Video Games and the Money Barrier

High costs for consoles and software remain a very real barrier for most.

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 02/26/2014 12:00 11 Comments     ShareThis

Wario bathing in treasure

Joystiq has been doing regular updates on a PBS program called Game/Show, and the other day touched on the most recent episode, where the definition of the word “gamer” was debated. The Joystiq writer’s thoughts on the meaning of gamer were interesting, but what caught my attention more was his take on inclusion within the gaming community. While there’s a debate to be had about just how inclusive gamers are to one another, my thoughts drifted instead to how video games themselves are more exclusive than people realize. It’s the initial buy-in that poses the single, greatest obstacle for most folks, and makes the video game club tougher to get into than it should be.

People complain about video game prices now, but they’ve never been cheap. Software alone can bludgeon a wallet, but don’t forget the hundreds of dollars it takes for the system and an extra controller, as well. Growing up, I knew plenty of kids whose families weren’t able to get a game system in the house because there were bills to pay. My family was by no means wealthy, but we were always lucky enough to be in a position to have systems and games. I’d feel guilty talking with friends who could only dream of owning a Game Boy, let alone a console. It’s the same story today for many people everywhere.

Stores like GameStop (loathed though they might be) stepped up and became equalizers in the marketplace, allowing for poorer families and individuals to get in on the action with a tighter budget. It might be a blow to some developers and publishers, but there’s no ignoring the service the secondhand market provides for those just wanting a little piece of the pie. Sadly, as digital sales become the standard and physical media slowly slips away, the viability of the secondhand market dwindles. The more digital content dominates the market, the more exclusive gaming will become.

There are a lot of folks even here in the US who still don’t have ready access to the Internet. The more technologically advanced our consoles become, the more the little guy is going to be left in the dust. That’s not to say that buying a PS4 should be the life goal of anyone, but where books and movies are very accessible, games continue not to be, and move further away year by year. The lack of diversity in this industry is created in no small part by the limited demographics who form its customer base. There might be people of different genders and ethnicities playing, but money has drawn a big, fat line in the sand that’s not easy to step over.

There’s not an easy way of fixing this problem, either. Game consoles can’t stop evolving simply to placate consumers who aren’t able to keep up. It also isn’t cheap to make the AAA gaming experiences we all know and love. So where that leaves the people down at the bottom is a bit of a mystery. The iOS and Android gaming platforms have been a step in the right direction, though, providing developers more freedom to bring software prices down via in-app purchases and freemium models. Still, it’s not a perfect solution, especially considering that a touch screen is nowhere near as intuitive or accommodating for gameplay as a traditional controller.

So where the industry goes to get everyone playing is anyone’s guess. Microsoft’s moves with its Xbox One console prior to E3 2014 were incredibly aggressive about targeting a more tech savvy and deep-pocketed audience until Sony sent the company into panic mode. At present, this current slate of consoles seem primed to keep the market grounded in physical discs for at least the next five to six years. We’re getting close, though, to a day when the cloud and Internet will dominate. What will happen to the little guy is unknown, but hopefully something else will come along and equalize the playing field once more. Of all our forms of entertainment and creativity, including movies, books, and television, gaming is just as important and should be more accessible to everyone.

11 Responses to “Video Games and the Money Barrier”

  • 63 points
    Jake Shapiro says...

    Great article. It’s interesting to look at the socioeconomic reasons we don’t see more diversity in games. And you’re right, as evil as GameStop is, the used game market is great for opening up the games industry to lower income families.
    Although for what it’s worth, game consoles today aren’t any more expensive than game consoles of yore. Adjusted for inflation in 2014 dollars, the Atari 2600 launched with a $796 price tag, the NES launched for $412, and the PS1 launched for $446.

  • 0 points

    Game prices have actually remained consistent ever since the NES days.

    Let that sink in for a minute.

    Paying for games in 2014 is the same as paying for games in 1984. Actually – it’s way less. Because factoring in inflation, as Jake mentioned above, those sixty clams go a long ways.

