Last week, 2K made waves when he became the first publisher to price $ 70 for a large-budget game for the next generation of consoles. NBA2K21 will now cost the usual $ 60 for Xbox One and PlayStation 4, but 2K will charge $ 10 more for the upcoming Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 versions of the game (a “Mamba Forever Edition” for $ 100 offers players access to the current generation and next generation versions in a single bundle).
It remains to be seen if other publishers will follow 2K’s example and make $ 70 a new de facto standard for budgeting console games on a large budget. But while $ 70 would correspond to the flood mark for nominal Game prices, it wouldn’t be a historically high price in terms of actual value. Thanks to inflation and changing game distribution, the current ceiling for game prices has never been lower.
To measure how the actual offer price for console games has changed over time, we mainly relied on scanned catalogs and retail flyers that we found online. While this information was easier to find for some years than for others, we have still been able to collect data for 20 different years over the past four decades. We then adjusted these nominal prices to a constant $ 2020 using the Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI inflation calculator.
In order to avoid the influence of cheap bargain games or dealer discounts, we focused on the highest offer prices for individual games that we could find every year (without collector’s editions). But to avoid unnecessary deviations from outliers like the $ 100 Genesis version of Virtua RacingWe averaged the highest price at the highest level that we could find for a “basket” of games that represent up to eight different genres. For NES prices in 1988, it was the highest price of $ 49.99 Steel blades in the sports slot was partially offset by the highest price of $ 34.99 The karate kid in the “fighting / brawler” slot.
I’m old enough to remember $ 70 cartridges
The resulting data is a bit noisy from year to year, depending on what specific games were included in existing ads that we were able to track down. Over time, however, the price trends are still pretty easy to spot.
While nominal cartridge game prices were $ 30-40 in the early 1980s, inflation now equates to $ 80-100 per game. Nominal prices remained relatively flat until the late 1980s, when the industry started to recover from the big crash, but inflation somewhat lowered actual value in constant dollars.
As the industry switched to 16-bit cartridges in the 1990s, nominal prices for top-end games quickly rose above $ 60 in nominal dollars and $ 110 in 2020. This is largely due to the expensive ROM and co-processors that are often included in games of the day. Until 1997, late-era SNES and N64 games were routinely sold at many retailers for $ 69.99. These were the highest nominal prices the industry has seen in general, and are still over $ 110 in today’s dollars.
An optical plateau
The transition to disc-based games in the late 1990s significantly reduced the cost of game production, leading to generally lower prices for consumers. However, this price change did not take place immediately. Early Saturn and PlayStation games in 1996 were regularly sold for $ 59.99 or more, which is about $ 100 in 2020.
Disc prices soon dropped to a more reasonable $ 49.99 and set a functional nominal price cap that would remain in place until the mid-’00s. It was only when the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 came on the market that prices for top prices rose to $ 59.99. And that’s the de facto cap that still exists today, even though digital downloads and the explosion of indie games have resulted in many titles now being released far below that price.
Adjusted for inflation, we can see that the actual value ($ 2020) of disc-based top-end games increased by about $ 70 in the 00s and early 10s for almost a decade. Inflation has, however, slowly undermined this value in the past decade, to a point where an increase of $ 10 is like that for NBA2K21 only brings games to the same actual price point that they enjoyed at the beginning of the century.
As the “real value” of large budget games has increased, publishers have been looking for new ways to get more money out of the average player. Trends such as collector’s editions, widespread downloadable content, season ticket subscriptions, and annoying microtransactions have resulted in some players already spending a lot more than $ 60 on a single top-end title.
If you raise the base price of a game to $ 70, the publisher’s need or desire to take advantage of these additional sources of income will not be eliminated. However, this can help offset the deficits that arise from the rising development costs for graphically intensive titles in the upcoming ray tracing era of consoles.
These additional costs can be difficult to swallow for many players, as can similar increases for streaming video subscription services over the years. This is especially true now that there is so much game competition through cheaper and even high quality free-to-play titles.
However, an increase to $ 70 would not be a historically unprecedented increase in the price limit for console games. Taking inflation into account would only bring those prices back up to the current historical average – something you should consider when preparing for a new, apparently more expensive generation of console hardware.
Listing image by Hughes Johnson