What Price Victory: The Rising Cost of Console Gaming
Sony is set to triumph in day-one sales, but the British public is confused by AAA pricing on both consoles
Here we are, touching distance from the outcome of the first battle of the console war. Of course, to suggest that the fate of an entire generation could be decided in a single day's trading would be absurd, but the notion that neither Sony nor Microsoft would value a day-one sales victory is equally preposterous. Thankfully, there's no need to wait for the official figures to roll in: the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 may have both celebrated reaching 1 million sales in 24 hours, but Sony had yet to turn its focus to Europe. And judging from the queue streaming along the pavement of London's Covent Garden, Kaz Hirai and co. will be able to celebrate the sort of unqualified success that has become something of a rarity. But for an act of God, it will be round one to Sony.
" Would you really want to watch television while playing a game? Microsoft was sending very confusing messages. I don't think they even knew themselves"
For many, this will be the inevitable outcome of a series of unfathomable mistakes by Microsoft; mistakes so egregious that no amount of backtracking and spin could eradicate their stain. There were people queuing in the cold today whose blood once ran Xbox green, but they now bleed the vivid, neon blue splashed across the walls of Sony's Covent Garden launch HQ.
"With the Xbox One it was a bit confusing," admits Zia Qadri, an Xbox 360 gamer who started queueing for his PlayStation 4 more than five hours before midnight. "[Microsoft] didn't seem to know what audience they were targeting. Is it a games machine? Is it a media centre? Would you really want to watch television while playing a game? Microsoft was sending very confusing messages. I don't think they even knew themselves."
Qadri is one of many, a chorus of voices expressing bemusement, frustration and, in some cases, anger at Microsoft's strategy for the Xbox One. But there are larger issues at play here, concerns that transcend the rivalry between these two companies, both attempting to reassert their authority in an industry that has changed in such profound and irrevocable ways. There are more platforms now, more options, and the £52.99 price-point set by Sony for Knack and Killzone - and, by extension, the prices set for next generation software across the board - has left many here questioning the value AAA gaming now represents.
"The top level games are now costing a bit too much for comfort," Qadri says. "Now that they're doing the [same] games as downloads, they should make them cheaper to download. But they're not. They're charging the same price, or more."
For Chris Watford - a loyal Sony fan who is nevertheless hoping that a friend will take the plunge on an Xbox One and Titanfall - a price increase is to be expected, if only due to inflation. Watford's claims about inflation don't necessarily survive close scrutiny - at launch, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 games generally sold for £39.99, effectively unchanged from the previous generation - but he takes his share of the responsibility. For Watford, it is up to the consumer to seek out and find the retailers willing to undercut the manufacturer's suggested price.
"I buy a lot of my games online [through online retailers], and you can get them considerably cheaper than £52.99," he says. "I guarantee that, on Amazon, Knack and Killzone will be considerably cheaper. It's still an increase on what you'd normally pay for that sort of game, but if you buy online it's not a massive increase."
"The digital version of a product should be a hell of a lot less expensive. Steam does it right. It's cheaper, and at times phenomenally cheaper"
However, Watford does take issue with the increasingly common appearance of microtransactions in full-price games. The most prominent example right now is Microsoft's Forza 5, in which Turn 10 has altered the series' traditional levelling system to accommodate a new approach reminiscent of that used in free-to-play games. Indeed, practically every third-party publisher is now experimenting with this technique, including Ubisoft in Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag, one of the games on Watford's shopping list.
"There will be a gamer backlash against this sort of thing. People will resist it," he says. "I don't mind paying if you're getting something extra: a Call of Duty map pack, for example, because that's a genuine add-on. But paying extra for in-game resources is just a way of making more money out of you. If you're going to do that, you shouldn't charge full-price for the game."
On both Xbox One and PlayStation 4, it is difficult to spot where potential relief from the rising cost of console gaming might arise. For James Brown - another gamer abandoning the Xbox for PlayStation - the lower price-points and frequent sales on Valve's Steam platform should serve as a template for next generation digital commerce, but the early signs are far from promising. Sony and Microsoft have given no indication that their games will be more keenly priced on their online stores, while third-party publishers like EA and Ubisoft are actually selling their digital games at a premium: Battlefield 4, for example, is around £10 more to buy on the PlayStation Store than it is in a typical bricks-and-mortar retailer like Game.
"A lot of my friends, who are all hardcore gamers, they're all buying PC set-ups and getting Steam accounts," says Brown. "I haven't done that yet, but Steam keeps on doing these incredible offers, almost every day. Nothing on Steam costs more than in a shop. Another example is iTunes: an album is £8, and if you got to the shop, if you're very, very lucky, you'll find it for £10."
Not everyone here has a clear idea of why these differences in price exist, but every last person I talk to states with absolute belief that a product made up of 1s and 0s should cost less than a product packaged in a box, distributed in a van, and sold in a shop. For many, the only solution is the thriving second-hand market, where the climbing prices of AAA games can be clawed back, little by little. For Peter Evans, who is switching from Xbox to PlayStation after one too many Red Rings of Death, as long as Need For Speed Rivals costs £50 at retail and £60 online, there will be no other option.
"It just doesn't make sense. It does feel like a little bit of a rip-off," he says. "I won't be buying my games digitally. I like to shop around to get them as cheaply as a I can. Retail shops are always going to be the cheapest. I never bothered with digital, even on the Xbox 360. You'd be paying £45 for a 3 year old game that you could pick up for £5 in CEX. Second hand sales are very important to me. Very much so."
Ray Barrett, Evans' fairweather friend in the frigid wait for midnight, agrees: "Absolutely, second-hand games will continue to be important. Over half the games I bought for my 360 were second-hand. I buy the games I'm really excited for [new], and everything else I'll wait until I can get it at a decent price second-hand.
"The digital version of a product should be a hell of a lot less expensive. They sold us on digital by saying that it would be less expensive. If you look at Steam, Steam does it right. It's cheaper, and at times phenomenally cheaper.
"All that companies like EA and Ubisoft are doing is slowing down their own progress, to make that next step to digital. They're shooting themselves in the foot."