    In fact – they go a lot longer. Whereas the games of 1984 could easily be made by a handful of people, many of the AAA front-tier gaming experiences of 2014 require budgets of nine figures.

    Also – Gamestop in absolutely no way extends the olive branch to lower income families. You cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, imply that. In fact, it is well documented exactly how they muscle as much money as they can out of their hand-ins. Paying the consumer the equivalent of a handful of dollars (that’s you, the low-income family, getting that handful of dollars – or, as they like to put it, trade in three “old games” for one new one).

    Thing is, what do you think happens to those traded in games? If they’re in anyway current (been released in the past three months), the used copy will usually be marked down just five or ten dollars less than the new. How’s the low income family benefiting from that?

    So, if you’re low income, go to Gamestop if you want to pay a low price for a bad or old game, which won’t in any way “bring you into the conversation” of those gaming circles you were talking about.

    I dunno. The barrier to entry for gaming is high. But that’s because the world economy crapped out – jobs disappear more often than not on a permanent basis – and the rights you enjoy in employment are next to none (if they aren’t already none).

    You have to hand it to the gaming industry. Besides a can of coke – nothing’s remained the same price like games have over the past three decades.

    Also, please never use Gamestop as an example of where you can shop to get a “good deal.” If you’d ever hung around this place I like to call “The Internet,” you would know that is flatly untrue.

    • 63 points
      Jake Shapiro says...

      Of course GameStop rips you off when you’re trying to sell your games back. But if you’re not looking at a recent release, their used games are much more affordable to buy.
      And you’re right. The Internet is a way better place to buy used games than GameStop is. But if it’s just an average non-gaming parent who wants to get something for their kid, they’re much more likely to walk into a GameStop than to compare prices on eBay.

      • 1294 points
        Robert Marrujo says...

        Very true, that’s how I look at it, too. As a whole, not all gamers are about keeping up with what’s new, they just want something to play. I don’t know how many parents and people come in to GS when I worked there who were just grateful to scroung in the discount bins for something new to play, even if it was old.

  • 0 points

    I’m honestly surprised that there hasn’t been a “game exchange” style web-site that has popped up yet.

    Even if it were just like a Craigslist of sorts – where you could meet up and trade games with people (or send ’em in the mail if they’ve got a good report on the site – like E-bay) – and that way, it would be like actual trading. You’ve got an AAA experience – much more likely you’ll get one in return.

    It would be an interesting way of sharing the culture for those who just can’t squeeze the extra out of their bills – but still have a couple hours to kill at night.

    I love scrounging around in a discount bin as much as the next guy – but it becomes a completely different game when you’re scrounging that thing for an actual game to play (because you’re out of new experiences).

    I would say that one out of every twenty (and that is being GENEROUS) of my discount bin scrounges pulled up a title that was actually solid. Too often you’ll find heaps of the games nobody wanted to touch on the main shelves for a good while, stacked in the bin, before being either returned to the back, the distributor, or tossed.

    Put it this way – if your video-gaming weekend rode on the best offering in that bin – how many weekends would you continue to go back to that bin to find something to put MONEY down on?

    Honestly – it’s way more expensive paying for a bad game – or a game that will only last a couple of hours. The great games may cost $60, but I’m still playing Chrono Trigger these days, so the dollar to enjoyment ratio is somewhere in the neighbourhood of unbelievable enjoyment to a nickel.

    If you’re on the lower side of the income sale – it would still make a ton more sense to me to pay $15 plus shipping online for a great game – then to go down to Gamestop and see where that same $15 will land you.

    • 1294 points
      Robert Marrujo says...

      Hmmm, idk about the discount bin scrounging. There are a heck of a lot of good games sitting in them if you know what to look for. Monster Tale is a great game on DS that I’ll see languishing at ten bucks here and there. The Assassins Creed games are all floating around for south of twenty, usually. Boom Blox is like five dollars at my local GS! Different tastes I suppose.

    • 285 points
      Kyle England says...

      Check out or Goozex. Both big game trading communities online. I haven’t personally used Goozex, but 99gamers is great because you use virtual currency that can only be used on other games and not money, so there’s not much risk in getting ripped off.

