The Unspoken Price Drop
In the politics of gaming, I am a PC partisan. Though I may occasionally dabble with console gaming like a repressed ultra-conservative dabbling in a gender identity crisis, in the glaring light of day I fall firmly in that grand old PC curmudgeon party. Were the forces of console gaming to crumble tomorrow and the greedy eye of the gaming industry to once again turn its electric gaze on our platform of ill repute, I would champion it as a victory for good taste and basic human liberty.
So, I was encouraged this week by an e-mail that turned up in our inbox. It was penned for discussion on the podcast, and hopefully that will still take place, but I am unilaterally co-opting the comment for my own nefarious and opinionated purposes here.
The idea is a simple one — that the once vast cost margin between console and PC gaming has all but closed. At the end of my discussion today I want to leave you with two thoughts, and rather than making you wait I’ll offer them here for you to consider now.
The first is that this analysis is spot on.
The second is that it does not matter a whit.
Here is an excerpt of that e-mail:
If I was to get a ps3 slim today and all the peripherals for the playstation move, my total comes up to $450 ($300 ps3 $80 for move and nun chuck controller and $40 for the eye). Same thing with the new xbox and Natal... sorry Kinnect priced at $150. Hasn't the computer become a the cheaper gaming alternative? I walked in to my local computer store the other day and saw a rig running MW2 on 3 screens. They had the thing advertised for $750 Canadian dollars. Most people out there would do fine just by upgrading to a $200 video card.
Okay, first I grant you that the e-mailer (who added no name to his comment, but who hails from the ever reputable hotmail.com) is playing fast and loose with some pretty basic math. Even a numerically intolerant old English major like me can still register the fundamental inequality of $750>$500, so while his premise intrigues me I abandon full support well before the line of arguing that PC gaming is actually cheaper. It’s not, but it is _getting_ cheaper.
Let’s talk Xbox 360 for a minute, though. Just to keep our casual analysis nice and fair, we’ll just pretend like I’m not on my third machine since 2005, or that my total hardware investment is actually around $700 alone. Were you to fire over to Amazon.com today and purchase even the cheaper 120GB Xbox Elite, you will cough up 250 bones, but let’s be realistic about that purchase. If you are me, you’re going to need another controller. You’re going to need HDMI cables. You’re going to need Xbox LIVE, maybe even for the whole family. And, this winter, you’re going to need Kinnect.
That supposed $250 barrier to entry, if you are me, is really closer to $600 — roughly the same price as a relatively decent low end Dell laptop.
The industry likes to make a big deal about price drops, but somehow they have really done relatively little to actually keep consumer total costs in line as these systems enter middle-age. On the other side, the past half decade has seen a precipitous and real world drop in price for desktops and laptops.
I won’t go so far as to say that PC gaming has become trivially cheap — though if you are adventurous, comfortable with handling a little bit of tech and savvy you can shave away hundreds of dollars — but it certainly has come in line with console gaming. So the what is, I think, the underlying premise posed by our e-mail is a valid one: why haven’t game companies and consumers started backing the PC horse?
The short answer that most companies give is piracy.
The more complex answer is that companies make their games where the money is, and gamers go where the games are. At some point a number of years ago, the PC market became so toxic that game makers abandoned it even though there was still a large and healthy population of buyers. These were the days of driver issues, compatibility frustrations, skyrocketing processor costs and the evolution of internet piracy. Making a game exclusive to the PC was like buying speculation property on a variable rate interest only home loan in Las Vegas — a completely losing proposition. For publishers, money is just easier to make on the consoles, and so the game companies left and the gamers went with them.
Here's the thing though. Let's say that the problem of piracy were entirely resolved to the satisfaction of both game makers and gamers tomorrow. There would be no mass exodus back home to PC gaming. The basic landscape of a post-piracy gaming world would probably look a lot like today's. Business operates best from inertia, and for all its flaws the console market is a stable and rich one. This is the world we lost PC gamers will continue to live in, one of sloppy console ports, open animosity from once mighty developers suffering from some kind of corporate-wide PTSD and a gaming industry drifting inevitably toward total media integration and innovation through gadgetry.
Depressing, right? Well, actually I’d say no. After all, as a primarily PC gamer, the market drift is kind of working for my pocketbook. The pressure to keep costs low on my platform of choice is creating some pretty good deals, not the least of which is that new releases are traditionally cheaper, and while I can’t get every game I may want, I pay a lot less than I did five years ago to sustain my still healthy habit. Digital distribution is an advanced lifeform on PCs, and the rich independent market augments the not as prominent but still considerable major publisher releases.
I don’t imagine that I am a typical example, but I am definitely feeling the drain on my wallet coming from those scheming little boxes entrenched around my television. Like the once mighty PC marker, the constant push to upgrade and enhance is becoming a cost burden, and based on this year’s E3 there is no sign on the horizon that the trend will change. One might almost describe it as bubble-esque.
Do I think that should that bubble burst, suddenly people will rush back to the PC as the platform of choice? Not really. That ship has sailed into the west, but I have come to terms with the new face of PC gaming and have made peace. I’m just glad that it’s going to cost a lot less.