Games aren't too expensive, you're just broke


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[Cynicism and gaming go together like peanut butter bees and chocolate fire ants. Between crazy season passes and outrageous insurance policies for your virtual bases, it’s easy to get angry. But WryGuy wants to temper everyone’s expectations for more straightforward practices, like how inflation has made gaming cheaper but everything else more expensive. ~Strider]

I’m writing to you all today because I’ve sensed a certain bitterness in the gaming community for the past few years, and it’s made this hobby significantly less enjoyable for me. The common thread I see tying everything together is money, so I’d like to point some things out: Most Kickstarter budgets are too small, people on Patreon are not particularly rich, gaming sites like Destructoid are not raking in tons of cash, video games are not too expensive, and if you tend to spend your time gossiping and taking a dump on people on the internet, it’s time for a reality check.

It honestly seems to me that there’s an unpleasant minority of gamers that obsess over how much money other people make, but also more commonly complain that everything gaming related is too expensive. At the worst of times some even feel empowered to be assholes over a few dollars. Let’s go ahead and set the tone with the most general question possible: “Are video games too expensive? Is a $60 game worth my ire?” Not really. The current cost of video games isn’t worth getting worked up about one way or the other. They arguably cost exactly as much as they should cost and they’re a hell of a lot cheaper than they used to be.

What I would like to establish for you right now is that AAA gaming for the most part gives us a good deal even though it doesn’t feel that way. That will change if we continue to be lax toward this industry, however. At the same time, I would like to assert that we are far too harsh to independents funded by sources such as Patreon and Kickstarter. These are people who could use the money much more than we give them credit for, and we are super hard on them. Insanely hard.

Let’s go back in time a bit. In 1996, you could get a copy of Super Mario 64 for 60 bucks, which accounting for inflation is almost exactly $90 today. A lot of people say it’s obvious that video games need to be more expensive and we are bleeding developers dry as a result. How could they possibly survive when they’re charging essentially 50% less for their product than they did 20 years ago?

What people fail to realize is that game development does not exist inside a vacuum. The tools available today make game development drastically more efficient compared to 20 years ago. Engines like Unity are so robust it’s ridiculous. Ri-dic-u-lous. It’s the difference between using a typewriter in the 1970s compared to using Microsoft Word today. It has been the trend for over 100 years that workers become increasingly productive as time goes on, and in a logical world that translates to cheaper prices.

What games should cost today when productivity is factored in doesn’t entirely matter. We’re getting a good deal. This means when someone complains they’ve been ripped off because their game isn’t a masterpiece, it’s unfounded. It also means that when someone insists the industry needs to resort to shady business practices there’s no inherent justification for that assertion either. Micro-transactions are a slippery slope and we’d do well not to herald them as necessities. Corporations are doing just fine, so don’t let anyone make excuses if they stray from the right path.

You know why we talk so much about how much games cost, though? Because while video games are technically cheaper than they used to be, a lot of the essentials in life are the exact opposite. Let’s use college tuition as an example. In 1967, it would have cost you $1,950 to get into Yale University. If tuition were actually keeping in check with inflation, Yale tuition would cost $13,892 today. It actually costs $38,300; nearly three times as much. It’s the same with other essentials in life such as cars and housing. One of the only things to go down in price is food, largely thanks to our reliance on making everything out of corn. That is not a good thing unless you like obesity and diabetes.

The middle class is shrinking both in the US and globally. Games were technically more expensive during the golden years of the ’80s and ’90s, but just about everything else was cheaper. It was the exact opposite situation compared to today. Collectively we had more expendable income back then. Blowing 600 bucks on a cutting-edge Nintendo Entertainment System with the world’s most advanced robot that just… stacked… things… wasn’t a big deal. There wasn’t a debt collector coming to smash in your parents’ faces over a late car payment.

So we’ve established that games are one of the only things that aren’t trying to bankrupt us. It’s one of the only industries where our dollars are still worth something. At the same time, we’ve also learned that a company will readily charge you too much for a product if it knows it can get away with it. As mentioned, it sometimes seems to me that the angriest of us know the world is screwing them over but don’t know where to direct the anger. The thing that I find distressing about this is gamers very rarely channel their frustrations productively to fight back against anti-consumer interests. No, oddly we’ve got this weird tendency to punch down.

Some of you fledgling Destructoid members may not remember Jim Sterling. He used to be a staff member and people haaated him. He makes a habit of angrily criticizing game developers for anti-consumer business practices. You’d think more people would listen to him, but he’s often insulted instead. It’s disconcerting that any of us would ever feel the need to defend a multi-billion dollar industry from its own misconduct, let alone from some relatively unknown games blogger.

Gaming companies have nigh unlimited resources to handle their own problems. Even though weshouldall understand the games industry is an unstoppable titan, the way some people react to criticism you’d think Sterling was Eren Fucking Yeager, swinging his fat ass around like Spider-Man, getting ready to chop a giant’s neck out. Strangely the angriest among us will find ways to avoid the (obvious) scope of the scenario. We make unpopular voices like Sterling much bigger than they actually are, seemingly by finding something they have that we do not. Let’s not forget most of us are broke so that’s not hard to find.

It’s a very popular trend these days to take a dump on people who receive Patreon money. Heaven forbid someone disagrees with you and they find out you have a Patreon account. It’s often assumed if you make more than $3,000 dollars a month from Patreon, you’re practically rich and you deserve a little abuse. Jim makes $11,000 a month (after Patreon fees its probably more like $9,000), so basically that means he’s Scrooge McDuck. Fuck that guy, amirite?

