Why you can’t compare video game prices today to those of the past

The picture below was an interesting post on Reddit that I saw earlier today. It was posted on the /r/gaming subreddit by user misfit0513. It shows an ad with prices for various games for the Nintendo 64 and Playstation 1, many of which are listed as 70 dollars or even higher. That seems terrifying, even before you adjust for inflation.

However, this idea of straightforwardly comparing today’s price hikes to the 1990s requires more context than just this. It’s not wrong entirely, but there are factors to consider.

A $75 in 1997 would equate to about $120 in 2020, which is certainly a steep investment. What you got, however, can’t really be compared to a game as you buy it today. Nintendo 64 games came on proprietary cartridges that had to be specially manufactured, which was a major reason for why its games were more expensive. This was a constant on older systems as well, with new games costing between $50 and $70 even as far back as the NES days. These games also came with intricate manuals and special packaging, and were sold in physical stores. Lots of factors adding overhead to the equation.

Over the years, developing and selling games became increasingly streamlined. It became clear that standardized storage media was the way to go, cutting manufacturing costs significantly. Packaging then changed to normal, plastic cases and manuals became increasingly rare. Then the shift to digital came, which changed all of that completely.

You’re no longer paying 70 bucks for a physical product with documentation, extras, and collector value. You’re paying $70 for a license to download some software. Even if you get a physical product, chances are it’s just an empty, plastic case with a download key inside. It takes a lot of the luxury value away, which is not being reflected in the sales price.

An additional issue with digital goods is that there is no second-hand market. You can’t resell your digital games. Hell, in a lot of cases you can’t even return them. You also can’t rent games anymore or borrow a friend’s copy, which were common alternative for people that couldn’t afford to regularly buy these games new. Back in my childhood, families in the neighborhood were regularly sharing their games with each other. Everybody only had a few, but between this and rentals there was never a shortage of anything to play.

Games were expensive brand new on store shelves, but you got a far more luxurious product, could return it in case of trouble, and there were alternatives to play games more affordably.

We also can’t ignore that base sales price is no longer the only way that games are monetized. I probably needn’t point out the myriad ways in which games today nickel and dime players. DLC, cosmetics, micro-transactions, digital currencies, lootboxes, battle passes, limited time offers, subscription services. Not to mention branding or exclusivity deals, merchandising, and so much more.

It is often obscene how much developers and publishers are willing to sacrifice the customer’s experience for the sake of this. From monetizing features that were once offered as neat extras to the outright cutting of content to be resold separately. From expecting users to decide between dozens of different special editions with unique bonuses each, to preying on those with gambling addictions. There are pundits like James Stephanie Stirling who have made entire careers out of covering these excesses of the games industry.

Defenders have long argued that such measures were a necessary evil to keep games at that fabled $60 price level. Something that has long been impossible to debunk or confirm… until games were $60 no more. Now we suffer the weight of all this extra monetization to buy digital-only games and it’s still more expensive upfront. And this is all happening in a time where equality is steadily eroding, in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis. I used 2020 as my reference point for calculating inflation here, partly because that’s the release year for the PS5, but also because the last 2 years have been a rollercoaster of financial misery.

Say about 1997 what you will, but at least houses were somewhat affordable and my utilities bill didn’t quadruple in a year’s time.

One thought on “Why you can’t compare video game prices today to those of the past

  1. Something worth thinking about for sure. Anyone who paid $65 for Batman Returns definitely had to be disappointed when they got home to play it.

    Liked by 1 person

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