Every new console generation brings new anxieties that the price of gaming going up. Right now, many of the big players won't officially say what their next-gen games will cost. Microsoft will, at least.
A company spokesperson confirmed to Kotaku that Microsoft's own first-party Xbox One games will cost $59,99, the same price top Xbox 360 games have.
And for PS4? Sony's U.S. boss of PlayStation business, Jack Tretton, implied in an interview last February that PS4 games would also peak at $60. Oddly, at E3 this past week, Sony reps declined to say what their PS4 games will cost. "I know the pricing," Sony's head of worldwide game development, Shuhei Yoshida, told me when we met to chat about PlayStation. He checked with his PR minder sitting near us and confirmed that, no, he was not permitted to officially tell me what that PS4 game pricing would be. Not yet.
With only Microsoft currently committing to $60, could their rivals actually be targeting $70? There are good reasons for them not to.
Spokespeople for mega-publishers Activision, EA, and Ubisoft said their companies weren't commenting on game price yet.
As inflation rises, the relative cost of something actually drops. As we pointed out last February, when Tretton made his comment about $60 PS4 games, we pointed out that $60 in 2006 money—2006 being the year the PS3 launched—would run $68.54 in February 2013. It's June, so the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' handy inflation calculator website now puts that $60 in 2006 money up at $69.21. Flip it around the other way and a $60 today is worth $52.02 in 2006 money. One could easily see any game company arguing that next-gen games actually should cost $70.
With only Microsoft currently committing to $60, could their rivals actually be targeting $70? That would only be as crazy as Microsoft differing from its rivals on, say, requiring online connections, so it's certainly possible. There's even precedent, primarily from Nintendo, for a platform-maker to sell its games at $10 less than the third-party game makers on the same platform. Nintendo used to sell its games at $50 while the Activisions, Ubisofts and EAs sold games at $60. Nintendo's been up at $60, however, for top Wii U console releases.
The arguments against the non-Microsoft companies going above $60 are that A) it'd piss off gamers, B) it would seem further out-of-step with the rise of cheap mobile games and free-to-play games and, C) of course, it's certainly easier for a publisher to maybe cut some corners, leave some content out of the game for paid downloadable expansions, or sell a collector's edition—any of those tactics would let them still be able to say a game sells for $60 but actually get the gamer to spend a lot more on it.
Yoshida estimated that top PS3 games have been costing $20-$50 million to make. And for PS4? "Slightly larger," he said, laughing.
Make no mistake that the cost of making games is going up and up. That is something Sony's Yoshida could talk to me about and, to hear it from him, game creators are going to have some rather large bills to pay in the next generation of gaming. He estimated that top PS3 games have been costing $20-$50 million to make. And for PS4? "Slightly larger," he said, laughing. "We are just starting!"
Yoshida compared some PS4 games to their PS3 predecessors to make some points about getting potentially bigger next-gen budgets under control. "When you compare Killzone Shadow Fall to Killzone 3, for example, or Infamous: Second Son to Infamous 2, it’s clear that PS4 titles have much bigger worlds and there’s more to create. What teams try to do is make the pipeline much more efficient and use a lot more off-shore production ... do more volume with less kinds of resources. So it really depends on the title, but the teams are trying to be more efficient with making contents." He said that he's seeing development teams make more cutscenes using their game's in-engine graphics rather than commissioning expensive FMV and CGI pre-rendered movie scenes.
It's not really for gamers to worry too much about how much a game costs, not without worrying that it's then going to cost them more to buy and play the game. The other way for game companies to make more money to off-set swelling budgets, though, is simply to sell more copies.
Make an expensive game, sell a mountain of copies of it. Simple, right? Well, it puts more pressure on games to sell, which has its own set of consequences.
"We’ve already seen that on PS3," Yoshida said. "Because of the vast difference of quality in titles on PS3, we see top games are selling more and all the others kind of struggle. We see less and less mid-sized B or single-A titles. I think that continues. What we are trying to do is make sure the big titles get more resources and support so that they can succeed and the others go digital or small as something unique."
Look over to Activision and its grand total of four games in its E3 booth for a sign of a company trying to only make top-sellers. They're certainly trying to do part of what Yoshida is talking about and one imagines they're selling enough Call of Duty games at $60 to make the presumably giant budgets for games in that series relatively reasonable.
We'll know closer to the PS4 and Xbox One's launch the actual price for new games on the new platforms. Here, at least, Microsoft appears to be stepping out first or at least most definitively with something that should please existing gamers. If only the other companies could make it official—and if only prices would drop dramatically from time to time as they do on Steam. Perhaps on consoles with—ahem—more restrictive DRM we might see that. Not just with Xbox One but with the digital shops on any of the consoles from the big three.
The takeaway for now: if they all stick to $60, then new games will never have been so cheap.