The Cost of Everything, the Value of Nothing

You’ve probably seen the article about how people should pay what games are worth, not what they cost. There’s a fair amount of response about whether creators “deserve a living wage” for “their dream job writing games”. On the one hand I’m in favour of people being able to live to do things that benefit society, like fringe academic studies or art, because if we don’t support people doing those and just attach a pound sign to everything then these things that are hard to monetise but enrich society disappear. On the other hand, no-one is entitled to their dream job, though more power if they can achieve it. But that’s not what I want to get into.

There are two key points. The first comes at the end of the article:

Yes, paying sixty to seventy dollars for a core role-playing game will hurt financially in the short term. It might mean having to get fewer coffees from Starbucks, or bring a lunch to work from home rather than eating out for a few weeks. You will still get months and years of pleasure and enjoyment out of that book, and the people who made it for you will be able to pay their bills and be able to make more games and supplements for you.

So, in order:

That $60 dollar price point

The 60 dollar price point is a price threshold from AAA video gaming. Indie video games are a lot cheaper, and there’s an implication that you get what you pay for. But there are also weird justifications like “it takes a huge studio to generate this content, so the price must be higher” which in turn leads to outcry when a small studio charges the same price (see Jim Sterling’s commentary on No Man’s Sky here). The lessons here are that price does not equate to value or even long-term playability, and that companies will charge what they think the market can support, regardless of quality.

Let the company try to justify that 60+ dollar price point (by quality, longevity, brand recognition, etc.), and let the market decide. On the other hand appealing to the community to spend more money on the pretext that currently the companies aren’t paying their writers enough seems absurd, for these reasons:

  1. There’s no guarantee that a higher price point will improve price per word for authors
  2. It suggests that there is, or should be, a relationship between those authors and the buying public that obliges the latter to underwrite the lifestyle of the former

Point 2 is particularly important in light of indie self publishing. Indie authors get reputation by engaging with the community in various ways. But if you’re working for someone else and you’re not getting the pay or recognition you feel you deserve — why don’t you do the same? By working for a monolithic entity and arguing to raise the price point for that entity’s benefit, without getting any extra recognition for yourself — how are you making things better?

Years of enjoyment

The fallacy here is that this single, $60 game is the only game the consumer will buy and play. The reality is that most gamers will consume multiple game lines, and some of these products will be played for a brief while or even shelved and never played.

I can’t speak for anyone else but a higher price point will certainly make me think twice about an impulse purchase, and I’d lay odds that’s what a lot of RPG consumption is.

More Supplements

This is the same model as always. You’re not just buying a rulebook as a one-off purchase, you’re buying a subscription to a game line.

What you’re really saying is… our product that you’ve paid a premium for isn’t complete, and you need to keep paying us on the off-chance we’ll add to it in the future. Well, OK, there’s a proven market for multi-volume watered-down fantasy novels, and while I hold that in equal contempt who am I to tell the someone else how to spend their money?

But take another look at indie community crowdfunding and specifically patreon. That subscription model that puts the consumer in direct contact with the content provider, at a low initial outlay. By comparison there’s no name recognition for the author here; again, this spurious argument advocates for the company, not the beleaguered writer.

Not Getting Younger

This is my second point:

Game creators aren’t getting any younger.

I’m hugely sympathetic to the medical predicament. It must be terrible to have financial worries heaped on health issues, and I can’t imagine what it’s like to live without a national health service (though if Jeremy Hunt gets his way).

But there are two issues.

First, what, all the game designer slots are taken up and there’s no room for young designers? This infers that there’s an elite old guard of game creators and publishers, and they are the only people who can continue to give us the product that we want. This is establishment nonsense.

Second, how is this different to any other industry, where people get older?

This may sound insensitive, but… people will leave, one way or the other. This is a problem that companies small and large ignore. And the deification of the one true expert panders to that ignorance. Not that our venerable experts shouldn’t hold court, be treated with respect and listened to… but the way to address this problem is with succession planning.

The next generation will always pick things up, (if there’s something left to pick up), and the only question is how much will they have retained from the previous generation. And none of this is guaranteed by your premium price point.