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Video Games, Too Expensive? Are You Kidding Me?

August 27, 2010

Every once in a while, a blog post, or a Twitter “tweet”, or a news article will say something like “video games are too expensive”. Even the people making them come out with this every once in a while. And every time I see this, every time someone bemoans the $70 limited edition of some major release, or the $40 asking price of a premium PSP game, or what-the-hell-ever, it becomes an exercise in taking a deep breath, collecting myself, and moving on to some other piece of writing that doesn’t strike me as so utterly and completely wrong.

How about this: Games are cheaper than they’ve ever been, and we should probably just be glad we’re not paying upward of $100 for every one we buy.

Look, I’m not rich, and right now, it kind of feels like nobody’s rich, but shouldn’t we appreciate just what we’re getting for our money when we buy a game today? Look at this, from a Sears catalog back in 1983:

31 of the 36 Atari 2600 games featured in the Sears Wishbook that year were at least $27.99, with such notable exceptions as the notorious E.T. ($17.49), Mattel’s heavily-discounted Dark Cavern ($7.99), and Activision’s ridiculous play on the “chicken crossing the road” joke, Freeway ($19.99). Do you know what $27.99 translates to, adjusted for inflation? According to the Inflation Calculator based on the Consumer Price Index at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $27.99 in 1983 is the same as $61.27 today. That looks…remarkably familiar! Better yet, look at little Centipede, down at the bottom there. $34.99. That would be like paying $76.59 for a game today. The internet would explode.

Now, that was 1983, when we had games like, say, River Raid that were literally designed and programmed by one person, and all of the costs went into advertising and manufacturing. Sure, manufacturing costs have probably come down quite a bit since we stopped putting games on cartridges and started putting them on CDs and DVDs and Blu-Rays, but that much? Of course, we actually still have a format that’s using cartridges — the Nintendo DS — and lo and behold, that system’s games cost almost exactly as much as 2600 games did nearly 30 years ago. And we think this is expensive?

Even better than that, here are a couple of scans from the 16-bit wars — some Sega Genesis games from ’91, and some Super Nintendo games from ’93.

Anybody remember "Powerball"?

How about Populous? Hot damn I loved Populous.

When I started this post, my basis for it was a memory of Phantasy Star 2 being $79.99 at Toys ‘R’ Us the day I bought it for my Sega Genesis (worth every penny, too). It’s reported that the original Phantasy Star, for the Sega Master System, sometimes even sold for that much back in ’88 (which would put it at a cool $147.41 in today’s dollars). While I couldn’t find scanned evidence of either of those pricing atrocities, I did find my beloved Phantasy Star 2 running $59.99 in 1991 ($96.02 in 2010 dollars), while Strider, well-hyped as the FIRST 8-MEG GAME(!!), went for $67.99 ($108.83). Not pictured, but from the same catalog, is Shining in the Darkness, which ran $69.99 ($112.03).

Obviously, as can be seen from the above scans, the SNES was not immune to high prices, either. Of course, then, nobody blinked at paying $69.99 ($105.60) for an experience that was so close to that of the arcade, at a miniscule fraction of the price of an arcade machine. It was just the going rate, after all.

The gaming climate today is far different than it was in the early ’90s, and we have outlets like Steam giving us incredible values on bundles of games (having just bought the entire X-Com series for ten bucks, I can certainly vouch for the appeal), and downloadable services like WiiWare, Xbox Live Arcade, and the PlayStation Network have given us an awful lot of under-$20 games over the last few years that have at least the staying power of the AAA releases in the same time period. I’m sure I’ve put 30-40 hours into Puzzle Quest alone, and I probably have another 20 left before I even beat the thing.

The point being, with all of this discount gaming going on, it can feel like $60 is a bit much. For many games — games with glitches, games that feel unfinished, games that don’t even bother to try advancing the medium — $60 is a bit much. But for the good ones, the highly-anticipated ones, the well-designed ones, the ones that end up on those silly lists you see at the ends of years, $60 is a bargain. And not just a little bargain. Hell, we should feel a little bit lucky that we are actually paying less for our games now than we did for many of the best games in the early ’90s. Expensive games aren’t the problem — our ridiculous expectations are.

It’s entirely possible that I’m missing something here, some economic / technological reality that truly does make $60 a ridiculous price point for a top-of-the-line game. I invite you to tell me exactly what that something is. Until then, my fairly vivid memories of the games that supported the 16-bit console wars will be offering a pretty convincing argument otherwise.

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