Cardboard Children: The Dragon & George

By Robert Florence on December 17th, 2011 at 5:49 pm.


Hello youse.

I promised you a wonderful Christmas board game video. However, editing problems have meant that this will arrive too late. The only thing that a writer can do in a situation like this is pour a drink and write. And today I would like to write about games, and how much we should pay for them.

“What is it worth?” That’s the question, isn’t it?

I was in one of my local board game shops the other day, an amazing little place called The Dragon & George. It’s a cosy little place, run by a wonderfully eccentric guy who likes to tell you about his opinions on Scottish history as you look at games about aliens shooting insects. This time, he took me aside to show me some little catalogue he’d been sent. It was one of those things you get from a distributor, highlighting the upcoming releases, from which the fellow would choose stock for his shop.

“Look at this game,” he said.

It was some kind of wargame. Not my thing, really. It claimed to let you deal with the military, diplomatic and economic decisions of your chosen nation. It looked like a deep thing, a serious thing. I can’t remember the name of the thing. It isn’t important.

He had his thumb over the price. I understood this spot of fun. It’s expensive, obviously. And shockingly so. That’s the punchline, right?

“How much?” he asked.

I shot for a hundred pounds. Board games are heading that way in the UK. With the exchange rate as it is, and the rising costs of the cardboard and plastic, we’re seeing stuff that would be forty pounds only two years ago retailing at 60 pounds or more. And this was a wargame. Traditionally, wargames are more expensive.

He moved his thumb. The game was 175 pounds.

He laughed, and I laughed. And the two other guys in the shop laughed. We all laughed, and then I stopped laughing and wondered what I was laughing at. The game was 175 pounds. Yes. And why shouldn’t it be?

What exactly are games worth? What exactly are we paying for? One thing is for sure – gamers aren’t happy about what they’re having to pay. If you visit BoardGameGeek, you’ll see people complaining about it every day. One of the very best games this year, King of Tokyo, was criticised for costing 30 quid despite only containing a deck of cards, a bit of cardboard and some dice. The argument you’ll often hear is that one game costs fifty quid and has loads of toys and goodies inside, and another costs 60 and is printed on flimsy card, and that is bullshit and an indignity and something approaching theft.

Knowing what I know now, having played it all year, I would have happily paid 175 pounds for King of Tokyo. Something is very wrong with how we’re looking at things.

I’m a professional comedy writer, and have been since I was 19 years old. At the moment I have a sketch show on the BBC here in the UK, and I’ve been writing the third series all year. For a sketch show, you need to burn through thousands of ideas to find hundreds of good ones, from which you hope to find maybe a hundred great sketches, from which only half will actually be great because you’re a fucking idiot. I need ideas. If I have no ideas, I can’t write sketches. I need ideas for characters, and ideas for funny situations and ideas for jokes. Ideas are important to me.

What is also important to me is the process of taking an idea and refining it into something that actually works. I understand the work involved in doing that, because it’s what I do every day. I take something that tickles me and break it down into something that I can tidy up in a way that pleases me. Then I structure it properly and test it again. Then I show it to someone – another test. When they don’t laugh, I break it apart again. I remove elements and replace them with things I think I like better. Then I show it to someone else – another test. A smile this time. Good! But still, not quite there.

Break it down, fix it up, test it. Break it down, fix it up, test it. This process is nothing magical or alchemical. It is purely work, and time, and experience. And hopefully, by the end, you have something a lot of people like. It’s stressful a lot of the time, and you often want to grab everything and throw it into the bin, screaming “I HAVE WASTED AN ENTIRE MONTH!” But the end result is very rewarding. People laugh, people say nice things, and you get to do more.

I also have a DVD in the shops. Let’s talk about this a little bit.

My DVD, to me, represents a year of my working life. But more than that, it represents years of working towards getting that sketch show I always dreamed of having. I treasure the DVD, despite not treasuring everything that’s on it. But here’s the thing – one night, someone told me on Twitter that they had paid 22 pounds for the DVD, and it enraged me. 22 pounds? For something you can watch for free on youTube? For something that is just a disc of plastic inside a plastic box? It made ME feel like a thief, and I only get a few pence from each sale. I told people who couldn’t afford the DVD to pirate it, or just watch it online. I got subtly warned off from talking like that from other parties involved in the DVD. As for the person who paid the 22 quid? They told me they liked the show, and so didn’t mind paying it.

I’d already been paid, though. That was why I could rail against the high price of that DVD. I’d been commissioned, and paid. I’d been rewarded already. I didn’t need more money. But people out there liked the ideas, and the work that had gone into making the ideas fly, and were happy to pay good money for it. I shouldn’t have been surprised.

I value ideas. I need to, because they’re my living. But I value other people’s ideas too. I value Kate Bush’s beautiful mind, and the way she can turn every word into a snowflake on her latest album. I bought her CD and then flung it onto a shelf. It will probably never spin, because of things like Spotify. But I had to buy it. I had to make that transaction. I value Sammo Hung’s direction and fight choreography. I could download Eastern Condors, but I buy it instead, second hand. He’ll never see that money. But the transaction feels right. I want to own that idea-thing of his, and I want to give away some of the earnings from my idea-stuff in return.

I put this to you. When board gamers moan about the prices of board games, they are moaning about the price of that cardboard and paper and plastic. They are complaining about the cost of the cardboard children, without considering the work and the love that went into conceiving them. The very people who claim to love brilliant games are complaining about paying for the brilliance.

Why shouldn’t that game we all laughed at be 175 pounds? If that game is a beautiful design, playtested and playtested and broken down and built back up, over months and months and years and years, why shouldn’t it be 175 pounds? Why should it ONLY be 175 pounds?

Why should Cosmic Encounter, one of the greatest games ever designed, only cost 50 pounds? It is worth, believe me, so much more. I don’t think that the designers of Cosmic Encounter are rich men, but let me tell you this – they SHOULD be.

