAA games like God of War, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and The Last of Us Part II, publishers have rarely let their prize cash cows live on the farm without milking them for every last drop.
The fact that NBA 2K is the first game to plant its $70 next-gen flag in the ground is a bit of a tough pill to swallow for gamers, considering the literal freakin’ casino in NBA 2K20 that 2K and Visual Concepts have been justifiably criticized for. While it’s tolerable for publishers to sell cosmetic skins that don’t affect gameplay, NBA 2K20 went far beyond that with its MyTeam mode, which prompted our reviewer to say “It became immediately clear to me that the mode’s centralized goal is to extract as much money as I am willing to give up to not have to grind out various mundane challenges.” That kind of thing needs to end if we’re going to be asked for more money up front.
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There’s another issue that comes to mind when faced with a next-gen price hike: the health and well-being of the talented people responsible for creating these costlier Series X and PS5 games. Will the developers themselves see any of these extra dollars, in both their base salaries and their bonus packages? Will their working conditions – all too often exposed as a punishing “crunch” by investigative reports – improve? Publishers owe it to their teams to pay it forward so that all this extra revenue isn’t simply going to go straight into the pockets of executives and shareholders. We need assurances from any publisher who decides to charge more for their games that they are treating their workers fairly and ethically. In fact, we need that from all publishers, regardless of what they’re charging – but especially those demanding top dollar.
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Another thing I’d like to see is publishers do is use more of the full pricing scale depending on the scope of their projects. If NBA 2K21 is built from the ground up for next-gen to take full advantage of the new hardware (as 2K says it is) and it includes new modes and features the current-gen version doesn’t have, then that’s great and I can accept a $70 price because I’m getting a better product. But maybe something like Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, a sort of “1.5” version of 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man for PS4 that’s likely to reuse many character models and world design (there’s only one New York, after all) from the game many of us already paid for and played, should be no more than $50. A hypothetical PS5 remaster of something like Sunset Overdrive (humor me here) could be $40. We saw a bit of this during this generation, with the three-hour masterpiece Inside priced at $20 and the imminent (but slightly delayed) Crysis Remastered looking like it’ll be $30 once its preorders go live again. But that $70 price shouldn’t be the new “standard” – it should be reserved for the top tier of games that strive to go above and beyond. Like a Cyberpunk 2077, for instance.
The silver lining to game prices going up is that in the era of digital games, what goes up quickly comes down quickly, too. Games seem to go on sale sooner than ever these days as publishers look to both capitalize on the crucial first days of a game’s release (when their marketing efforts have put it directly in the public’s eye) as well as get as many players in the door as possible so they can become potential DLC customers later. A savvy gamer who’s willing to wait a bit for most games – while maybe splurging on those they care most about – can enjoy this hobby more economically than ever. On top of that, we’re also seeing the rise of subscription services like Xbox Game Pass and Uplay Plus giving us access to big games on day one without paying the cover price.
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The bottom line is that gaming has always been relatively recession-proof. When times are good, people spend money on games like they do with all other luxury and entertainment products. When they’re not, people still tend to prioritize games amongst the entertainment they do keep in their lives because of the wonderful ratio of dollars-to-entertainment-hours they provide. But selling video games has always been a two-way street. If publishers are going to raise prices in the middle of a recession that happens to occur during a console-generation shift, then they need to act in good faith on their end of the deal and deliver games that feel worth the cost on day one.