There are a lot of questions about what video games are going to look like as we enter the next generation of gaming. There’s an expectation that the debut of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X will feature a huge technological jump, which at this stage feels necessary even if video games are in an incredible place right now. Games like God of War and Control push consoles so hard that if you play them on original release systems you can hear them struggle. Control, in particular, was infamous for poor performance on earlier consoles, not because of a lack of optimization but because the console just couldn’t keep up with the technology.
When games push boundaries like this it usually comes with a hefty price tag. Making video games has never been more expensive and making AAA titles, in particular, can get very pricey. While most game development companies don’t release the actual cost of making games these days, a number of titles from Rockstar Games, the developer of Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, are rumored to cost $100 million just to develop the title, let along advertise it and bring it to market.
Despite this, the cost of buying a major release has remained fairly stable for 15 years. The last time we saw the standard cost increase was the jump from the PS2/Xbox/Gamecube era of consoles to the PS3/360/Wii, increasing the typical price from $50 to $60 with occasional exceptions.
We still know little about the next generation of consoles, starting with what those systems will cost and the price of the AAA titles that run on them. But we do know that NBA 2K21 is expected to cost $70, something we learned recently when the developer announced both a curent-gen and next-gen cover and the differences between the titles. NBA 2K is arguably the biggest sports game in the world right now, and the break into the $70 barrier is one that could signal the new expected cost of next-gen console releases.
Of course, anyone that’s looked at 2K in the last few years might wonder if the price means something else about the game’s economic marketplace. It’s no secret that 2K releases are built around microtransactions within their virtual currency system. If players want to level up their created player quicker, they can purchase “virtual currency” with real-life money. These microtransactions have become an industry-wide norm advanced by numerous sports titles and games from other genres.
FIFA and Madden NFL from EA put major amounts of time and effort into their ultimate team modes where you can spend actual money on cards of players to help you create the best virtual team. It’s caused many to wonder what the future of sports games is going to be. Will microtransactions continue to dominate the titles, freezing the countless in-game items bought with real money in a title that only has a shelf life of a single year?
The NBA 2K franchise has taken a lot of criticism in the last few years for its embrace of microtransactions, and it would be nice if a $70 price tag would serve as a way to lessen the prominence these have in the series. Considering it’s their entire business model, that seems unlikely, but we can take that same logic and apply it to the rest of the video game industry. I suspect if you told most gamers they had the choice between a $70 game with no (or fewer) microtransactions or paid DLC and a $60 game with those extra costs hidden and likely looming, they might be more inclined to accept the higher cost upfront and avoid surprises.
Regardless, it’s very possible that we’re heading toward a generation of consoles where $70 is the new video games price point. But with that price we could see better products with less hidden hassles and gripes from gamers. Think about how much time and effort developers will be able to put into their games if they can spend less time worrying about how to create a system that will make players buy fake currency and more on making their game the best it can be.
And if the price eliminates the crunch we see that’s harmful to both the end result and those making the game? Even better.
Of course, $70 might be the breaking point for many gamers who will wait until long after the initial release to get games on sale or take to the secondary market, although many already do this, waiting to see if games pan out as they are hyped or if it takes years to see their potential met. And even with a new threshold for AAA price points, you can still expect indie games or lower budget titles to fall below that mark. What may, indeed, happen is a return to the 80s/90s where game costs are more sporadic due to the wide difference between titles, including their development timelines and budgets. This isn’t even taking into account that we might see physical copies cost more than digital copies with consoles like the PlayStation 5 featuring a digital only option.
Of course, any step away from physical media has its own problems. Let’s say the possible cost difference means you’re more comfortable with a digital-only console. Now your ability to participate in that vibrant resell market is non-existent, meaning each game purchase is a final one (even if it the game is disappointing) and not something where you can buy new copies and then sell them back when you’re done to cut your overall investment.
It would not be unprecedented if one of Microsoft or Sony offers a buyback option with digital copies — this is something Steam offers for PC gamers, but Steam only allows you to sell a game back if you haven’t played a certain amount of hours. Still, there’s nothing to indicate that that’s on the horizon.
In terms of gaming culture on the whole, the elevated price point for games and/or systems poses the risk you see with any non-essential/hobby that significantly raises the bar of entry. You can argue that the reason games have managed to stick in the $50-$60 price range for so long is because it was sort of the perfect middle ground. $60 is just pricey enough to get a decent return on a purchase but also inexpensive enough to not price out a part-time retail worker going through college. The jump of $10 isn’t earth-shattering, but with so much acceptance of the status quo, this feels like a shock to the system, especially as the world navigates a pandemic that’s left many jobless.
Video games are incredible because they are a medium that can be about anyone and anything. It’s an escape that is just scratching the surface when it comes to living up to that potential and the potential of a more broad coalition of gamers that are breaking down the barriers that have previously been associated with that term. Any unintentional move to make gaming less accessible or harder to fully embrace runs the risk of doing damage to the future of the industry on the whole, especially at a time when gaming has revealed itself as a tool for connection and an interesting time killer for people who had left it behind or never really gotten into it before. Of course, there are still those $20 indie titles, free to play options, retro options, and bargain deals, all still a way in. But anyone who’s ever played a game knows the industry (and interest in it) is largely driven by the power and pop culture allure of the AAA releases. That’s where the money is and that’s what hooks a lot of new gamers.
We get it: Games provide more bang for your buck in terms of entertainment value than competing entertainment options. They cost more than ever to make and market against each other and those other options. Developers are frequently trying to find ways to meet those costs. But what we learned in the last generation of consoles is that while microtransactions are the answer for developers, they’ve become the enemy of gamers. Like a $70 price point with no real tangible get for gamers, they’re a shortsighted fix that runs the risk of undoing gains in interest and the flood of excitement that comes with a new console generation. As with anything, the norm is the norm for a reason, so hopefully, the industry considers all angles when shattering it.