Downward pressure on game prices is a common theme in industry discussions, and, of course, no stranger to this column. The situation is fairly clear - with retail price wars further fuelled by the entry of supermarkets and mass-market online retailers, not to mention the continued growth of the second-hand market, games now find their price tags being assaulted on a new front, as consumers find entertainment value in vastly cheaper products on new platforms ranging from Xbox Live Arcade and PSN through to Facebook or the iPhone. Retail price wars will eventually yield winners and losers, and prices will rise again; the collapse in consumers' perception of the value of interactive entertainment, however, will take much longer to repair.
There is one bright light, however, in what's overall a somewhat gloomy picture (for publishers, at least - for consumers it's obviously fantastic, and for clever developers it's arguably a golden opportunity) regarding game prices. That bright light is special editions of games - a field which many publishers were slow to exploit, but which has gradually become a key part of the release strategy for any major title.
Special editions are, quite simply, a way to get customers who would be willing to pay over the odds for your game to do exactly that. Many games have a vocal and dedicated group of core fans who have followed the development of the title for months, if not years - many of whom may be people who enjoyed the developer's previous games, or previous games in the same franchise. These people are, of course, a minority of those who will end up buying the game, but have always been considered valuable due to their contribution to word of mouth marketing. Now, publishers are realising that they can also make a significant financial contribution to the success of a game.
Consider Bioshock 2, which turns up on store shelves this Friday. Most gamers, of course, will buy a simple copy of the game in a DVD style case - but for the select few, the game they'll be picking up (either from the store or from a delivery man) will come in a huge box, replete with a hardback book filled with concept art, a soundtrack CD, a set of lithographs and even a vinyl record of the first game's music. The fact that only a tiny percentage of those people will own the equipment necessary to play that record is amusing, but irrelevant - it's collectible, and the game's fans are willing to pay extra money to own something unique which is related to their passion.
This is not a revelation which originates in videogames, of course. For years, movie and music companies have produced expensive special editions to capitalise on the willingness of dedicated fans to pay more for something more "special". This has reached new heights as bands have broken away from the traditional record labels which had previously supported them, with major acts such as Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails effectively betting that they can rely on their fans for support rather than needing the financial muscle of a label. The independently launched albums which Nine Inch Nails released over the last few years, for example, came in multiple different forms - from digital downloads for a few pounds (vastly cheaper than the usual price of a CD) through to hugely expensive and elaborate special editions, produced in extremely limited numbers and signed by the band members. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those extremely limited editions sold out rapidly - each one netting easily as much revenue for the group as 100 sales of the digital download version would.
Thus far, few games have gone quite that far - with a few notable exceptions, even the most elaborate special editions aren't even twice as expensive as the normal game. Indeed, although special editions have become normal within the industry, they are still approached somewhat tentatively by many publishers. Afraid to commit to the idea - perhaps with images of unsold stock of baubles and artbooks piling up in warehouses preying on their minds - publishers tend to opt for the safest option, namely a soundtrack CD, a tin case, and perhaps an artbook, coupled with an extra tenner or two on the price.
If anything, this over-cautious approach is actually holding back the true potential of game special editions. Many games, after all, benefit from a stupendously devoted fan-base - often rivalling those of films or bands in their fervour. There is no doubt that certain games, from established franchises or hugely respected developers with cult followings, could easily sell genuinely limited, high quality editions for hundreds of dollars - a potential revenue stream of millions of dollars which is otherwise being left on the table.
Of course, when your game is grossing hundreds of millions already, as in the case of the industry's top sellers, that's arguably not very important. However, the reality is that it's games on the fringes which can benefit most from the culture of special editions - games whose sales may not be enormous, but whose enormous appeal to a small core of dedicated fans turns them into cult hits. These games could see a significant upturn in the revenue they generate by releasing expensive, high quality special editions. In the case of certain niche games, it could even make the difference between breaking even and flopping.
Unfortunately, as appealing as this possibility may be, the present fad for special editions of almost every major game on the market could actually be poisoning the well, at least to some extent. All too many games today are graced with hugely disappointing "special editions" - cheap, poorly made plastic models and flimsy, badly printed artbooks are the order of the day for some publishers, which naturally serves to make consumers wary of further special edition purchases. A consumer confronted with Bayonetta's dreadful gun model or the spectacularly awful special edition for Batman: Arkham Asylum - both fantastic games with dedicated fan bases who are perfect targets for good special edition boxes - is a consumer unlikely to pay over the odds for another special edition in future.
Handled correctly and applied to the right games, special editions can make more money for the publisher and developer while simultaneously delighting your most devoted fans - a win-win situation. To achieve this, however, publishers will need to get genuinely creative - involving the development team in the process of designing the special edition, and crafting something that's worthwhile, in keeping with the tone of the game, and which fans will genuinely be proud to own. One can only hope that publishers will recognise the value of doing this before consumers become completely sick of cheap plastic models and the special edition fad ends entirely - another golden egg laying goose casually led into the slaughterhouse.