King of Tokyo, by the masterful Richard Garfield, is only a deck of cards and some dice and a little bit of cardboard. But that’s not all that’s in the box. Under the board, you can find Garfield’s years of experience. Under the dice tray you can find his total understanding of what makes a game fun. Inside a plastic baggie you can find the time he spent apart from his family while making the game tick. Total all of that up and tell me how much it costs. Tell me if it’s under or over 30 quid. Tell me if it’s cheaper or more expensive than your last family trip to the cinema.

It’s time we started to discuss exactly what things are worth to us, and what exactly we’re paying for. If beautiful ideas aren’t worth more than the cardboard they’re printed on, we’re all in trouble.

(In case anyone thinks this column is some veiled BUY MY DVD thing – all of Burnistoun is on YouTube. Just don’t tell anyone I told you.)

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77 Comments »

  1. diamondmx says:

    Yeah, the guy who runs the Dragon & George is pretty awesome.

  2. Jorum says:

    Nice points. People tot up the (imagined) cost of that bit of plastic and that piece of cardboard and forgot to include the designer who’s spent a year of his life to get it right.
    On one hand it’s not nice spending all that money. On the other hand more money in the industry should (hopefully) make sure it keeps talent working, attracts new talent and maybe get some retailers to start stocking the damn things.

    Also I am now regretting not buying King of Toyko in Waterstones yesterday.
    Ended up going for Discworld instead (which is a fine game I am told).
    Will have to nag the missus for a last minute chrissy present… ,,

  3. SquidInABox says:

    Humans are terrible at estimating the value of intangible things like time and experience. People say digital games should cost less than those on DVD because the cost of distribution is low. Games do not cost what they do because of the cost of distribution of the end product. They cost what they do because of the time spent making the original that is then copied countless times.

    • Shuck says:

      In some sense they’re right though, digital should be cheaper because the cost of boxed copies includes a significant chunk for the distributor and retailer that doesn’t exist for downloads. On the other hand, the developer’s cut of the sale of a boxed copy is usually abysmal, so the DVD really should be getting sold for much more. So the pricing is wrong, but it’s the pricing of the physical copy that’s off, and in the consumer’s favor. Actually, one could argue that pricing is off on both since the (vast) majority of video games in stores won’t actually make a profit – video game production costs are thousands of times more than they were in 1985, but games are the same price (less when adjusted for inflation), and the audience hasn’t grown enough to make up the difference.

    • DodgyG33za says:

      Economists will tell you that the price of something is not related to the cost of production but the ability to pay. The market tends to drive that price down to somewhere in the vicinity of production cost + margin, but if you have a unique product you can pretty much charge what you like.

      I believe the iPhone costs about 10 bucks to make, so not so different really.

    • ColonelClaw says:

      @DodgyG33za The iPhone costs about $8 to make, but the parts cost Apple about $188. http://venturebeat.com/2011/10/20/iphone-4s-teardown-reveals-196-cost-and-key-suppliers/
      Don’t forget that smartphones these days are basically full-on computers.

      Getting back to the main issue I would happily pay £100 for Skyrim, given how much fun and how many hours it’s given me, but I had no way of knowing that until I bought it. For the same money I recently bought Rage, a game which in hindsight I would be unhappy to pay more than £5 for. So I guess £35-£40 is a happy medium to pay given that you don’t really know what you are going to get (reviews are always highly personal).

  4. Jesse L says:

    God damn it, you are so right. Thanks.

  5. The Army of None says:

    A clever, beautiful man is you, Robert Florence.

  6. BathroomCitizen says:

    This article is worth 10 pounds – it’s made of good stuff!

  7. Shuck says:

    I imagine the market has shrunk for board games while computer games have become mainstream, further raising board game prices. I wonder what impact hobbyist creators have had in suppressing prices for RPGs and board games over the years; certainly there have been a lot of people doing the work primarily for fun rather than for pecuniary remuneration, and as a result games not being priced so their creators could make a living off of the work. There’s a similar dynamic happening with (indie) video games.

    • gamesbook says:

      @Shuck. Actually the market for boardgames (and card games) is alive and well and blooming. Perhaps those who only play video games have missed this, but a massive wave of fresh new ideas, spreading from Germany in the early nineties, has resulted in a (virtual) explosion of new games and game companies. Check out boardgamegeek.com to see what the global boardgaming community is up to…

  8. Blackcompany says:

    Fantastic article. I was disappointed at first that it lacked news of a new game. Almost quit reading.
    .
    But then I didn’t. As an aspiring writer working on two tales of my own I have something of an appreciation of ideas. I also have a healthy appreciation of how frustrating ideas are when they don’t pan out. Happened to me a couple of times in life.
    .
    So I kept reading, wondering the whole time where this was going.
    .
    And it went to a beautiful conclusion. As someone else said we are indeed terrible calculators of intangible costs. We look at a video game and see the disc if we see even that. More often we see a name in a Steam library or a desktop shortcut. See the game on our screens, which we can never take with us when we go places. And we mock the cost of the game. Just as we do with our cardboard children, we mock the price of the pleasure we derive from our digital progeny as well.
    .
    But we don’t count that cost. The legion of developers. Their years of school and education and sweating of mods that were really job auditions. The writers, who slaved away at ideas with publishers breathing down their necks. The QA testers who every year slave away six-day weeks trying to find every bug in increasingly complex games. The developers who code it all and make it all possible, and the years of school spent learning to do it all.
    .
    But most of all we don’t see the time they spend away from their families, working. Yes, working. I think that many of us just see a game and so we assume that creating a game is all one big play session. I have written for and built mods. Small scale, granted, and others have done so much more than I. But even I can tell you – it ain’t all fun and games. Far from it.
    .
    The hard work of creating a game is just that: Hard work. Its dedication and lost sleep and lonely hours and maybe an argument or two with family and loved ones over the lost time and the late hours and the work schedule. Its frustration and aggravation and a temper fit or three. Its hard work, and that’s worth paying for.

    • DodgyG33za says:

      In addition to the usual arguments over a game, imagine how frustrating it would be play testing it with the creator who might change the rules half way through.

