Friday, January 4, 2013

Electronic Economics

I was given a $30 gift card for JB Hi-Fi for my birthday, and since I now have a computer that might be able to run Starcraft 2 and was pretty sure I'd seen the game at JB for $34, off I went to purchase it. Maybe that $34 pricetag was only there for the Christmas sales, or maybe I only imagined it. Either way - I wasn't getting SC2 from JB without forking over sixty bucks. Sorry, $59.95. 

Now that is fine. Sometimes prices are oddly high or low at stores for reasons I can't guess at. But by this point I had been imagining finally getting this game and playing online games with my friend Big Josh. I hopped on to the Blizzard website to buy SC2 digitally. 

$39.99. I assume that is US dollars, so probably a little less in AUD at the moment. Wait, no, after logging in with my account I see it is $49.95 AUD.

Leaving aside the fact that from the splash screen Blizzard actually requires you to enter a account to see the price (click buy from this screen) this is a ridiculous price. First of all, this is a game that came out three years ago. Computer games usually experience a fairly swift fall in prices after the first 6-12 months. For example, Deus Ex: Human Revolution came out in 2011 and is $25 online through Steam (without taking sales into account). I'm sure it was around sixty dollars on release. This might seem like a steep drop-off but big-budget games aren't so different to big-budget movies: first the expensive release price for those want to have it now (at the movies). Then the lower price for those not prepared to pay so much, or only vaguely interested in the experience (buying or renting DVDs; also streaming video or Pirate Bay). 

But there is another reason why this price is ridiculous: it is only ten dollars less than the in-store price. This seems like a funny thing to say. It is very convenient to buy a game over the Internet; why should the publisher knock down the price for such a superior delivery method? 

In fact digital purchase is vastly less convenient than a physical disc. You have to download all the files for install rather than having them to hand, you have to re-download them if you get a new computer or have to re-format, and you cannot do any of this if the publisher's servers are down or you lack Internet access. That might be fine now, but in three years that publisher may not even exist. Companies merge, split, dissolve or are dissolved all the time. And who will be supporting the publisher's guarantee of access to the data you paid for? Probably no one. 

Not to mention that a digital copy is not "yours" in any physical sense. You can't sell it secondhand, or give it to a friend, or trade it in for something new. Digital purchase is a purchase of access to data and services, not of any clearly defined "thing". This is why it is cheaper for the publisher. They do have to pay for server space and so on, but this is much less than burning and shipping DVDs (packaging, quality control, security, so on and so forth). 

We also have to look at the competition. Blizzard's big enough to distribute its own games, but many companies aren't. In the world of digital distribution of games, there is Steam and Origin (we don't talk about Microsoft's efforts). I haven't really used Origin but I do use Steam. What is my experience of Steam? Games often cost the same on Steam as physically, but because of the frequent sales this is a fiction. Because of Steam, my attempt to buy SC2 was my first attempt to physically buy a computer game in years. Games are cheap and Steam's cloud backs up my progress in case of a hard drive failure. Yes, the same fears about access to what I paid for continue to exist. But the marketplace is cheap, slick and  most importantly Valve have been in the business for a while and to a degree have earned my trust. 

The final reason $50 is an outrageous price? This year Heart of the Swarm, the next standalone expansion pack (don't ask) for Starcraft 2, will come out. Multiplayer is the main reason I wanted to buy this game and Heart of the Swarm will have a separate multiplayer ladder (no crossover with basic SC2 players). Most dedicated SC2 players will upgrade. Essentially, base SC2 will be obsolete. And yet the price is still $50. 

I've put thirty-nine very enjoyable hours into Mark of the Ninja. I bought it on sale on Steam for five bucks. 

What kind of world are you living in, Blizzard?

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