What’s a good price for a game?

Alex Kidman
18 November, 2008
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The iPhone has done more for the Mac gaming world than any number of late ports, cross-converted games, or even the introduction of higher quality graphics chips in the new model Macbooks ever could. Why? Well, largely because it’s made people (and programmers) think of Apple as a gaming platform once again; while there’s always been a steady trickle of some titles, the sheer mass of games never saw light of day on the system due to a perception that Macs just weren’t “cut out for gaming” or that Apple users “weren’t interested”.

At the same time, the iPhone games phenomenon presents a couple of interesting dilemmas for prospective games buyers — although for publishers, they’re seen as a positive benefit. I’m thinking specifically of game pricing, and especially game pricing in a market where there’s little to no game portability.

iPhone games come at all sorts of prices — you can pay as little as nothing, and some of the best games I’ve played on the system have cost me exactly that much. Once you start paying for things, though, value becomes a lot more relative, and this is especially true of iPhone games.

There are two issues at play here.

The first here comes about because what you buy is a digital download, and a somewhat limited download at that. You’re never going to end up with physical disc or means of installing the application if, for some reason, it was removed from the App store, or if Apple changed the methodology it uses to distribute applications.

The download games model isn’t one that Apple’s invented itself — there’s a strong move for games publishers to switch over to a download-only marketplace, although it’s largely for self-serving reasons to do with the second-hand games market. There’s an implicit risk for buyers, though, as what happens when a server is taken off-line (or a particular business goes kaput) is never terribly well handled. Generally speaking, unless you’re able to run the game already and without server verification, you’re stuffed.

As an aside, I’ve personally been stuffed by digital downloads before. Being something of a fan of Prince (the rather odd musician, not the large-eared British conservationist, nor any number of hounds or Disney cartoon characters) I purchased a number of “exclusive” albums available through Prince’s web site back five years or so. Which was great — I really enjoyed the music on offer. Except that, rather abruptly, the authentication service was taken offline, and suddenly, the tracks sitting on my PC were just dead bytes with no purpose at all.

With that kind of scenario in mind, the argument could be made that you’re renting games, rather than “buying” them. You certainly don’t have any avenue to re-sell your purchases, as you might with a physical disc. At the same time, it is encouraging to note that you can install games on as many iPod Touch and iPhone handsets as you’d like — as long as they’re all synced to the same iTunes Library, that is. It might seem like a limited bit of flexibility, but it’s better than most games companies will give you.

The second part is one of value, and the “worth” of a particular game. This is much tougher to judge. I’ve played paid-for games that wouldn’t be out of place as a full-priced $60-$100 “proper” games release — at least for the amount of time I’ve spent playing them. Just a brief flick through my iPhone games library reveals Zen Pinball (both Rollercoaster and the newly released Inferno), Real Football ’09, Critter Crunch and Dizzy Bee, all of which I’d happily buy again if the need came about.

On the free side sit titles like Tap Tap Revenge or Cowabunga. Is the value of the “paid’ games reduced by the value of the “free” ones? I’d argue not, although their presence does make it harder not to argue for the existence of a demo model. While Apple hasn’t gone as far as to make that happen in a mandatory sense — and you can still do your dough on a duff game if you’re not careful — there’s plenty of “free” versions of games apps, including real crackers like Labyrinth Lite and Fuzzle Lite.

Pricing too has varied a lot, even in the iPhone’s relatively short gaming lifespan. Some games have had introductory free (or low cost) offers, and some have had price drops for limited periods of time. There seems to be a rough consensus that anything over $10 really needs to justify itself strongly, and if you look at the user reviews of any app over $10, there tends to be a slight bit more vitriol to them.

So what do you think? Are iPhone games properly priced? Too dear? Too cheap? Should there be a mandatory demo for every paid game?

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