      Also, I think it’s better off getting games after a year or so when the price has dropped down. I really only get Nintendo games at launch these days. Everything else can be had at half price or lower after about a year.

  • 0 points

    Sorry, I should have stated that I was holding true to your original mission statement, summarized as:

    “Game consoles can’t stop evolving simply to placate consumers who aren’t able to keep up.”

    If buying Monster Tale, as grand as it may be, for a system that came out a decade ago is “keeping up,” I beg to differ.

    I haven’t seen many Assassin Creed games in “discount” bins. I’ve seen them in used piles, going well upwards of $20 for anything, again, on a current gen system.

    And as you said, mobile and freemium are there to offer lesser experiences to people who are willing to still pay a lesser price.

    But for getting the really good stuff – you have to pay. And you have to pay well. You, of all people should know, especially with NINTENDO, that games which were AAA (Mario Kart, Smash Brothers, any Mario game) stays near full-price, if not full-price, for almost the entire length of the system’s life.

    Nintendo, albeit having backwards compatibility and the ability to trade games, offers no real discount to the player. Their eco-system is typically very tight. You have all the tremendous first party titles, selling for near full-price, and then you have the languishing third party support, which offers partial versions of the releases which look better on the other platforms.

    Sad to say it – but this article reflects a life scenario that would be much more persistent and troubling for the Nintendo fans than those of any other console. Fitting then that this article is printed on Nintendojo.

    • 1294 points
      Robert Marrujo says...

      If you were sticking to my “original mission statement” we’d only be talking about the points mentioned in the article: you’re the one who brought up AAA games to Jake and I responded to it, not the other way around. Still totally disagree about the discount bin. Anyone who’s taken a trip to Best Buy or Toys R Us can find AAA games on the cheap, even if they’re not super new. Assassins Creed games arent all going for more than $20 and that’s not just counting used games. As far as paying well for the good and new stuff, we’ll, I defer back to the article; its hard whether you’re a Nintendo gamer or not.

  • 1294 points
    Robert Marrujo says...

    Just to be clear Kart, I meant you brought up all the stuff about going to GS and only being able to buy bad or old games for those on a low income. Sorry, I’m half awake typing this.

  • 0 points

    No worries Robert.

    Honestly, I think every town, every city, and every street in this world carries the price they think they can get away with.

    My eyes nearly bulged out of their head when I saw you mention “Toys ‘R’ Us” up there. The Toys ‘R’ Us where I live usually marked their games upwards of 25% of regular sticker price. I think the best way I can put it is this: I once walked into Toys ‘R’ Us, went over to their gaming shelf, saw them have Carmageddon 64 on sale for $79. I kid you not. This was at the end of the N64’s lifespan, when they were already talking about the Cube. And literally, two spots over on the shelf, was Superman 64 going for $60.

    There is an “optimal” price for every game. Anyone who spends a LITTLE bit of time looking for what they want to shop for online, can usually find a price (relatively easy) that undercuts what a store-front shop would ask for by up to 75%. And that’s not just new games either. I go to a game store – and they want upwards of $60 for old (but classic) SNES games. I go home, get on Ebay, and find someone selling the same game for $15. It’s insane.

    And not just video-games either – anything, really.

    If you’re cash strapped – use the Internet. It’s like the premise of this entire article, when you take it at face value, expects the very people who suffer this problem not to even be able to read the article themselves.

    Going down to your local video game boutique and putting hard cash down on anything can’t even be attributed to laziness (however extreme), seeing that sitting at a computer is technically easier than going to the store. If anything, it can only be attributed to stupidity.

    Or! Or! Maybe you like the video game shop and the people who work inside of it. Maybe you don’t mind spending an extra couple of dollars to help your local business that you want to see succeed. But, no matter which way you cut it, there is an easier, more effective, and cheaper method for cash-strapped gamers to get their buttons playing some amazing titles.

    Again – I’m not saying that the discount bin is the scourge – but it’s definitely not the answer.

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