    • Wulf says:

      This is fascinating but it overlooks an element which creates a flaw in the flow of logic, I think. A flaw that ultimately makes the whole thing fall apart, and it’s the very same flaw that’s plagued my mind since the dawn of time.

      We’re not paying these people.

      Really, just let that percolate for a bit, just for a few moments. We are not paying these people. Who are we paying, and whom of those benefit most from the money? It depends. In a corporate environment the people in management and ownership profit far, far more than the people who’re actually making the games (and being paid far less for it than they should).

      When I think of how much money I want to give for something, I always factor this in, but I don’t think many people do. So many make arguments like this, but so few ask where the money is actually going.

      If I could slip a small amount of money into the hands of each of those who were responsible for making a game I enjoyed, then I’d be more willing to part with a more sizable sum of money. However, all too often I’ve heard of hellish working conditions, overworked and underpaid staff, staff who’re working enforced overtime just to get a game out on time. That bothers me.

      Whenever I see a corporate environment filled with soulless cubicles and faceless management, it drives down my opinion of what the product is worth, because I tend to see it as the management having less respect for the people they’ve employed. Thus treating them more as human resources than human beings. That bothers me. There are people in management positions who’ll make kneejerk reactions to this I’m sure, but it won’t stop bothering me. In fact, it’ll only just confirm what I feel about it.

      When I see a working environment like ArenaNet, it’s something of a revelation. At least these people seem to care a little for those they have working for them. The working environment seems decent and sociable, and everything I’ve heard coming out of there is amazing. People say things like “It’s more like an art college than a development house.” about ArenaNet, and that makes me smile.

      This is why, I suppose, I have big developers that I just favour. And I can intrinsically tell the one sort from the other, it’s something I’ve become keenly attuned to.

      At the end of the day, due to the people I’m actually paying…

      Well, let’s just say that I’d be more inclined to pay more money for To the Moon than I would for Skyrim. If I could pay the people who made Skyrim a reality, then that estimation might go up, but I’m not paying them. And they were likely way underpaid in the first place. (And like I said, I have heard tales of horrible working conditions and people being underpaid. I won’t name my sources since I’m not a journalist and I don’t have to do that! But as far as I’ve experienced, this is a thing.)

    • Dervish says:

      Hear, hear. I, for one, refuse to decide how much money a product is worth to me before I am given a tour of the developer’s premises and can count the cubicles.

  9. Bobby Oxygen says:

    It’s a good point, Rab. But I’m sure the game designer would also want to have his game reach as many gamers as possible, and high prices will not encourage that. Most of us wouldn’t buy a game on impulse due to the price, which is why recommendations from people such as yourself are important. Buying a game is an investment in future good times, but if the prices were a lot lower, then people might be more inclined to buy an unknown game right then and there if it looks interesting enough.

    • DodgyG33za says:

      Which is why said purveyor of unknown game costing 175 quid would do well to send Rab a review copy, even though he doesn’t like war games.

    • mbourgon says:

      Interesting anecdote. I play Arkham Horror, and love it – have several expansions, etc. they came out with “Elder Sign”, and I immediately dismissed it, since it’s AH “lite” with some weird dice, plays in an hour, etc. oh, and definitely passing for $30.

      Then it showed up in the app store for $8, it’s awesome, I don’t have to deal with fiddly rules (the game takes care of that) and I can play a turn when I have a couple minutes. Probably played 50 games by this point. Still wouldn’t buy the physical name, but glad I have bought it for my iDevices.

    • studenteternal says:

      That was my first reaction too. I am perfectly happy to pay the US equivalent to 175 pounds… For a really great game. I just spent 100 US for Fortune and Glory and feel completely OK about that. But not all games are made by great designers, and even games that may be brilliant in their own way can be a bad fit for me and the people I play with (Twilight Emperium) so every new purchase is a not insignificant financial risk for me.

  10. Elmar Bijlsma says:

    This article would’ve been better with less talk about a certain DVD and more talk about the actual game that costs 175 pounds. One might have mentioned the name of it, at least.

    • bill says:

      I think you missed the point of the article.

    • Elmar Bijlsma says:

      Hardly. I get the point just fine.
      The point is so bleeding obvious that in fact I am somewhat baffled by the enthusiastic reaction to it.

      It would just have been nice if Mr Florence had returned to what set him off on this particular musing on the insubstantial nature of value: the 175 pound game. If he was unwilling to address what worth it had according to him then at least he could have mentioned the name of the game to satisfy the natural curiosity aroused by such a price tag.
      I find it rather strange that he did not.

    • bill says:

      It’s not really relevant to the article though. I can’t say it ever occurred to me to ask what the game was.

      And if he had mentioned what the game was, then the comments would probably have ended up as an argument about whether that one specific game was worth 175 quid – which would have distracted from the point of the article.

      Also, you seem a little grumpy today. I recommend a biscuit. It could be worse, you could be working a 12 hour shift on a sunday with a cold.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      To be a little more curt, that you find it strange he didn’t mention the game strongly implies that you don’t understand the point as well as you think you do.

      KG

    • Elmar Bijlsma says:

      Or possibly I did get the point, and it was so obvious a point to me that I did not attach great value to its seemingly superfluous inclusion in a gaming blog. What is next, RPS in “water is wet” shocker? The article damn near assumes not a single neuron ever fired amongst its readers while we were making monetary transactions.
      Tell me stuff that I don’t know. 175 quid wargames seemed an obvious place to start, since it kept being brought up.

    • sightseemc says:

      At the point of being late…no, I think you still don’t get it.

      The name of the game = digression into the game’s worth, not the worth of games (or any other creative endeavor). This is the way of the internet. Mr, Florence is smart enough to know this and to avoid it.

      The mention of a certain DVD is to point out that Mr. Florence is personally familiar with both the demand side and supply side of an economic equation. Most consumers are familiar with only the former, so he is establishing some authority by mentioning it. He’s also showing the legitimacy of consumers’ feelings by stating that he has the same thoughts regarding price vs. value with even his own works.

