The Price of Progress Part 2: Price

Pardon the crap text. I'm stuck with GIMP right now

Pardon the crap text. I'm stuck with GIMP right now

Last time I pontificated about the physical price of progress; the amount of content a single title can generate and the growing need for more storage. This time I’d like to take a look at the literal cost and how these downloads can really add up. From full downloadable titles to individual add-on items, today’s games don’t stop evolving once the press release heralds their availability. Most games nowadays receive at least one add-on that brings new multiplayer maps, gameplay modes, more content, and a price tag.

The asking price, be it in your local currency or ambiguous corporate points, is usually respectable. Ten dollars for a game that offers a dozen hours of gameplay or more feels about right and that’s the typical going rate across Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, and WiiWare. Publishers continue experimenting with the still-new digital distribution model and things sometimes go for more, less, or even for free. Paying for downloadable games has become a pretty comfortable experience; we generally accept that if it’s not $20 it’s not a complete ripoff, though some recent releases are already testing our acceptable limits. Where things get really touchy are in for-pay add-ons.

The debate pretty much started with one of the first pieces of add-on content, the legendary Horse Armor for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. An item that was largely decorative and was allegedly to be included in the full game was first put up for sale on the Xbox Live Marketplace in April of 2006 for $2.50. There was a lot of backlash and bellyaching but since then it seems we consumers have given up more ground than the publishers who set the prices.

Electronic Arts is the main offender, continuing to charge real money in exchange for in-game cash, cheat modes that would’ve been unlocked via some button presses, and features that should’ve been included on the disc to begin with. Namco Bandai isn’t as prolific as EA but they’ve taken microtransactions and turned them into MAJORtransactions, which I’ll detail in a minute. Prices for add-ons have fallen dramatically since 2006 but it feels like we’re constantly on thin ice as publishers increase prices by pennies and gamers react with firey diatribes. A $4 pack of outfits or a $5 virtual villa is enough to put off anyone but there are a lot of micropayments we’ve come to accept and probably don’t realize how much we’ve spent already.

Before I go any farther I’d like to say that I don’t think there’s a major way to improve the concept of microtransactions, nor do I feel there should be a significant change. Charging for content is a totally acceptable way to make money, especially in this economic hospice we’re currently in. As long as publishers make it supplemental and not mandatory on top of a $50-$60 purchase then it leaves it up to each player to decide if it’s worth the price to them. Did you enjoy the new Prince of Persia? Then maybe the new Epilogue level will will bring you a few more hours of entertainment. Don’t care about a pretty new saddle for your horse? Then don’t buy the Horse Armor.

What I’d like to do now is pull our eyes away from the microscope of day-to-day micropayments and take a look through an interstellar Hubble telescope back at the bigger monetary picture. The most obvious place to start is with music games like Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Lips, and SingStar. These games all offer new songs on a frequent, usually weekly basis for about $2 a piece. And for easy reading, here’s an unordered list!

  • Lips is the newest game and to date offers 44 songs at 160 Microsoft Points a piece for a total of $87.96
  • Its competitor, Sony’s SingStar, has been around quite a while longer and currently has 507 songs to buy at $1.49 a piece for a total of $755.43
  • Guitar Hero World Tour has a catalog of 67 songs at the moment (160 MS Points a piece) valued at $133.95
  • And Rock Band is the king of Cash Mountain with 429 songs to buy at 160 MS Points a piece for a grand total of $857.66

I don’t think there’s a single person out there who’s committed to buying every single song for any one of these games but I know I’ve bought several myself and sat, thumb hovering over the confirmation button, debating many more would-be purchases. With catalogs this large it’s also easy to turn a friendly get-together into a money sucking black hole. Things cool down quite a lot when you move away from weekly catalog updates but there are still plenty of games trying to chip away at your wallet with stacks of micropayments.

