It’s way too early to declare that AAA gaming is dead or even dying, but as Bill Harris points out, there’s an unappealing aroma emanating from that corner of the market:

Would I rather buy one $59 game or 20 mobile games? With almost no exceptions, I’d rather have a mobile games. They fit into my 10-minute lifestyle really well, and I can start them up in 5 seconds.

I was slow to jump on this train, but Chris Kohler was right: this is absolutely the elephant in the room for Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft. Sorry, the market just isn’t going to support $60 games anymore. Well, that’s not quite true–there are a handful the market will support, but it’s only a handful, and it’s not enough for these companies to preserve the price structure.

My tolerance for the cost of games has long been lower than the $60 average price tag that a big budget title carries, but with the advent of cheap indie games on digital distribution platforms like Steam and smartphone marketplaces, many more gamers are joining this camp.  Why pay $60 for a game that offers 10 hours of enjoyment when you can pay $1 for a game that supplies double that, with the only tradeoff being a loss of production value?  It is getting to be a hard sell for the big publishers, and they are clearly struggling to adapt.

Further complicating the situation is that the average age of a gamer has crept up to ~36 – way higher than it used to be.  The market is not teeming with kids loaded with disposable income and infinite time any more – bite-sized experiences are far easier for a gamer on the go to pick up and play than anything that an AAA title can offer.  Most of the time I don’t have an hour or two to sit down and fire up a game – my typical play session tends to be thirty minutes or less in duration.

Frankly I’m okay with all of these changes in the industry.  Some of my favorite games this year have been bite-sized indie gems that I picked up for five dollars or less, and this has led to me playing more games over all, not less.  The AAA titles that I do purchase are generally a couple years old and highly discounted – it’s tough to justify sixty dollars for a game these days.

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12 Responses to “The indie revolution”

  1. Yup. I’m still up for paying $60 for a AAA game, but it has to be *GOOD*. Not just high production value (though that’s mandatory at that price point) but it also has to be a very good game in it’s own right. There are not many upcoming games (or recent AAA releases) that are anywhere near good enough to warrant that.

    The reality is that I’m getting ever better value for my gaming dollar in mid-priced indy games. SPAZ, for example, provided me 46 hours of great gameplay fun for $15. Not to mention time spent at work contemplating research directions and ship loadouts :)

    While I’m not terribly interested in most $1 mobile games, I’ve built a decent collection of $5-$15 mobile games that are easily worth 20+ hours of play each – and that’s 20+ hours of “proper gamer play”, not Angry Birds style finger flicking.

    That said, I’m good with shorter games too, if they are fun. I’d rather really enjoy an shorter game than be bored to tears for… well, I just wouldn’t play long enough to know. When I’m paying <$20, I don't mind if the game is short, but honestly that's rarely the tradeoff you have to make.

    • It probably shines through in my post mortems how my expectations are tempered by the amount I paid for a game. For example, I loved Mirror’s Edge ($5 for me), but a lot of the early reviews ($60 price point) focused on how the game was very short, and not overly replayable.

  2. I’m feeling this trend in the game market more and more too. I’ll still buy some full priced $60 games, but probably 95% of my game purchases are in the 1 to 15 dollar range these days.

    • My “Holy crap, must buy” price is solidly set at $5. I’ll buy almost anything to try it out at that price… and I won’t care too much if it doesn’t live up to expectations.

  3. I agree that the $60 price point is rapidly becoming unsustainable but I don’t think my gaming hunger can ever be fully sated by $1 Iphone games.

    I still want to play AAA games with cinematic production values. As an adult with limited time available I am very comfortable with the trend towards short but intense single player campaigns. I am not however prepared to pay $60 for less than 10 hours of gaming.

    As a PC gamer my current compromise is to wait a few months and buy the AAA game in an online sale. Reviewing my game purchases for last year my average spend per game was less than €10 and I still got to play all the games I wanted albeit a little bit behind the crowd.

    To be honest it feels a bit like cheating to get so many great games for so little money and I don’t know if this situation is sustainable long term. Game developers probably need those $60 dollar sales to pay the massive costs of developing AAA games.

    I am no futurologist but here are some possible scenarios following a collapse of the $60 game market:

    1. AAA developers stick with their current strategy of $60 up front and then charge for lots of expensive DLC. Only a few big franchises manage to sustain this price level and even they start hemorrhaging sales once the public tires of them. A video games market crash not seen since the 1980′s ensues.

    2. AAA game developers move to a free to pay plus micro transaction model to try and bolster revenues. This does generate a lot of extra revenue for game developers but has negative impacts on game design as titles are modified to coerce users into spending as much money as possible in the item shop.

    3. AAA game developers reduce their prices substantially and the market responds positively greatly increasing sales. The increase in sales more than offsets the reduction in unit price and a new boom in game development ensures.

    • I think that cheaper AAA games are sustainable, and have long argued that the industry must move in that direction. $20 would be a great price point for an AAA title – it’s pretty much in everyone’s impulse buy range, and so the result would be more players buying more games per year. I know I’d spend more money on games if the entry price was lower.

      As it stands, a few titles make the majority of the money. Reducing the buy-in price brings gaming closer to a meritocracy: the best games will rise to the top because everything is affordable.

  4. I wonder if the big increase in small games on smartphones is attracting new gamers – ie people with phones – rather than luring away the AAA crowd. I’ll always play AAA games as long as their out there; the cost is minimal compared to other forms of entertainment, like food & drink for two in a restaurant. Its not just about the amount of time the game entertains me for, its about the quality, the creativity and the heart that’s been poured into the title, that I love so much. There’s just not that much to angry birds, and I never play it :) Plants vs. Zombies is – well – boring to me.

    • I think it’s doing both, as evidenced by Bill Harris’ article. He used to be a huge AAA gamer, but is not more into the bite-sized $5 gaming market.

      I don’t think that your “gaming is cheap” line of argument holds up. Yeah, it’s cheaper than weekly dates at restaurants, but it’s way more expensive than most other hobbies. The entry price alone keeps a lot of people away…. you need to buy a system (or two?) and then $60 per 10-15hr game? Yikes.

      Oh… and PvZ boring???? You’re dead to me! :P

  5. Hah yeah, there certainly are gems around in those little timewaster games, and PopCap has really done well with them. We’re dressing our baby up as a PvZ flower – carrying a zombie head – this Halloween.

    As to cost, particularly with the new girl, on a per-hour basis gaming can be reasonable but cash is ridiculously tight for me. I definitely cannot afford to toss around $60 lumps on games without very carefully considering it. I will, but only for spectacularly awesome games (Skyrim, for example, will get my $).

    However, $5-20 games? I can justify picking one of them up each payday easily.

  6. I love games I can play in small bites. That’s not really incompatible with big, intricate design, though. FFTactics and the like can be played in mission-sized chunks, but still be huge, sprawling, deep games. That’s what I look for, really. Short session play and deep design. Oh, and all at a sub-$20 price point.

    Of course, I’m willing to step back to PS1/SNES era graphics to get that, since I value gameplay FAR more than bling. Not everyone has the same taste.

    • Well yes – something always has to be sacrificed in order to keep the cost down, I suppose. I’m much happier with a deep game than I am a pretty game, for example. And pick up & play is getting to be almost a necessity, it seems.

      • Doesn’t even require a step back to PS1/SNES era graphics, just a trip back to creative 2D. Look at games like SPAZ – they look amazing, lots of fun, strategy and depth.

        3D is necessary for some sorts of games, but it’s really overused these days. You can make a much better looking game with FAR less investment in art time using 2D graphics. And, just like the old days, you can use 2D graphics to give a definite 3D feel.

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