Trying to talk about the cost of games is to invite a certain amount of controversy.  When I originally tried to tackle the issue of consoles inflating pricing, and console ports to the PC (and original PC games) being charged at an inflated price point while gaming technology has remained largely stagnant overall, it ultimately sounded more like a complaint than an argument against the practice.  After all, gaming is a free marketplace (at least on PCs, for the most part), and if a gaming company’s ultimate goal is (sadly) to maximize profit, it makes sense for game companies to sell their product for as much as the market can bear.  If the market can sustain sales targets even at a hair under $60, then it certainly makes sense from a business standpoint to go there.

From a gamer standpoint, however, I think there is a different valuation going on.  For a company, the selling price is determined by price versus volume – in the simplest sense, what’s the maximum we can sell our game at and still get decent sales?  For a rational gamer, the calculation is a similar balance of valuation: how can I get as much enjoyment as I can for every entertainment dollar I spend?  For most people, obviously, the entertainment budget is limited, a fairly low priority to be allocated only once other bills and necessities are met.  From that already limited pot, there are many different forms of entertainment all competing for those dollars.  Gaming is just one outlet, alongside music downloads, DVD/Blu-ray, subscriptions like Netflix, hardware and gaming accessories, and so on.

Because of this, the amount left for games might be limited, and when you start looking for a new game and see a $60 price point, that’s a bit of a shock that makes an average gamer wonder about value.  In comparison, that’s an amount equivalent to many hours of downloaded music, three full-length feature films on Blu-ray, or over six months of a Netflix streaming subscription.  Add to that the fact that you often can’t even try before you buy, making that $60 a gamble based on a handful of reviews that may or may not be biased, and getting a game on day one looks more and more like a risky bet.  In many cases, in fact, it actually is – many games at a $50-60 price point on day one are barely playable, or have a campaign that lasts less than six hours with limited replayability.  Eventually, after seeing this pattern repeat time and time again, a gamer begins to come to the conclusion that the games are overpriced, and not a good value for the money.

This has certainly been my experience.  In fact, this year I’ve purchased a grand total of three games at day-one prices: as I mentioned in previous articles, those games were Mass Effect 2 and Just Cause 2, along with the more recent acquisition of Fallout: New Vegas.  Not one of them was particularly a gamble, as I carefully considered each one, and only bought them after determining that I could expect to get a good value for my money (also, note that none of them moved above the standard $50 price point, and honestly, had they been $60 I might have waited even on them).  Certainly, I haven’t been disappointed in that regard – of these games, the cost per hour of entertainment ranges from a bit over a dollar to a fraction of a dollar per hour.  Two of these games were open-world titles that I anticipated would continue to engage me for quite some time, and the other one I already knew that I would replay the game’s campaign a number of times from different perspectives.  Linear titles going for full price got punted off onto a wishlist, where most of them still sit, waiting for a sale that brings their price into line with what I would consider reasonable for them.

Now, I admit I’m probably not in the majority on this, especially considering how many copies of COD:MW2 have sold at $60.  However, judging by the number of users that frequent various game bargain sites and threads, I’m also far from alone.  I do think it’s also true that every time gamers pick up an expensive title and get burned, they get a little more wary, a little smarter about how they spend their money when the next game rolls around.

Ultimately, it’s all about perceived value.  For me, that value is pegged at somewhere between $1-2 dollars per hour of entertainment.  For a full-price game, I’m going to pull the trigger only if I can reasonably expect to still be enjoying it more than thirty hours in – which almost exclusively means an open-world shooter or RPG, most likely with heavy mod support to expand playtime.  On the other hand, a game with more limited replayability might be a worthwhile buy, but at a much lower price point.  There are a number of smaller games I’ve only gotten a few hours of gameplay out of, but given that I was able to pick them up for $5 or so, it was still worth it for the price.

To sum up, here’s a small chart that I did that represents what I think are reasonable price points for games, along with some examples:

$50-$60: open-world game with replay options and mod support (Fallout: NV)
$40-$50: open-world game or RPG with more limited modding/replay (Just Cause 2, Mass Effect)
$30-$40: game with some decent replay options and/or decent multiplayer (HL2, TF2 at release)
$20-$30: game with a decent-length single-player campaign, limited replayability (Crysis, Prey)
$10-$20: casual game, game with shorter single-player campaign, limited replayability, sometimes worth taking a risk given the inexpensive price (Madballs, GSB, Shatter)
$5-$10: very short or casual games, inexpensive enough to take a risk on even if you’re not sure how much you’ll get out of it (Pyroblazer, Caster)

Finally, remember that when it comes to games, patience pays off, and if you can wait on titles, you can get a much better deal – wait a year or two after a title comes out, and you can pick up the game, plus all its expansions and DLC, for a fraction of the price the base game sold for at retail.