  • Burnout Paradise has been giving away free updates for over a year now but the for-pay content is starting to flow. A pack of Toy Cars goes for $12.50, another pack of Legendary cars is at $8, a time-saving cheat unlock is $5, and the multiplayer Paradise Party pack is $10. That’s a total of $35.50 and counting for the full Burnout Paradise experience.
  • Microsoft and Solitaire are a classic time-wasting duo, but if you want to play the full gamut of Solitaire game types you’ll need to spend $10 for Soltrio Solitaire on Xbox Live Arcade and another $16.87 for its 9 add-ons.
  • Getting as much rhythmic block-dropping as possible with Lumines Live is another wallet popper. After spending $10 for the base game you can tack on another $25 for new skins, songs, themes, and even the ability to play against computer opponents.

And then there’s Namco Bandai. In Japan they’ve got The Idolmaster where you act as a pervy popstar manager and doll up your girl group in ridiculous clothing and purchase new songs, stages, dances, and voices. I had posted earlier that all that content combined would take over 50 gigabtyes of storage, but the dollar value is even more absurd, setting back obssessed players $517. You can help bankroll the next generation of Pac-Man games here in the U.S. as well if you own Ace Combat 6 on Xbox 360. Picking up all sxity-three of the extra missions, planes, and paintjobs will set you back another $159. That’s on top of the $170 you probably already spent on the Ace Edge flight stick and the game. They even monetized the innocent fun of Katamari with an extra $40 of downloadable accessories and stages and crammed dozens of songs into Ridge Racer 6 at $1 a track.

According to the Unofficial Microsoft Points Converter, there’s over $6,100 of downloadable games and content on the Xbox Live Marketplace at this moment, and the PlayStation Network and the Wii’s shop channels aren’t far behind. You’re probably not going to buy every song for Rock Band or every car for Burnout Paradise, but with an exponential amount of content out there we can all nickel-and-dime ourselves into debt by jumping on seemingly minuscule purchases. Just five songs in any of the music games adds up to ten dollars and that’s enough to have bought a whole new game on the marketplace. Five impulse downloads of games like Flower, N+, PixelJunk Eden, and Mega Man 9 add up to a whole new fifty dollar retail game.

I guess what I’d like for us to take away from this is moderation. It is way too easy to forget how much a Microsoft Point is worth or simply click ‘Add Funds to Wallet’ without really realizing that it’s coming out of your bank account. And publishers are only going to get more devious with microtransactions in the years ahead. Imagine being in the middle of a battle and getting a prompt asking if you want to unlock an advanced spell or weapon since you’re about to lose. That $0.75 price tag may not seem like much in the heat of battle but when your bank statement shows up three weeks later you could be feeling a different kind of defeat.

I’m not trying to be preachy here — I’ve spent lots of cash on purchases I probably wouldn’t have made if I were in a retail store — and I know we’re all excited about playing the latest games, I just find the bigger monetary picture fascinating, and a little startling. At some point I’d like to go through my download histories and add up what I’ve spent on digital purchases so far. I’m sure the total is a sobering figure that the guys at Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony would rather us not see. That’s a Social Media site I’d love to start; www.WhatYouSpentToPlay.com.

I’m sure I’ll throw up some more totals in a separate post but I’d like to move on now, from the size and cost of downloads to the virtual Marketplaces where we find them.

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  • Good write up. Coincidentally, just the other day I was looking through the list of songs I’ve downloaded so far in Rock Band. I’m up to just over 60 now. At $2 a song, that’s $120! They haven’t all cost $2 though. Some were free, some were less than $1, and some were discounted because I bought them as part of a package. Still, I’ve probably spent close to $100 so far just for new songs. Kinda scary to think about.

    Not that I’d trade the ability to download new content for anything. I love the fact that this sort of thing is possible now. New levels, new vehicles, new songs, new anything you can think of, there’s no limit to what can be added after a game is launched. That’s very exciting to me as a gamer.

    Very scary to me as a consumer though. Some DLC out there is definitely a ripoff. The extra levels for Katamari on the 360, for example. Already on the disc. The extra level, basically the final level of the game, in the last Tomb Raider… was originally meant to be on the $60 disc. It’s a predictable that publishers would try to milk the DLC cash cow for all its worth. Doesn’t make it acceptable though. Making people pay for cheat codes or for content that would otherwise have been “free” in the past, that’s deplorable.