The Twenty Dollar Question

by Steve Bowler on August 11, 2008 · 7 comments

in business


Lately I’ve been playing on the cheap.  I find that I don’t have a lot of time to invest in longer “full” games, so I’ve been spending twenty bucks here, fifteen bucks there, and enjoying some of the “indie” fare gaming has to offer.

I go on these cheap spurts on a semi-regular basis.  Usually when I’m not interested in the full priced titles out at the moment, or when I don’t have a lot of time to invest in them (like now).  Some of them I’ve regretted (some of the Pop-Cap fare of late), and others, such as Braid, I’ll be re-enjoying over and over.

There’s been a bunch of whining from many forum corners about some of the pricing on the small fare stuff, mostly revolving around Penny Arcade’s offering and the aforementioned Braid.  I, personally, don’t understand the complaints.  Besides Penny Arcade’s strip on the subject chronicling what people will pay $20 for, I’ve been wondering why wouldn’t someone pay $20 for a game.

Fact is, people do pay $20.  For lots of games.  Back when I got my start in videogames, I was working on kiddie “click and play” adventure CD-ROMs, and we studied the competition a lot.  Tiger Electronics priced all of their handheld disposable games at $19.99.  Our marketing director finally cornered theirs, and asked why they set their pricepoints on nearly everything at twenty bucks.  The answer?  It’s the amount of money that Soccer Moms find “disposable” every time they make a trip to Wal-Mart or Target with their kids in tow.  Basically, it’s “shut up” money so their kids can take home a new toy every trip to the superstore.

Consoles have an equivalent of this, the “Greatest Hits” or “Platinum” versions of games.  Basically, games that have met the minimum sales requirements of a given console (usually 500k units sold) are waived the $10/unit fee from the console manufacturers, and given special pricing of $19.99 (and a repackaging with the new Greatest Hits branding).  These, in a way, are the rough equivalent of the Tiger Electronics titles.  The branding gives parents who wouldn’t know better the confidence that this is twenty bucks well spent.  The price point is below the refusal threshold, and everyone knows that the eventual consumer will have a good time with the title.  It’s a guaranteed satisfaction for your twenty dollars.

I began this piece wondering why someone would be so willing to shell out $40 and up for a “premium” title, but would balk at the idea of a downloadable title which costs ostensibly half, yet still offers up a roughly equivalent amount of enjoyment, despite a possibly lower level of “quality.”  While wrapping my head around this phenomenon, I came to the conclusion that we’re all assuming that the people complaining about the “high” pricepoint of DLC titles are the same people who readily consume the $60 titles.

I’m pretty sure they’re not.

I have a feeling that the reason why the complainers want these premium DLC titles to only cost $5 is because $5 is their spending threshold.  They’re renters.  If they do purchase premium console titles, they do so at the “boutique” stores where they trade in the last game they played for credit, virtually renting their titles from the retailers.

Asking them to spend $15-20 on DLC is like asking them to give up three weeks worth of rentals (or half of their Netflix/Gamefly subscription), or completely axing their GameStop trade-in budget for the month.  The fact that the software is only available via direct download is what’s key here.  It can’t be rented.  It must be purchased.  Since there is no other option, the only outlet is complaint.

So let them complain.  They weren’t going to buy it anyway.

The fact of the matter is that if the pricing wasn’t right on the PA title or Braid, people wouldn’t have purchased them, and that’s simply not the case.


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