I honestly feel people these day don’t (commonly) understand what constitutes having a lot of money. Most of my friends are in this boat. They’ve had very little access to opportunity in their lives, as is increasingly normal. Thus they feel like anyone who makes more than $12 an hour is doing pretty well for themselves. I have been trying very hard to make them realize how wrong that actually is because you can’t get a person mad and motivated if they don’t genuinely understand quite how fucked they are.

Let’s get back to scope and address Sterling’s Peacock Patreon effect. I’d like to assert to you that by real-world standards, Jim Sterling makes good but unremarkable money. Again, let’s remember that the cost of living has ballooned. Our money doesn’t go as far as it used to. I’m lower middle class. Between my two jobs, I make about $6,500 a month and I can comfortably afford my rent, my car, help out my family, and put money into my savings. Now if I lived somewhere else, I’d be better off, but there aren’t many jobs elsewhere so that hardly matters. Sterling with his $9,000 a month is plain old middle class. He can comfortably mortgage a home, support a family, and properly save for retirement. Even then there’s still a few places where he couldn’t support that lifestyle, and in either event we both make a shitload less than your average dentist.

I’m specifically focusing on Jim Sterling as an example because I know he chose a difficult path. Before Patreon hit, he almost certainly was paid dirt for his work just like most of us (trust me, games journalists are not paid well). He dealt with that for nearly a decade and now he’s finally successful. I think he deserves it. It’s unfortunate that some people view him as a rich asshole to be ridiculed, particularly because gaming does not need anyone to save it from some regular-ass dude. Fuck, gaming doesn’t even need to be saved from the major threats like Anita Sarkeesian, who likewise are not nearly as big as they’re made out to be.

There’s no point in turning against each other when the world is already pretty stacked against us. Rather than tear each other down, I think we should do what we can to prop each other up. I actually believe every Destructoid staff member should have a Patreon and prominently display it on any original content they create for the site. Unfortunately, Americans really have a thing against anyone who receives funding through a donation-based structure. It is often readily interpreted as begging. In my eyes, it’s just another self-destructive mindset that encourages us to fail alone rather than succeed together. If a writer here had fans that wanted to reward them for their effort, I’d prefer the taboos be broken with a fucking sledgehammer.

We’ve now almost come full circle to the subject of Kickstarter. This is actually what inspired me to write the article. While the internet may like to piss on Patreon users, lately it fucking loves to take a hot steaming dump on Kickstarter projects. The amount of cynicism you see revolving around any given project is ridiculously high. If a game doesn’t live up to your wildest imaginations, the developer ripped you off. If the game receives additional funding from outside sources, the developers are con artists because they just wanted your money to be greedy. If a game is delayed, the creators have run off with the money, even if it’s Keiji Inafune’s project. Holy fucking shit, guys. You think Keiji Inafune is going to put his reputation on the line by running off to Hawaii with your 4 million dollars?

It just blows my mind. We almost never see this kind of indignation focused toward the AAA developers that repeatedly take advantage of their consumers (hell, the gaming community couldn’t successfully execute a boycott if its life depended on it), and yet hell hath no fury like a Kickstarter contributor who didn’t get his game on time. Again with the notion of punching down. Kickstarter budgets are unrealistically low and yet we’re demanding an unfeasible level of quality and punctuality. Shenmue III broke records by obtaining a budget of 6 million dollars. Even a relatively unpolished game like Psychonauts can end up costing double that to develop.

Mind you, we’re talking about the people at the top of the Kickstarter spectrum right now. These games are technically indie-tier but they often have an industry veteran at the helm. At least Yu Suzuki can seek additional investment with his connections and experience. What about the genuine indie developers at the lower end? These are the guys who don’t even realize how much their games are going to cost. They’re relative rookies. We don’t need to get into the numbers this time. It’s just a pipe dream to expect a team of 5 adults with financial obligations to finish a game with a budget of $180,000. That’s not a ton of money even if that was a one-year budget and there’s no way a team of relative rookies is going to finish some ambitious game within a year. No, those fuckers are probably going to starve before they’re ever done.

The expectations for Kickstarter projects need to be tempered. We are not giving these people as much money as we think they are, and while it’s possible some of these developers are trying to take us for a ride, most of them probably aren’t. We’re largely dealing with regular people. If you really want the game to happen, don’t shit on the developer when they tell you they’re behind schedule. Either support them or don’t. Just don’t abuse them. Don’t shame them, either, if they ask for additional funding. Donating to Kickstarter is not a guarantee. It’s an investment. Avoid giving anything if you can’t afford it and if possible, try to be more aware of what it actually costs to get these things done. Give them a second chance if the numbers were too low (they probably were.)

Unfortunately, the world is a harsh place right now. For about 40 years now, funnily enough since about as long as video games have existed, things have slowly been turning topsy turvy. Wages have gone completely flat. Costs have gone sky high. Most of us are fucking broke. Ironically despite how much we might complain about the cost of them, video games are one of the few things we have left in this world that aren’t (completely) trying to fuck us over.

So let’s not ruin it for each other. Be firmer against AAA. Be kinder toward independents. Most importantly, let’s not be dicks and look out for each other.

And yes, if you couldn’t tell I’m a Bernie Sanders supporter.