The recent controversy around Evolve and its copious amounts of additional paid downloadable content (DLC) means that this is a good as time as any to discuss the climate of video game prices, specifically of the AAA variety.
To recap, Evolve has launched to generally positive critical reception, a unique 4v1 concept that we’ve lusted for after watching Predator all those years ago. Many players do not enjoy it it because it is light on content, but we’ll digress and use it as an example for this DLC discussion.
The user reaction? Not so glowing. A quick peek at Evolve’s Steam page brings attention to dozens of customer reviews lambasting the game for its paid DLC, complaining that they’re being pushed to spend even more money after paying the base price for the base game, which is the standard $60.
What is that DLC? Start with the $24.99 Season Pass, which gives instant access to four hunters (characters to play as) and three skins (cosmetic). Each of these hunters would regularly be available for $7.49, a tall price. Additionally, there is a wide selection of cosmetic items anywhere from $1.99 to $6.99. Some sites have erroneously reported that it would cost up to $130 to have the “complete” Evolve experience, but that doesn’t take into account that several of these offerings are bundles of other items listed, which would lower the total price tag. Regardless, the point has been made.
I don’t think that Evolve’s policy is the most… egregious amongst its peers. The Season Pass, we have come to expect. The rest of it is purely cosmetic items that don’t give an advantage or affect gameplay. Another wise decision, given Evolve’s dependency on a unified online community to thrive, is that all future DLC maps and game modes shall be free for all players.
So, what are players complaining about? Chiefly, paying for cosmetic items.
To be frank, this is hardly a new or alarming concept. Free-to-play games, like Dota 2 and League of Legends, have built their empires on the concept of paid cosmetic DLC. “Whales,” often wealthy individuals with money to throw around, support the rest of the community’s free access to the games that they enjoy. If other players want to buy a skin or two, they have that option too.
Halo 4 is a more relevant example, as it also cost $60 and had cosmetic items. They didn’t affect most players’ enjoyment of the game, either.
I understand that people are worried about such a model bleeding over to AAA, blockbuster gaming. For those people, I would ask:
Would you rather pay $60 or $100 for your right to play a game?
Your $60 game is actually much less expensive than a comparative product back during video gaming’s developing years. Some Nintendo 64 games retailed for $80 at launch.
Note that these prices are even higher because they aren’t adjusted for inflation. Your $60 now is worth less than $60 at any moment of history.
“Well, yes. But what about Grand Theft Auto V earning billions and the CEO saying they could charge DOUBLE and people would still buy?”
That’s because Grand Theft Auto is a special case. Games like Evolve, which are attempting to kickstart new ways to play and new franchises, are risks. We are paying less for games than we ever have, yet production budgets have skyrocketed. Remember that a game like Gears of War, which is only 9 years old, had a budget of less than $10 million. Two year old Grand Theft Auto V? Estimated to be $280 million.
Multiply the number of developers by average salary, and you start to get an idea. Let’s say 150 people worked on Evolve for 4 years. That’s 150 people * $80,000 salary * 4 years. The extremely rough estimate is $48 million. That doesn’t include substantial marketing (this game has billboards around NYC), production, distribution, or royalties. Summing that all up to about $80 million (once more, very rough estimate), a game would have to sell multiple millions of units (of which 2K gets back at most $30 of the full retail price) to be profitable and considered a success.
Publishers like THQ and Midway fell because too many of their big bets failed. When you have a game like Tomb Raider initially selling several million units and its publisher being publically disappointed with those results, its easy to understand why it has become so difficult to earn a profit unless you have a giant, proven brand.
DLC blunts this risk. When it is handled poorly, it should be attacked from all angles to protect the consumer. However, when it isn’t offensive, it provides another revenue cushion to help developers attempt braver concepts and new IP. While Evolve isn’t the best, or most developed game, a failure of a project of this scale would have massive repercussions for large publishers who want to take risks for the future.
Innovation is needed to keep this creative industry from stagnating. I won’t complain about a few inoffensive skins if it means that I can continue to play the games that I love.