Last night Ubisoft changed the pricing of Watch Dogs on Steam, increasing the price from US$59.95 to US$74.95 in an instant. Almost instantly complaints hit the Kotaku inbox. "Australia Tax" was the unanimous cry in almost every single email I received. 'WTF', 'WTH'? Regardless of the abbreviation you care to use, this is just another high profile example of one of the worst and most unfair aspects of playing and buying video games in this country.
But before I attack Ubisoft for this practice, it's worth giving them the benefit of the doubt on a few issues. Firstly, the price jump that Watch Dogs made is actually generous compared to some others I've seen. In my experience there have been far worse offenders. Activision and Bethesda spring to mind, with PC games on Steam leaping from $59.95 to $89.95 overnight. The price jump here, as bad as it is, is gentle compared to the one Fallout: New Vegas received some years back.
And unlike those two companies, Ubisoft actually took the time to at least respond to customer complaints. This is rare. In my three years as Editor of Kotaku the issue of digital pricing has been a discussion local publishers simply refuse to engage in.
Last night on its Facebook Ubisoft did its level best to justify the price increase.
"Unlike Ubisoft US, Ubisoft Australia & NZ is a part of the European business group," Ubisoft Australia explained. "We buy and sell product at euro-based cost of goods and royalties, as does UK, France and most of continental Europe."
That was part of a full back and forth conversation on the official Ubisoft Australia Facebook page last night, a conversation which represents the first time, in my memory, that a local publisher has openly discussed its digital pricing policy with its customer base. As anti-consumer as these price hikes are, I think Ubisoft should be commended for its transparency.
But surely it's time for some sort of change. Surely. Particularly when it comes to PC games sold on Steam. With box copies sold at retail there are arguments to made, some of them fair. It does cost more to run a business in Australia. Our minimum wage is higher, our population is small and is spread out across a massive chunk of land. Australians do, in general, make more money here. I don't agree with the pricing of retail games in Australia, but at the very least I can understand it.
When it comes to digital I can't understand it. Particularly when consumers are dangled with the golden carrot of US pricing only to have it snatched away at the last second, literally a week before release. It's a cruel unfair practice. Ubisoft is calling it a pricing error, but it's an error we've seen all too often in Australia and an error that makes the unfair pricing we have to deal with here in Australia all too transparent.
And while I commend Ubisoft for being open about price changes and the reasons they were made, ultimately my response (and the response of most consumers) is 'who cares'?
Who cares that Australia is part of the European territory? What does that matter to me or anyone who buys video games? It's actually meaningless to me as a consumer. If I lived in Europe I'd be equally as pissed that I was expected to pay more for a digital product. Who cares that the US and Europe are separate entities? I don't think that's good enough. If that's the way you run your business then make adjustments. What's stopping you? What's stopping Ubisoft, as a company, from making Steam pricing consistent with exchange rates across all territories?
We live in a global economy, we live in a world where digital products are sold sans middlemen. Consumers shouldn't be expected to wear the same old costs. Price hikes of this kind are unjustifiable and that is literally the bottom line.