      The reason why people praise the article is because most people do not consider true “value” when thinking about “price.” Maybe you do, in which case kudos to you. Apparently many people do not share your thought process, which means the article was valid to them. Continually harking on not knowing the name of the expensive game means you wanted an article about the GAME and not the concept. It’s a legitimate desire, but it was not the point of the article and would have derailed the whole process. Which means you do not get it.

    • Elmar Bijlsma says:

      So, on reading that I did not value this article very highly and would have valued something a bit different, the retort is that I “do not get it”.
      Har har har, the article you are sticking up for is on the subjective nature of value. Yet there you lot are, not disagreeing with but downright invalidating a different valuation then yours. Now who is not getting it?

  11. NotQuiteAllHere says:

    Now I’m regretting that on Thursday, I avoided going into the D&G just because I knew I’d get drawn into some kind of tangential conversation, and instead shuffled a few yards down the road to Static. I bet the old lad would have had the Deathwatch book I was thinking about getting as well. Ah well, at least I didn’t get murdered by my family who waited for me patiently in the car.

    On the concept of value – as a Glaswegian by birth, I like to think I have a fairly strong concept of what I’m willing to pay for something. That is, as little as possible, or do without (My family appreciates this most around Xmas time. Although perhaps ‘appreciate’ isn’t quite the right word). I’m educated enough to know there is a floor beyond which prices cannot go. For this reason, I very rarely buy video games at release – they have to be exceptional for me to do so. Unfortunately, board games and book-based RPGs don’t follow the same rules and tend to get more expensive as print runs peter out, which is why I don’t own many of them (despite Rab’s evangelism).

    On digital vs physical – yes, there is no fancy packaging or plastic medium if you go the download route, but there is still expense involved in hosting the data you want to download, and maintaining the communications network upon which we have come to rely. In the end, it all comes down to economics – someone, somewhere, eventually has to pay.

    • vagabond says:

      I don’t know whether computer games use keystone pricing or not, but it’s probably not far off, and if so assuming only 1 distributor before the retail level, the publisher is getting 25% of the price of a physical copy of a game. Any more distribution and then it gets way worse than that.
      If running the servers and data network to host and deliver the digital version of a game is costing 75% of the price of a game, then something is terribly, terribly wrong.
      I agree, it isn’t “pay all those employees in the retail and distrubution chain, and pay for a plastic disc and a box” vs “costs nothing”, but if digital distribution costs more per game than printing the box and pressing the disc I’d be surprised which is why people are legitimately upset when a digital copy costs the same as a physical copy from a store.

  12. Xercies says:

    I will say one thing, it is very hard putting down £40-£60 or even £175 on a board game because well its a social game and if you don’t have any body to play it with or have people who played it and don’t want to touch it again you’ve kind of wasted that money. I would love to buy all these board games that you and Quinns tell me about but i can’t justify it because no one would play it with me and I would feel I wasted my money. But that’s a little bit of a different issue then the one your talking about.

    • Skabooga says:

      I guess this enforced multiplayer principle cuts both ways, though. In the end, a single copy of a board game is providing four or more people with entertainment, it is just sort of built in, while a single copy of a PC game will only provide for one. So a copy of a board game has to be higher, because a smaller proportion of your market will buy it; the rest will enjoy it through their friends. Of course, if you are unsure of being able to get a steady group together to play the game, the higher price is going to be an even bigger deterrent.

    • bill says:

      Maybe board games should have an EULA that states we are buying a license for 4-6 players. ;-)

  13. nli10 says:

    I always price the worth of games in a similar way to a magic trick. I may only be buying a pack of gimmicked cards in both transactions but I’m paying for the secret knowledge. Granted there will still be overpriced games there too where the design isn’t worth it, but if you spend longer in the shops ou can figure this out by talking to people and expand your circle of players. After all, a gamer without opponents is just someone who collects cards.

  14. McDan says:

    ” I want to own that idea-thing of his, and I want to give away some of the earnings from my idea-stuff in return.”

    Exactly this, this is the precise reason I still buy hard copies of dvds, games, cds etc. Because they’re worth it and that’s how I want to show my appreciation. Yeah it costs more but I feel better for it. Also have to say superbly written yet again mr Florence, and I never knew you had a sketch show and dvd! Must see.

  15. apa says:

    Pricing is black magic to me but I guess they teach stuff like that in marketing classes. And there’s wikipedia too.

  16. jhng says:

    Great article and touching on some really deep issues relating to how we value the creative process.

    My field is trade mark law (which is kind of parallel to creative intellectual property like IP in art/games/books/inventions etc) and I some times get drawn into discussions over how much particular trade marks ‘should’ be worth.

    However, despite the whole load of weird and wonderful magicks for valuing brands, ultimately it just comes down to what the buyer is willing to pay and what the seller is willing to accept — as with anything else. In fact, I think it is quite dangerous to try to look for absolute measures of value since it often creates an illusory notion that one or other side risks getting ‘ripped off’ or exploited when in truth unless there are issues of monopoly or information asymmetries (which is usually the case these days) the price you pay defines the value rather than reflecting it.

    In the case of board games, if enough players are willing to pay £175 to play the game, and the designer and producers are willing to sell it for that, then that is by definition a fair and correct price.

    • Dervish says:

      The all-too-common “should” language used in regard to pricing is particularly grating to me when talking about games, which are obviously luxury goods. I understand why people want to moralize about what food or housing “should” cost, but video games? Or board games? Please.

  17. malkav11 says:

    Sure, that game might very well be worth 175 pounds. Or more. Hell, games that are selling for 20 might be worth 175, really. But I will tell you that a game that is priced like that, at least as a single, lump sum price? I will not buy it. In a given paycheck, I bring in ~900 US dollars. Even if the British pound weren’t worth roughly double what the dollar is (putting that game at over a third of my paycheck), that would be a huge bite out of my two week’s income. And that money has to pay for transportation, food, lodging, utilities, etc. The chances that I’m going to spend that much all at once on any strictly single functional entertainment item is pretty much nil. I might save to spend that much (begrudgingly) on something that will facilitate a great deal of other enjoyment, like a computer part, or an entire gaming console, or a TV or something, but not a single game. It’s not about the value of the components, or the value of the ideas, or any of that. It’s simply a matter of what’s affordable.

