Every so often I have the opportunity to play games and chat with people who are into games developed by small teams. These games are typically indie (PC), mobile, Xbox Live Indie Games, Xbox Live Arcade and PSN and usually range from $1 to $15 (what used to be $20 on PC). There is also of course the standard $60 retail title which serves as the ceiling of the gaming industry in a lot of people’s eyes.
When we play these big budget $60 retail games, we often hold the highest expectations towards game play, visuals, sound design, story, online features and extra content. I often wonder if it would be fair to be as critical of a $5 game for being a little repetitive or having a less than stellar visuals.
What would you expect from a $15 game that you wouldn’t expect from a $5 game? What about a $5 compared to a $1 game? Could one slide with shoddy voice acting while the other gets away with programmer art stick figures and a title screen designed in MS Paint, or should these games be held to the same standard of polish as the biggest full priced retail title on store shelves?
Some people feel that a game is a game and that fun can be equal across all price ranges therefore, reviewers should treat all games equally when issuing their final marks. Others seem to think that since budgets and man power play such crucial roles in game development, that retail and budget games should be weighed on different scales. I tend to lean towards the latter, but then again there is the argument that fun is universal and a game made by a small team shouldn’t be seen as less than a big budget game. By holding them to different standards, maybe we are saying that they are a lesser product than their full priced counterparts.
A $15 Xbox Live Arcade release being held to the same standards and scrutiny as a big budget $60 retail title would be similar to comparing Hard Corps Uprising (XBLA) to Killzone 3 (PS3). Both are equally fun in very different ways, but one is clearly technically superior and the price reflects that. But then what about other $60 games that aren’t equal to Killzone 3 on a technical level? Should they be priced less at launch?
As small developers like the creators of Sequence and Avatar Legends (both on XBLIG), try to offer more complexity and polish, while still being forced to race to the bottom with pricing, they raise our expectations of what a “budget game” is and help to establish the price, that current level of quality is worth. Is this good or bad for the small games industry? I’ve been told that it’s widely believed to be a huge mistake to release a game on Xbox Live’s indie game channel for anything more than $3, while $1 is the smartest price on the service among developers. If this is true, will the monetary returns be worth devoting the time and man power, creating a $3 game with constantly rising expectations to have a certain level of polish, extra features, online play, voice acting and a story that can hold it’s own against the triple-A guys?
Is it necessary for budget games to keep getting bigger, cleaner, prettier, clearer and overall more polished like triple-A titles tend to? Are small titles expected to grow in size over the next few years, with tons of content, while prices are expected to remain the same or can there be a plateau that will allow them to stay “balanced” in their current state of polish well into the next generation of gaming?