Despite the many factors that might have led to an increase in the prices of games, $60 has remained the standard retail price in the United States for well over a decade. Inflation, increasing development costs–it’s arguably been a surprise that prices have remained static for so long, even if there’s a case to be made that lower prices could lead to increased overall sales.
That’s finally set to change with the launch of PS5 and Xbox Series X, at least in the case of one game series. 2K has announced that NBA 2K21 will cost $60 on current-gen consoles as usual, while the next-gen versions will cost $70. That’s the first instance we’ve seen of a publisher attaching a higher price tag to a game as we enter this console transition. 2K is also seemingly eschewing Microsoft’s Smart Delivery and won’t even match EA’s comparatively generous upgrade offer on its sports games. There won’t be any free next-gen upgrade for buyers of 2K21 on current-gen consoles; instead, they can opt for the Kobe Bryant-starring Mamba Forever edition, which costs $100 and provides dual access within a console family.
Until now, we hadn’t seen any indication that PS5 and Xbox Series X games would cost more to purchase than what we’ve become accustomed to for so many years. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all of 2K or parent company Take-Two’s games will adopt the higher pricing, nor does it mean that other publishers will follow suit. But it’s hard to imagine companies turning down the additional revenue if 2K finds success with the $70 price point.
The aforementioned Smart Delivery complicates things further, at least for the early part of the upcoming generation. You can pre-order a $60 game on Xbox One like Cyberpunk 2077 right now and gain free access to the Xbox Series X version, which suggests that there won’t inexplicably be a $10 price hike if you choose to directly buy that very same Series X edition.
During the early Xbox 360 days, Microsoft Game Studios’ early releases, like Kameo, Project Gotham Racing 3, and Perfect Dark Zero, were sold for $50, while most other games sold for $60 (which ultimately became the standard price even for Xbox’s first-party lineup). The increase to the $60 price point did prove contentious, but not in such a way that it had any impact on publishers’ approach. Less than a year after the debut of the 360, Activision CEO Bobby Kotick said, “We have not seen a lot of consumer resistance at the higher price points, and we expect that all of our next-generation products will be launched at $60 price points.”
While indie games have traditionally sold for far less than $60, it’s been rare for major publishers to release games for anything between the opposite ends of the spectrum: free-to-play and $60. There are the occasional experiments–the upcoming Star Wars: Squadrons will cost $40–but in the past those have been deemed failures, as was the case with MX Vs. ATV Alive, which sold for $40 with a focus on DLC back in 2011. Calls for cheaper games haven’t gained much traction.
In light of the 2K21 news, GamesIndustry.biz spoke with IDG Consulting’s Yoshio Osaki, who pointed out that, despite increasing development costs, the price of games has not increased in the same way that something like a Netflix subscription has. “Even with the increase to $69.99 for next-gen, that price increase from 2005 to 2020 next-gen is only up 17%, far lower than the other comparisons,” he said. “While the cost of development and publishing have gone up, and pricing in other entertainment verticals has also gone up substantially, next-gen software pricing has not reflected these increases. $59.99 to $69.99 does not even cover these other cost increases completely, but does move it more in the proper direction.”
He added, “IDG works with all major game publishers, and our channel checks indicate that other publishers are also exploring moving their next-gen pricing up on certain franchises, for the same reasons outlined above. “Not every game should garner the $69.99 price point on next-gen, but flagship AAAs such as NBA 2K merit this pricing more than others.”
Although games may have become more expensive to build in recent years, game makers have also found new sources of revenue–namely, microtransactions. That the NBA 2K series is the first one to be revealed at this new $70 price will surely draw the ire of some fans, given how heavily monetized the games have become. Recurrent consumer spending, as Take-Two calls it, has been a massive source of revenue for the company, with the NBA 2K games among the most successful in that regard. Take-Two has signaled no intention to dial back on that strategy, and some may find it tough to accept the prospect of a higher price tag and potentially even more aggressive microtransactions–though we don’t yet know how 2K21 will handle those. Still, it’s surprising to see the barrier to entry increased when microtransactions themselves are such a gold mine for the company.
Prices over $60 were not unheard of decades ago, particularly during the SNES days, but they’ve long since faded away for anything but special editions and games bundles with physical accessories. Just what NBA 2K21’s pricing portends for the generation to come remains to be seen. But unless things go differently than they did in the early days of the last generation, this is unlikely to be a one-off–so you had better start saving.
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