    But let’s wander down into the realm of more average prices. An average videogame now costs between $50 and $60 at launch. Fair enough. But they aren’t just competing with other videogames at that price. They’re competing with games running anywhere from $1 to $45. When I can buy ten other games for the price I’d pay for that one game at launch (and Steam makes that easy), that $50 game needs to have a hell of a lot to bring to the table to justify my paying that. Same goes, to a lesser extent, for boardgames.

    But then, I personally almost never buy boardgames at all, since I simply don’t have the space in my home to have a proper sized gathering and the games that aren’t purchased by the host of the gaming sessions I do attend are usually the sort of thing that people there aren’t very likely to actually play (and naturally, these are my favorites). Chaos in the Old World went over like a lead balloon. Civilization the Boardgame never comes out of the closet. Even Agricola (which I’d expected to be right up their alley, while having enough moving parts to keep my interest) rarely draws enough takers.

  18. FunkyBadger3 says:

    Arsepiece.

  19. Woden says:

    Robert, I take your point, and a well-made point it is, too. But I have to be That Guy and take the discussion to the economic sphere.

    I agree with you on the artistic side of the matter–the price of a creative work, or a product or service based on skill, experience, and knowledge, should justly be calibrated to reflect the value of those intangibles that went into its making. I’m reminded of a story that I read in the context of a lesson on charging what you’re worth, which I’ll put at the end of the comment. However, with that said, charging 175 pounds for that wargame is arguably foolish, because of the lost revenue from people who will refuse to pay that much. Are there grognards who will buy that game despite its cost? Absolutely. And no doubt the company is making a tidy profit on the material cost of each copy sold. But how much more would they have made overall had more people bought the game at a lower price? Part of the point of making a work of art is for people to see it and enjoy it. If your 175 pound game sells a thousand copies, that’s nice. What if the same game, priced at 100 pounds, had sold three thousand copies? What if you’d sold five thousand copies at 70 pounds each? Charging what a thing is actually worth rarely makes sense in terms of either financial gain or in getting the product of your brainmeats into the hands of people who will enjoy it.

    That is my main beef with the rise of digital distribution for video games. Now that the cost of shelf space and box printing and all the other costs of putting physical boxes on physical shelves are as dead as the dodo, the $60 price point is an anachronism. Every time I read another publisher’s hired hair breathlessly exclaiming that piracy is the number one threat to the world the video game industry and has cost untold millions of dollars in just the last ten minutes, I wonder why they don’t simply reduce prices. Certain games have a built-in audience and will sell no matter what their price is. Skyrim, anything by Blizzard, the latest seasonal update to the manshoot of the moment, those are going to sell their millions of copies no matter what, so charging to the hilt makes perfect business sense. But most games are not those games, and charging a lower price could increase sales more than enough to make up for the reduced revenue per copy, because some people who would have pirated the game at $60 will buy it at $30, and more would buy it at $20, and more would buy it at $10.

    Obviously there would be some point where diminishing returns would defeat the purpose of the price reduction, but finding that point is a thing that economists could do, and then pricing could be adjusted appropriately to maximize revenue. Reducing piracy by lowering the barriers to entry seems like such an obvious part of the solution to me.

    ** The story concerns a homeowner whose house had a squeaky wooden floor, and the homeowner had employed the services of carpenters, floorers, and handymen for years trying to get rid of the squeak, without success. Finally he hears of a master carpenter who has been in business for decades and hires the man to come out and have a look. The carpenter walks a circuit of the squeaky floor, produces a hammer and nail, and expertly drives the nail into the floor. The squeak disappears immediately. The homeowner is overjoyed until the bill for $300 arrives. He calls the carpenter angrily to protest the cost, given how little time and effort it took the carpenter to fix the problem. The carpenter calmly informs him that the bill was $2 for hammering the nail, and $298 for knowing where to hammer it.

    • Shuck says:

      The problem is that the markets you’re talking about are limited. Make a wargame aimed at “grognards” and drop the price in half, and you aren’t going to get twice as many sales. You’re right in that the $60 video game is an anachronism, but not for the reason you give. It’s because the prices for video games haven’t changed in the last 25 years. Even though dev costs during that time have grown many thousands of times higher, the retail price hasn’t even kept up with inflation (which would have nearly doubled the price). Guess what, the audience hasn’t increased that much, which means that it’s harder for developers to survive in the industry (roughly 80% of games that make it to retail shops never see any profits according to some estimates). As far as price-dropping goes – game publishers already have done so. Not only does that $50 or $60 price already represent a price reduction, but they may start out at $50, but for the most part they quickly drop in price over time, picking up the customers who weren’t initially willing to spend $50. (It’s the book-publishing model – start off with the expensive hardback and eventually release the cheap trade paperback. The difference in printing costs between the different types of books is fairly negligible.) This is what digital distribution has made possible.

    • Mister Yuck says:

      Shuck, your point about niche markets is valid for war games but it really isn’t for video games in general. The audience has exploded in the last twenty years as hardware costs have dropped to the floor. As has been pointed out about a million times in the last few years, everyone is a gamer nowadays, even your mother.

      Retail games and “AAA” games are in the worst position to take advantage of the growing audience because they rely on specialty hardware, rather than the computer that so many people already have, but I would still argue that the $60 price point is too high. It’s just hurting the industry. My evidence is pretty anecdotal: basically Steam is printing money for everyone on it. Almost every major publisher puts its games on steep discount for the various sales, and they wouldn’t be doing it if they couldn’t afford it, if it wasn’t making them boats of money.

      Meanwhile, the indie market has basically been built on the realization that there was room in the market for quality product at $20 and under.

