For years, it was long believed that $60 is the only price that the U.S. games market could bear (and they’re often more expensive in international markets). But industry leaders and journalists have questioned the stubborn stickiness of the sticker price in recent years. And the last three years saw an explosion of varying price tiers, anywhere from free (like “Fortnite”) to monthly subscription services, like Apple Arcade and Xbox Game Pass. And much of the industry’s total game sales are digital downloads anyway.
“The shift to $69.99 should have taken place in 2013, [in my opinion],” tweeted analyst Mat Piscatella of market research firm The NPD Group. “But folks thought mobile was a threat to the console business. … Instead we got collector’s, silver and gold editions [which offer additional content or perks] that elevate above $59.99 anyway.”
Big publishers like Activision, Ubisoft and EA all regularly release marked up “special editions” of games. These prices often only come with marginal bonuses (a skin or emote), but it’s essentially charging people extra on nothing but a promise that more content is coming. EA’s disastrous launch of “Anthem” in 2018 was a high-profile example of a game that charged a premium for promised content and barely delivered.
Games haven’t always been $60 though. Pricing in the 1990s usually depended on your local stores. Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis games were anywhere from $40 to $100 a cartridge. It wasn’t until 2005 that a retail price was unofficially standardized.
Ars Technica authored an analysis of retail game prices over the decades and found that they’re delivering more value than ever before. Adjusted for inflation, a $60 “Call of Duty” title in 2005 would be about $78 today, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator. Given those factors, a price change perhaps isn’t a shock for anyone who’s paid close attention.
But while the new $70 price tag may be expected, it comes at a difficult, unprecedented time in the industry. And the first game to make the price jump is far from ideal when it comes to value.
The “NBA 2K” series has faced years of complaints for predatory microtransaction practices, which charge players more real-life dollars to buy shoes and other things for multiplayer features and in-game characters. The company even had to apologize for charging for haircuts. For decades, even during the 1990s, the annualized sports game release is typically only a roster update with a few feature tweaks and graphical upgrades.
Meanwhile, older and still more complicated games like “Fortnite” and “Destiny 2″ regularly update freely while charging for season passes filled with in-game content. Fans of annualized sports games like the “Madden” series have been asking for a free-to-play model for a long time now.
Already, the “NBA 2K21” pricing for special editions hints at future headaches and confusion. The game will not utilize Microsoft’s “Smart Delivery” feature, which would upgrade for free games purchased for the current generation Xbox to the Series X. Instead, Take-Two will charge $100 for a “Black Mamba Forever” edition, which features the late Kobe Bryant on the cover and will include the next-generation game when it releases. Microsoft gave game publisher’s a way for their consumers to transition to the next generation for free. Take-Two’s answer was no thanks.
This may be only a hint of future endeavors. It’s only been three years since EA released “Star Wars: Battlefront 2,” charging $60 while also including pay-to-win mechanics. The game caused a furor and led to lawmakers all over the world legislating against the practice, turning a “Star Wars” game into a dark, industry milestone.
The problem wasn’t that EA was pursuing a new business model, something the industry is always doing. The problem was that a new business model (the free-to-play microtransaction model popularized by mobile games) was stacked right on top of the old premium $60 business model.
Regardless of both the optics and any consumer outrage, it works. Take-Two Interactive has said its 2K games are a big chunk of its quarterly billion-dollar revenue haul. The complaints are there, but people are still spending.
This is just one basketball game, so there’s still reason to wonder if $70 is the new standard. But if this is on its way, we can expect more publishers to push the boundaries on how much more money they can get out of our wallets.