Do you pay too much for video games? I know I do. At over $50 a pop, major releases of Call of Duty, Mass Effect, Elder Scrolls, Assassin’s Creed, and more are surely raking in generous amounts of cash for the developers, publishers, and resellers. Through direct download sites such as Steam, PlayStation Network, Xbox Live, and others, purchasing has never been easier. So why are games given such a high price tag? Are we really paying too much?

Few industries have survived the recent economic climate quite as well as the video game industry. Video games have routinely outsold equally hyped blockbuster movies, leading up to the gaming industry actually surpassing the movie industry by over half a billion pounds in the UK alone. This margin has only increased over the past few years, leading major development houses to bring in more big name actors to their titles, further establishing the industry in the realm of entertainment.

On the other side, developing a unique game takes a lot more work than it seems. In a sense, development of modern games has evolved into a sort of mixed media between major motion picture and interactive playing experience. Audiences expect to be drawn in to a believable story these days, meaning that characters have to be increasingly interactive and realistic. L.A. Noire, a popular title over the past year, featured a breakthrough facial animation technology that makes rendering of movie-quality facial animation available within the boundaries of a real-time video gaming experience. The game itself feels like one very long movie, and you can manipulate it as you control your character.

So the question remains: is this really worth the high cost of admission?

Indie Games

One of the great things about direct download platforms such as Steam is the ability for players to purchase games from a variety of different sources. Independently produced games tend to come with a much lower price than releases from larger studios. This is due in part to the smaller staff and comparable production values.

A game like Trine or Terraria can be purchased for a fifth of the cost of a new release of Call of Duty. The reason for this is, simply put, it costs less to make these games. There are no (or few) big-name actors to pay, the play environment is easier to create, and the mechanics are typically pretty simple. While the games themselves may be beautiful works of art in their own right, the costs of development are usually less.

On the other side, indie developers are working to make a name for themselves in the market. That means releasing at a lower price in hopes of making the development costs back in volume. Platforms like Steam have made it possible for indie developers to get their creations in front of more people than ever before. The price of releasing titles in physical form are eliminated.

If anything, the success of indie titles such as Minecraft and Terraria have provided a proof of concept that games don’t have to be visually stunning or full of over-the-top cut scenes to turn a profit.

Mobile

The same can be said for indie developers releasing to the mobile market. iPhone, Android, and other mobile platforms are generally fairly easy to script for, and an integrated marketplace makes it even easier to distribute your game to a larger pool of potential buyers. Offering additional content through in-game purchases only adds to the revenue already made possible by the initial sale. This market is especially kind to casual games intended to be played while riding the bus, waiting for a meeting, or simply winding down at the end of a long day.

It would only make sense that these titles be made available for less. The mobile market is driven by impulse buys. $0.99 is a much easier impulse buy for nine out of 10 people to make than $5, or even $15. Appealing to the larger market means making up production costs in volume. With mobile apps, supply is practically unlimited, so the traditional notion of supply and demand doesn’t really weigh heavily here.

This begs the question: Why are Nintendo DS and PSP games still largely more expensive? Surely it doesn’t cost an additional $20 to package a game and make it available? These platforms are becoming increasingly more download-friendly, though the price of these titles remains somewhat high.

Inflation

When considering whether or not you’re paying too much for any one thing, you might want to take a look at how that price has adjusted in relation to everything else. Inflation gradually increases the price of everyday goods such as gasoline, packs of gum, and even software. During the ’90s, you could pay less than $100 for what today is a $200-400 program.

Video games used to go for anywhere from $5 to $30. Today, the priciest games sell for roughly $60 upon release.

Compared to Other Entertainment

If you take a trip to the local movie theater, you could expect to pay around $15 for a ticket, and about the same for snacks. Buying a DVD or Blu-ray of a new movie may run you roughly $15-25 depending on the title. Your expected time of enjoyment out of that movie may range anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours. A video game, by comparison, will usually last you around 10-20 hours before the initial campaign is completed. Add to that multiplayer options, and you may have a product that will provide continuous enjoyment for weeks.

Cable television, another still-popular entertainment industry, has skyrocketed in costs over the past couple decades. Homes with standard cable packages can expect to receive bills anywhere between $60 to over $100 depending on channel options. Package deals including Internet and phone service may lower that individual cost, but the overall bill total will only increase from there. Even if you get the most basic cable service offered by some providers, you’re still paying $30 or more per month.

If there is one entertainment medium that would appear to be a bargain when compared to video games, it’s services such as Netflix and Hulu. These streaming services offer a variety of movies and television shows for a single subscription fee that can run below $10 monthly. The downside of these services is that, though they may include some ad-supported new television content, the movie content is typically aging and/or independent films.

How to Get a Good Deal

With every high price, there are deals to be found. Steam typically has extremely reasonable sales running for a variety of old and new titles. In fact, the hottest selling game right now (Skyrim) was made available for 40% off during the Christmas holiday. Currently, it sits at 30% off. Modern Warfare 3 is another recent popular release that has received some discounts.

Retail stores will frequently feature a pile of random games at a reduced price during stock rotation. While these titles may not be the latest and greatest, you can usually find a gem or two in the bin at a remarkable bargain. Some retail stores will even feature a reduced price on the day a new game is released in order to encourage shoppers to pick it up at their store. Pre-order sales are another great chance to get a game on the cheap, with discounts of anywhere from 10% to 20% on many new titles.

Physical copies of games can generally be resold secondhand. Used game stores are a great place to find secondhand console games at a reasonable price. You can even, in some situations, trade in your own games and exchange them for others.

The video game rental industry is still booming. Redbox, many movie rental stores, and even online rentals through OnLive and other services allow you to rent a game, play it, and bring it back for a fraction of what it would cost to own the copy outright.

My general rule of thumb when buying video games is to never pay full price. Steam will usually discount a game a month after its release, making it a better deal with only a minor amount of waiting involved. MMORPGs are especially bad about being overpriced when you take the $15 monthly subscription fee into account, so it’s usually best (in my opinion) to hold off until the box price drops. This usually happens about a month or two after the initial launch.

Package deals are also worth looking into. Some retailers will sell a companion book or special edition controller with purchase. The asking price may be a little higher than retail for the game, but the value add might just make it a deal.

Final Thoughts

Are games overpriced? I’d say some of them absolutely are. The sweet spot for me is around $40 for a major title and $10-20 for an indie game. Anything less than that is a deal in my opinion. When you take into account all the work and effort put in to these titles by developers, actors, 3D graphics designers, and cinematographers in some cases, you might find the experience well worth the price of admission.