    • Xercies says:

      You also got the problem that you don’t know the right price until you’ve tried it. Like Louis CK, I know I love him so I wouldn’t hesitate in paying $5 man i wouldn’t hesitate to pay $10. That wargame I have no idea about so I wouldn’t pay it. Blackwell trilogy I had to pay £3 for it because i didn’t know if I would like it. But now I know I love the idea I would be willing to pay more for that kind of stuff so next time Wadget might get full price.

      Thats what people really don’t get, sometimes it may not be profitable for the short term to take down the price but you never know if your expanding your audience and next time you have a full price product it will be even more profitable.

      EDIT! Wrong place

    • InternetBatman says:

      @shucks
      Companies are still making a few bucks more from $60 digital distribution than they were from inflation adjusted prices, have a longer tail, and far more customers. In addition, I couldn’t find out how expensive cartridges / floppy disks were compared to cds so I couldn’t factor that in, but I’m relatively sure they were more. So they’re making more money per game and having an easier time finding niche markets.

      And after all of that Valve has done a bunch of pricing experiments and found that they still make more money selling cheaper and with better sales.

      Not that this necessarily relates to the cost of cardboard games, where the market size is limited and the physical overheads are probably much higher.

    • Shuck says:

      @Mister Yuck: If we’re talking about $60 games, then yeah, we’re absolutely still talking about a niche market (though the niche is certainly larger than it used to be). The explosion of gaming is in the (very) casual (i.e. cheap to develop and sell) market which is completely different, really. (And no, my mother is not a game-player, like many other people, so even this market still doesn’t have the appeal of films or television.)

      @InternetBatman: Yes, the amount a developer makes off of a download is more than they ever got off a disk/cartridge. But my point is that dev costs are so radically larger that the difference is actually negligible. In the ’80s there were hit games developed by one person in a week or two. Seriously. Today a hit $60 game would be made by 50-500 people over at least two years (plus the cost of voice actors, dev software, etc.) and substantial marketing costs that didn’t used to exist. The market for those games has grown in that time, but not by that much. A single hit game in the ’80s could set a developer up for life, financially speaking. In the ’90s a hit game would be enough to fund the development of several more games. Now there are hit games that barely pay back development costs. And this is with the “long tail” of sales that didn’t used to exist (it wasn’t so long ago that all the sales a game was likely to have were in the first couple weeks after release). The change in profits has caused a whole shift in how games get made, and has made cheap, casual Facebook games look incredibly attractive in comparison.

      The thing about Steam is that it still starts off selling AAA games at $60 and drops from there (like the book publishing model), so they’re still getting the sales at the higher price-points. However, I’m skeptical about how long they can keep these special sales up. I look to my own buying patterns here: thanks to Steam sales, I spent more money buying lots of cheap games than I would have on $60 games, but I now have enough games to last me for 10 years (I don’t think I’m exaggerating, either). So I spent a fair amount of money for about two years, and then stopped buying games (and when I resume, I certainly won’t be buying $60 games again). Which is to say: Steam hasn’t run this experiment long enough to see what the long-term effects will be. I suspect the end result will be part of the larger trend – games will initially be sold for very little/free but rely on DLC/microtransactions to make their money. This in turn will force certain design decisions, resulting in only certain types of games being made.

    • DeathByIrony says:

      @Shuck I think the facts don’t bear out your argument about audiences/returns relative to certain eras. A single good game in the 80′s or 90s setting up a developer for life? The catastrophic failure of Looking Glass Studios after ONE failure despite SEVERAL hits?
      As for development costs equal to audiences, check the 1990s. Most best sellers had sales(And therefore audiences) of perhaps 5-10 million. A true AAA title if ever there was one, Final Fantasy 7 was developed to the tune of about 50 million and has so far sold about 10 million copies, including both it’s original release and subsequent download only sales on PSN. It’s the best selling Final Fantasy title of all time.
      Meanwhile, Modern Warfare 2 cost a similar amount to develop (40-50 million. (Which may come out to less than FF7 in comparison if you adjust for inflation) and has already sold 22 million.
      In it’s first month, FF7 sold nearly 500,000 copies.
      In it’s first week, Modern sold 5 million copies.

      I mean, lets be honest now. If big development houses were getting less return for their money, they wouldn’t be choosing “LETS SPEND MORE MONEY THIS TIME” as a business strategy for very long. The money would run out eventually.

      But I can’t discount your last point, most chillingly. I will admit- I am less inclined to buy new games so long as cheap oldies/indies are available. Skyrim and Deus Ex Human Revolution are the sole exceptions.
      But if steam IS leading us into a good ol’ fashioned tragedy of the commons, I’m riding it until the pasture is bare.

    • Shuck says:

      @ DeathByIrony: Yeah, there were developers in the ’80s who got pretty rich off of single games. By the mid ’90s, not so much, but a hit game could still fund several more. Looking Glass shut down in 2000 (by which point a single flop could seriously hurt a company), but it wasn’t a single bad game that did it in.
      Super Mario Bros. on the NES sold 40 million+ copies in the ’80s. Looking at particular outliers doesn’t really tell you much about how the market is as a whole, and both FFVII and MW2 are outliers. FFVII had unusually high dev costs for its time; if the $50M figure is accurate (and it’s much higher than any other number I’ve seen for that game), I’m guessing it includes marketing costs. (Later FF games cost in the low ~$30M range.) Marketing costs have exploded even more than dev costs, so Modern Warfare 2 reportedly cost over $200 million, all told, thanks the marketing blitz that gave it high sales. $100+ million games (dev+marketing) are not uncommon these days.
      The AAA portion of the game industry is very blockbuster-oriented. The biggest, flashiest games tend to get the sales, which has driven the “spend more money” approach especially now that for the first time in game development history, being the fifth best selling game might not be enough to pay back dev costs – in other words the dev costs are now at the point where the market pretty much no longer supports this way of thinking. How AAA games get made is changing right now, and a big part of it is developers leaving that portion of the market entirely, moving to casual, Facebook and mobile games, where a small outlay can result in a good profit, just like the old days.

