Wed. Sep 28th, 2022

Last week, 2K caused a stir by becoming the first publisher to set an asking price of $70 for a high-budget game on next-generation consoles. NBA2K21 The now standard costs $60 on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, but 2K will charge $10 more for the upcoming Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 versions of the game (a $100 “Mamba Forever Edition” gives players access to the current generation and next generation versions in one bundle).

It remains to be seen if other publishers will follow 2K’s lead and make $70 a new de facto standard for the price of big budget console games. But while $70 would match the high-water mark for nominal game prices, wouldn’t it be a historically high asking price in terms of true value† In fact, thanks to inflation and changes in game distribution, the current cap on game prizes has never been this low.

The data

To measure how the actual asking price for console games has changed over time, we mainly relied on scanned catalogs and retail advertising leaflets that we found online. While this information was easier to find in some years than others, we were still able to collect data for 20 different years over the past four decades. We then adjusted those nominal prices to constant dollars for 2020 using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI inflation calculator.

To avoid the influence of low-priced bargain bin games or store discounts, we focused on the highest asking prices for individual games we could find in each year (excluding collector’s editions). But to avoid unnecessary skewing of outliers like the $100 Genesis version of Virtua Racing, we averaged the highest-level asking price we could find for a “basket” of games representing up to eight different genres. So for NES prices in 1988, the highest asking price of $49.99 for Steel blades in the Sports slot was partially offset by the highest asking price of $34.99 for The karate kid in the “fighting/brawler” slot.

I’m old enough to remember $70 cartridges

The resulting data is a bit noisy from year to year, depending on which specific games were included in existing ads that we were able to track down. However, over time, the price trends are still quite easy to spot.

While nominal cartridge prices in the early 1980s were $30 to $40, inflation today makes it the equivalent of $80 to $100 per game. Nominal prices remained relatively stable until the late 1980s when the industry began to recover from the great crash, but inflation reduced the real value slightly in constant dollars.

However, when the industry moved to 16-bit cartridges in the 1990s, nominal prices for top games quickly rose above $60 in nominal dollars and $110 in 2020 dollars. That’s largely due to the expensive ROM storage and co-processors commonly used in games of the day. In 1997, the late SNES and early N64 games routinely sold for $69.99 at many retailers, the highest nominal prices the industry has generally seen and still the equivalent of over $110 in today’s dollars.

An optical drive tray

The move to disk games in the late 1990s relieved much of the cost pressure on physical game production, which translated into lower prices for consumers. But that price transition did not take place immediately. Early Saturn and PlayStation games in 1996 regularly sold for $59.99 or more, which translates to about $100 in 2020 dollars.

Disc prices soon dropped to a more reasonable $49.99, setting a functional nominal price cap that would last through the mid-’00s. It wasn’t until the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 hit that the top asking prices started rising to $59.99. And that’s the de facto ceiling that has remained in place to this day, even as digital downloads and the explosion of indie games have resulted in many titles now launching well below this price point.

Adjusted for inflation, we can see that the true value ($2020) of top-end disc-based games has plateaued at around $70 for nearly a decade into the 2000s and early 10s. However, inflation has slowly eroded that value over the past decade, to the point where a $10 increase like the one before… NBA2K21 only get games the same actual price as earlier in the century.

It’s time

As the “true value” of big budget games has increased, publishers have looked for new ways to squeeze more money out of the average player. Trends such as collector’s editions, widespread downloadable content, season ticket subscriptions and annoying microtransactions have led some players to spend well over $60 for a single top title.

Increasing the base asking price of a game to $70 will not eliminate the need or desire of publishers to exploit these further revenue streams. But it can help fill the gaps created by the rising development costs for graphic-intensive titles in the coming ray-tracing era of the consoles.

That added cost can be hard for many gamers to swallow, just as similar increases for streaming video subscription services have been over the years. That’s especially true now that there’s so much game competition from cheaper and even high-quality free-to-play titles.

But a hike to $70 wouldn’t be a historically unprecedented rise in the console gaming price cap. In fact, taking inflation into account, it would just bring those prices back in line with the recent historical average — something to keep in mind as you prepare for a new, seemingly more expensive generation of console hardware.

List image by Hughes Johnson

By akfire1

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