"How long do you think people will keep splashing out on console games when mobile gaming is so cheap," shouted new Gizmodo Editor, Danny Allen, across the great Kotaku/Gizmodo divide. "Forever, I hope," said I in response. "Because I want to keep playing them. So began, the great mobile/AAA game debate of lore - which I have now reprinted in full for your reading enjoyment.
DANNY: So I'm having dinner last night with a mate, and we got talking about the price of console games. How long can blockbuster titles come in at $100+ when these days, ten to twenty bucks gets you a handful of phone or tablet games, and you get almost as much enjoyment, especially in terms of play time. Sure, the biggest games take years to make and need to recoup massive budgets, but so do movies, and I can pick those up for $15 at the cinema, and $30 for the Blu-ray. Even that still leaves me with over $60 change compared to a new release game. Seriously man, how long can blockbuster console games fend off casual apps?
MARK: Forever, I hope. The survival of the games I know and love depends on it. Being perfectly honest, I think we're more likely to see some sort of balancing in the coming years. Yes, I think that AAA video games with mega budgets and billions of man hours behind them will end costing slightly less, but I also believe we'll see an increase in the cost of mobile gaming.
The fact is that a team of one could, at the moment, create the next Angry Birds or Doodle Jump - but as mobile technology increases rapidly the cost of production is going to increase - bigger teams, bigger budgets. People are going to start expecting more from mobile gaming, and they'll have to pay for it.
It's just the nature of the beast. When I was a kid I could buy budget Spectrum games for less than three Aussie dollars - because these games were created by kids in their bedrooms. As the tech increased, so did the cost of production, and the price of games.
I expect the same process to occur in the mobile gaming realm.
DANNY: That's a fair point, but I'm not so sure that history will repeat itself. These days we have a new element in the mix: Apple. Love him or loathe him, Jobs totally shook shit up by strongarming record labels into US99 cent songs. iTunes song price tiers have expanded over time (which would follow your argument that game prices will go up), but the cheap songs remain the hook. And increasingly, cheap casual games are the new iTunes crack.
Even though Australia still gets bent over a barrel on iTunes music, Australian App Store prices (including games) are now much more in line with the US. It's clear that Apple is in a price war for our casual free time. All that said — I will concede this: five years from now app prices will be roughly what they are now, but it's likely we'll be forking out extra to expanded maps or features. Downloadable content — or the Jetstar model — that's certainly where EA's creative director believes we're headed. And like Apple, EA is another company with too much influence for their own good.
Take a look at games. Games go from Doodle Jump to Red Dead Redemption, and everything in between. The difference between music and games in that regard is epic in scale.
Look at Blu-rays for example - it costs me roughly $60 to buy Mad Men on Blu-ray at JB Hifi, but there are still a handful of movies I can pick up for $15. Games are similar - you get what you pay for, and I expect that will continue. On the whole I expect to pay a little less for games - but I will not have a problem paying more for a proper AAA 10-15 hour experience.
DANNY: Yeah, you've hit the nail on the head. The more epic and immersive a game is, the more hours of game time you get, the more you can justify paying a premium. And consoles by nature are more interactive with motion controls, richer graphics, and big screen 3D.
That all bodes well for AAA titles until you look at big games like Homefront (still $90-ish) that take four hours to get through. In terms of game time, it's titles like this that mobile games will soon be nipping at the heels of, especially once iOS or Android games hit the TV via the next Apple TV, direct connection or some other unreleased device.
AAA console games need to come down in price (outside of the fact that Australians should, but aren't benefiting from the exchange rate). Retail figures released in Feb show a 16 per cent drop year on year, reversing years of record sales. Until the next-gen consoles blow our minds with better graphics, improved 3D or motion controls — hell, maybe even head tracking — then casual mobile games will continue to grow. Yes, they're like reading a magazine instead of an awesome novel, but just look what e-readers have done to those.
MARK: Retail figures going down is testament to the state of retail, not the state of video games themselves. Local retail is scrambling to adapt to digital distribution and the rapidly growing imports market, and that is the issue here.
I really liked what Cliff Blezinski of Gears of War fame had to say - he claimed that the middle class game is dead. That middle step of mediocrity between flash/mobile/Indie games and big budget titles is in decline and there's really no place for them in today's market. It's Assassin's Creed or bust, Halo: Reach or reach for the door.
I agree with this, and I think that's the true casualty here. I think the real problem for gaming is the fact that investment in innovative AAA experiences will grind to a halt. Unless you're a proven developer like Irrational Games or Rockstar, it's going to be difficult to get something like, say Child of Eden, get greenlit.