    • zapatapon says:

      This, and the various indie bundles that are pouring on us these days, and generate apparently exceptional amount of revenue.

      The reason it is hard to put a price on an idea (or of whatever has large development cost and almost zero production cost) is that the “right” price essentially depends on the number of people who like it and buy it. This is why cardboard games are a more expensive hobby than video games (think of the upcoming christmas steam sale). It is just less mainstream.

      This is why I am starting to find it ‘normal’ or ‘right’ to pay peanuts for an indie bundle, and 25$ for more niche indie games such as Cryptic comet games. Curiously enough, some games suddenly switch from one category to the other (in particular as soon as they get a steam deal: see Blackwell games, Spiderweb software games).

      I realize Rob’s point is that the right price should be directly related to how much you personally get from what you buy. Well, actually I find it hard to put a precise price on one hour of me being well entertained. I prefer to think that the right price for an idea I like is whatever it takes in order to get more ideas in the future from where it came from.

    • Xercies says:

      You also got the problem that you don’t know the right price until you’ve tried it. Like Louis CK, I know I love him so I wouldn’t hesitate in paying $5 man i wouldn’t hesitate to pay $10. That wargame I have no idea about so I wouldn’t pay it. Blackwell trilogy I had to pay £3 for it because i didn’t know if I would like it. But now I know I love the idea I would be willing to pay more for that kind of stuff so next time Wadget might get full price.

      Thats what people really don’t get, sometimes it may not be profitable for the short term to take down the price but you never know if your expanding your audience and next time you have a full price product it will be even more profitable.

    • bill says:

      @zapatapon :

      Re: Blackwell chronicles: That’s the risk of the steam/bundle pricing though. Once you change into the lower priced category it’s a lot harder to go back into the higher priced one.

      Now that may not matter at all if the lower priced model is more effective. But it’s still a scary risk to take.

  20. DigitalSignalX says:

    This reminds me of the indie bundle, where you choose your own price to purchase it at. The site offers an analysis of number of sales and highest / lowest / average price and breaks it down into operating system along with all sorts of nice charts and graphs. I’ve always been curious how much revenue would have been lost or gained if they had left all of that information out – as they provide someone with an immediate value suggestion directly above the location where you would be entering your own.

    Thus without even letting them consider it for themselves, a consumers eyes have to gaze over the site and “5.33″ or other such numbers are shouted out and it can not help but influence someone’s decision. At that point, most are deciding to go higher or lower then those numbers, rather then create one on their own based on other criteria.

    Without those numbers, would more people (then do at present grrr) simply put the lowest possible figure in because of lack of a guide and the inability to judge value, or instinctively go higher? I don’t know. My exposure to these titles by RPS makes my own initial assessment much higher, but I can already tell that it’s being anchored some by the price data the site provides.

  21. Dawngreeter says:

    “If beautiful ideas aren’t worth more than the cardboard they’re printed on, we’re all in trouble.”

    I don’t think anyone disputes the worth of ideas. I do, however, dispute money as the measuring unit of an idea’s worth.

    • Craig Stern says:

      But money is the measure of food’s worth, and rent, and medical care. If you value the ideas that men put forward, then you should consider compensating those men in a way that allows them to survive while coming up with more such ideas.

    • Dawngreeter says:

      But this does not concern the price of products in a monetary economy.

      Which is why we need a new system to replace monetary economy. And I’m all for that. And in the meantime, I can also get behind giving however much I can spare to people who make things I like (books, game, music, anything). But I can’t get behind 200 dollars as a listed price for a deck of 50 cards.

    • bill says:

      @Craig Stern: very Randian ;-)
      But re: health care, money really isn’t. At least in the UK/Europe.

  22. Tony M says:

    Board games have to compete with other entertainment products though. You can get a whole lot of video game/novel/dvd/cd for 175 pounds

  23. TheBeefiest says:

    How could you understand the fact that the original authors get nothing from a second hand sale, yet still buy something second hand and feel good about it?

    That seems like the entire opposite of what you are talking about in things having “inherent” worth more than their physical price.

    I have purchased many indie games that I liked the idea of but never really played the game or got sick of it in minutes… But I would never ever ever go buy a used copy and put that on my shelf.

    • bill says:

      But paying gives the idea value, even if the original author doesn’t benefit.

    • malkav11 says:

      Yup. Plus, it’s not like purchasing new automatically compensates the actual creator for their time, effort and ideas. Some contracts include royalties, sure. But even there, specifics can vary dramatically, and it’s not at all uncommon for contracts to involve fixed payments with no access to actual sales revenue. Why buy, then, if the creators aren’t going to get any money from it? Well, the more it sells, the more it’s clear that investing in these creators in future will pay off for the company that does so. And maybe next time they’ll even be able to get royalties.

  24. JuJuCam says:

    As someone who has tried and generally failed to scratch out some sort of living from ideas in the theatrical realm, I can tell you that if I had managed to get my name to a place where there was some demand for demonstrations of my work, I would set the price as high as it goes while still being able to book gigs. If people are willing to pay, I’m more than willing to charge. Because at the very independent level that I operate, there are hundreds of man-hours that go completely unpaid in script development and rehearsals and production of props and costumes and if someone said to me “I don’t care about that, I’m paying to borrow a seat for 2 hours, and it’s not even comfortable!” then I’d simply give up on them.

  25. Lemming says:

    isn’t the trouble really that hardly any of that money – however the amount we pay – goes to the people that had those great ideas and put the effort into refining them?

    And what about the fact that they’d shift more copies if it was more sensibly-priced? You may think a game is worth the £170 you paid, but by setting that price point they are already cutting out a huge amount of customers that simply won’t spend that kind of money on something unless they’ve been heavily anticipating it /really into boardgames.

    What about regular shoppers? Impulse buyers?

    Surely this is like saying Citizen Kane should cost over a hundred quid on DVD vs Shrek 4 which should cost forty pence?

