Scott Steinberg: The Price is Right
For some, the best part of Cologne's GamesCom and GDC Europe events is the beer and bratwurst. Others may prefer star-studded unveilings such as the first showing of Fable III or CCP's new console MMO Dust 514. But from my perspective, one of the week's biggest announcements - the September debut of Sony's PS3 Slim - actually hints at more exciting news than anything you'll catch on either show floor. Retailing for just 299 USD or 249 GBP (a fantastic bargain considering what comes in the box), it points to manufacturers' increasing willingness to (hallelujah!) finally sit up and listen to budget-starved players' pleas for financial reprieve.
Activision, keen to charge UK buyers a 5 GBP premium on the already nosebleed-priced Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, might disagree. Ditto for THQ, who claim the cost of doing business in the territory is quickly becoming untenable due to the weakening pound. But let's be real here. As job losses continue to balloon, consumer confidence remains weak and A-grade titles increasingly slide to 2010 release dates, it doesn't take ESP to see it won't be a particularly jolly holiday season on the High Street. With money tighter than ever, it's inevitable that shoppers will buy fewer titles and take a smaller number of bets on unproven franchises or less high-profile outings. External pressures will also mount as cash-strapped enthusiasts increasingly turn to value-minded digitally distributed titles, free-to-play alternatives (see: Free Realms' rise to 3 million plus subscribers in four months, Nexon's booming sales growth) or complementary Flash games for release. Between the massive product oversaturation and rampant price gouging that have been plaguing the market in recent months, it's no surprise that you can already see signs of the dam breaking, per Guitar Hero and Rock Band's staggering 49 percent revenue declines.
As such, there's a growing impetus on both software publishers and console manufacturers (Nintendo being the next anticipated to cave here, with Microsoft alternately expected to offer more hardware for less money shortly) to lower costs. And while some recent measures seem a bit extreme - example: Championship Manager 2010's "pay what you want" promotion, similar to that supporting Radiohead's In Rainbows album - it all hints towards positive change. After all, while most downloadable and mobile experiences such as those found on services like Steam or cellular handsets like the iPhone don't hold a candle to console counterparts, who cares? They're plenty addictive in their own right, and, more importantly, may prove an irresistible temptation for even the most hardcore game players shortly, offering much greater value than full-priced set-top alternatives.
Don't get me wrong. Inevitably, thousands will gladly line up to purchase anticipated outings like Brutal Legend, Dragon Age: Origins and Halo 3: ODST, or even gladly shell out a spare kidney for titles powered by custom controllers, e.g. Tony Hawk: Ride and The Beatles: Rock Band. But after too long sitting comfortably idle in their ivory tower, game industry executives are beginning to wake up to 2009's harsher economic realities. And, more tellingly, the fact that - between rental services like GameFly, wallet-friendly downloadable content expansions for GTA IV and Fallout 3, and other assorted money-saving ways to get your thumb-waggling fix - we're all rightly demanding fairer treatment at the register, and more for our gaming dollar. Here's hoping it all adds up to a brighter, more affordable tomorrow.
Video game expert and TV/radio host Scott Steinberg is the author of Get Rich Playing Games and the creator of game industry documentary series Players Only. A celebrated gadget guru and technology expert, he frequently appears as a technology and video game analyst on broadcast networks like ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and CNN, and has contributed to 400+ outlets from The New York Times to Playboy and Rolling Stone. For more of his insights, visit www.scottsteinberg.com.