Way back in 2009, I was lamenting the insulting cheapness of App Store games, and also the destructive ‘race for the bottom’ in terms of mobile game pricing. At the time we were seeing big game companies struggle due to the large budgets of ‘AAA’ games requiring massive sales volumes, and that dictating choices made in terms of franchises to pursue and so on.
Over the last few years, Indie games have exploded, and they have shown that for a much smaller budget a game can still deliver a high-quality experience. And yet on the iPad we are still getting an endless array of freemium upscaled trivial iPhone games and casual PC ports … and not much else. We know that the iPad hardware can support console-level graphics, so what I want to know is … where is my ‘AAA’, console quality, $60 iPad game?
How it all started
When the app store launched, there were games ranging from $0.99 to $9.99 and everywhere in between. There were no demos, no refunds, and no real appreciation of the mobile gaming experience aside from Palm and Windows Mobile – where games largely sucked (I recall spending $25 on a Call of Duty game for my Dell Axim x51v that was a terrible port). So … no one was buying. Then the prices dropped either permanently or on sale … and people bought more. Suddenly we saw new games released at $5, $3, $2 and finally $0.99 – and suddenly they discovered that the impulse threshold for music worked for games as well.
The Birth of Freemium
At first there were two types of games – paid and ‘lite’. Lite games were essentially demos, as they were stripped down versions. But unlike how many indie games worked, there was no way to buy the full version in-game, you had to exit the Lite version and buy (and download) the full version.
Then Apple allowed in-app purchases with one caveat – at first in-app purchases only worked for paid apps. In other words, you still couldn’t have a demo convert to a full game. But for apps like AmpliTube, you could have a paid mode and require in-app purchases to get more amps or effects. In a way that is the perfect model – you have a base price for core functionality, and pay to add on only what you want.
Then Apple allowed free games to utilize in-app purchases, and the floodgates were open! Now you could have a demo game with in-app for the rest of the game – similar to how most G5 Entertainment games work. You could also buy gold to use in games, special items, and so on. The sky was the limit … at least that is what one family found out when their kids bought nearly $1000 of ‘smurfberries’ using in-app purchases.
What is WRONG with Free or $0.99 games?
There is NOTHING wrong with games that are free (ad-based) or very inexpensive. The problem starts when the price of casual games begin to dictate the acceptable pricing structure for ALL games. Invariably when a discussion starts for a great game with loads of depth such as Leviathan Warships for the iPad which sells for $4.99, there will be those who will immediately say ‘I would buy for $1.99, but who pays $5 for a game?’
I see that logic as totally wrong-headed: we pay $60 for console games, $50 for PC games, $40 for handheld games on the 3DS and Vita … and yet we balk at paying $5 on the iPad?
One size will NEVER fit all
My point in all of this stuff is to state that I want to experience the sorts of games the iPad is capable of supporting. And the current ‘$1 or bust’ mindset is killing that as a financial possibility. Instead of trying to force every game to be $1 or less, we should be finding the $5-10 games that are worth it and BUYING THEM – this will encourage developers to spend more time and money developing great games for the platform.
The $0.99 pricing model was extremely successful and worked great for games with small budgets and short development cycles. But consider a game like the PC/XBOX RPG ‘Dragon Age’ from Bioware. Chances are it could technically work on the iPad, but with hundreds of employees, millions of lines of code, hundreds of thousands of lines of dialogue, tons of graphics, CGI cutscenes and so on, the game had a more than four-year cycle and cost tens of millions of dollars. It sold for $50 on PC and $60 on the XBOX360.
Dragon Age is a game that as I say could technically function on the iPad, but would be impossible to release as an iPad-first game due to time and cost … and expected price.
The Vicious Circle
What ends up happening as a result is three things: ‘adjunct’ games, ports of old stuff, and copy-cat games. By adjunct I mean something liked the scaled down Mass Effect Infiltrator or Rage HD. For ports we get the recently released 1998 Baldur’s Gate, 2003′s Knights of the Old Republic and 2004′s Bard’s Tale. As for copy-cat games, GameLoft has made a reputation of releasing games ‘inspired’ by popular franchises, such as ‘Modern Combat’ which is obviously based on the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series.
In all of these cases we get games that have significantly reduced production costs, which then allows them to be priced much lower than a normal new retail game. This continues the cycle of expectations that even ‘name brand’ games on the iPad will be inexpensive … and go on sale at least once every couple of months.
The issue is one of expectations – how can you release a ‘full priced’ game when everything is less than $10. Quite simple – you can’t. And IF you can’t charge a reasonable price, you can’t establish a reasonable budget … and you can’t make a full-scale game.
A Glimmer of Hope?
This week sees the release of 2012′s ‘Strategy game of the year’ X-COM Enemy Unknown (which I reviewed for PC here). This is a game that has JUST come out for the Mac within the last month, and is now available as a full single-player experience for the iPad and iPhone (recent versions at least). The price? $19.99. (look for my review soon)
But Mike, I can hear you saying, isn’t this just a ‘more recent port’? Yes it is, so rather than getting a 1998 game we are getting a 2012 game. But a top-level game that is just a year old is a significant achievement in terms of gaming on the iPad. Because from a single player perspective we are getting EVERYTHING, with multiplayer to follow.
And … most importantly, if this sells well it will embolden other developers to do the same, which might lead to moving the iOS version closer to the PC/console release, possibly to a simul-release over time.
I am currently involved with a few upcoming games from smaller developers on different platforms, in which pricing is definitely a concern. These are not ‘AAA’ games, but they are games of a type that until a couple of years ago would have commanded $20-30 without a thought. Now they are feeling constant downward price pressure on all platforms.
How the sales of X-Com go and how the sales of these ‘smaller but deeper than other iOS-first’ games go will help set the course for the platform. I know that sounds melodramatic, but if smaller developers with visibility in the gaming community find that they can’t set a reasonable price for their game and see a decent sales volume, it will send a message that smartphones and tablets are not a place for so-called ‘hardcore’ gaming after all.
Personally I don’t want to see that reality – I want to be looking at high-tech, visually stunning, gameplay intensive efforts with an engaging narrative and priced to allow a reasonable budget for the developers and publishers to make some profit.
I want to be paying $60 for gaming excellent on the iPad … and so should you.