    There needs to be a sensible price if want to sell it to as many people as possible.

  26. Vexing Vision says:

    I really really wish Rab would have named the game.

    It does sound like the most interesting thing in that article, even though I absolutely agree with him on “transactions making ownership real”.

  27. Trinnet says:

    Why shouldn’t the game be £175? Because that’s a stupid price for a game, nobody’ll buy it.

    The reward for making something truly great isn’t that you get to gouge your fans for as much as you think you can get away with, it’s that your game will sell more because it’s a better game.

    I paid £50 for cosmic encounter, it’s a great game which I’d recommend to anyone, however I would never have paid £175 for it, nor should I have to. The reward the creators of cosmic encounter get for making a great game is that their game from 1977 is still on sale today while it’s lesser contemporaries are forgotten.

    If you find yourself thinking that maybe games should be a couple of hundred quid, remember the boy you were when you fell in love with board games, the boy who bought a second hand copy of space hulk because full priced GW stuff was beyond his means. Should that boy only be able to afford shit games? Because that’s what would happen if you started inflating the price of games based on how good they were.

  28. Zeno says:

    >Why should Cosmic Encounter, one of the greatest games ever designed

    Stopped reading there.

  29. Gothnak says:

    I have had a collection of about 50 boardgames for the last 5 years or so, however, the number of games that were the same ones as the ones i started with back then is probably less than ten. I trade all my boardgames with other people on boardgamegeek, usually within a ‘Maths Trade’. This means i generally get 3-4 new games every 2 months traded for 3-4 games i’ve decided i don’t really enjoy. Because of this, i haven’t bought a single new game in those 5 years, does that make me a bad man? I also buy games at charity shops or from a local auction that deals in lost post, so they are the only ‘new’ games i sometimes get my hands on.

  30. Synesthesia says:

    Well, some of the times, 175 pounds is too much for us too see and enjoy those ideas, so they stay in the shelf. I’d gladly pay anything, for everything i like, as long as i have the money. Not always the case though.

    At the end of the day, romanticised or not, ideas are just ideas, and carboard is just carboard. Beautifully printed, with awesome artwork, but something hard to pay 200 pounds for.

    Importing mansions of madness to argentina will cost me over 110 dollars, and it’ll hurt. It will be totally worth it, though. Lets hope i come up with the cash in time!

    Oh, and i think i’ll just leave this here…

    i’d pay 175 pounds for the stocky one! The dance… oh my god, the dance.

  31. Nate says:

    I totally get where you’re coming from, but I wanted to bring up a piece of this that often gets overlooked.

    Setting a price at a certain level has an effect of blocking access. This isn’t just interesting because of the business arguments that are frequently mentioned (drop the price and sell more)– it’s interesting because of how it actually limits access.

    I’m not sure how things work in the UK, but in the US, there are plenty of people being paid $6 an hour and paying $500 a month rent and another $300 a month for food. Not because these people are stupid or lazy– our economy relies heavily on underpaid laborers. Underpaid laborers, after all, are the people making our cardboard chits. It’s clear that pricing limits access to certain people based on how much money they have.

    Probably the best example of people that are going to be excluded through high prices are teenagers. “Best example” because it’s the example we can all empathize with; we’ve all been there at some point in our lives. Pricing at a certain level guarantees that no poor people or teenagers will ever play your game. That’s not okay with everyone.

    It’s a shame that there’s no good way to set up a less exclusionary system of pricing, whereby people might pay some fraction of their wage, trading time for time rather than time for money. However, in the absence of tiered payment systems, sharing and piracy permit at least a two-tiered pay-what-you-can system: pay full price, or don’t pay at all.

    This is maybe not so important to a lot of people because we’re talking about games, about luxury goods (although I argue that poor people and teenagers have no less right to recreation than anybody else)– but it applies to more capital goods as well. There are a lot of people making money with full-priced versions of photoshop that wouldn’t be where they are now if they hadn’t pirated a copy as teenagers.

  32. sgtrock says:

    There are other models, though, than just giving a big pile of cash to a soulless corporation that will maybe trickle down a little to the creative people. Take a look at the Humble Indie Bundles as one example. Battlefront.Com is another one. Or just browse through some of the nearly endless list of cheap indie games that show up on Steam. Lots of places to spend your money where more will be going to the developers than simply plunking down a wad of cash on the latest overhyped release from the likes of EA.

  33. sightseemc says:

    On the 175 pound game.

    Only a couple of people seem to understand that 175 pounds wasn’t a “random gouging” price set too high for consumers.I will hazard a guess that the game wasn’t the first put out by its publisher. Rather, it’s a product of understanding their PARTICULAR consumers, and wargamers/miniature gamers are a well-studied group.

    Heavy-strategy games are not just full of complex pieces, boards, and miniatures. They are full of multi-layered rules, intricate stories, and countless hours of balancing to make their intricate structures hold up. Thus they appeal to a limited audience and are never going to be bought in large quantities by other consumers. It’s not just that most people can’t/won’t sacrifice a large table over hours/days/weeks for a game, it’s that they don’t find value in spending brainpower and time considering a charge by their Hussars or Space Marines. So you could price them at any price and, while you might sell a few more copies once, you will definitely see lower revenue and no repeat sales.

    I believe that wargamers tend to have a good understanding of value/price precisely because they understand they’re a specialized niche. They know that the value for them is often based on the intricacy of the gameplay and massive scope, and that they are a small market; thus, they are willing to pay a premium price for well-designed games. In exchange, they expect higher quality physical presentations (or in the case of video games, even more intricate/deeper strategy options). So their price is based on both the package and the ideas.

    No price cut will ever make Europa Universalis or Advanced Squad Leader a mainstream success. So the price is set on demand of their market and cost to produce. 175 pounds is probably from the publisher’s previous games being well-liked and its customers asking for an “epic” game. They may have over-reached, they may have over-estimated, but they are willing to bet that their customers didn’t have the same immediate reaction that so many here did.