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Why are wargames so expensive?

March 8, 2009

Recently Gabe Newell of Valve/Steam spoke about the price of games and how the sales of games on Steam had changed as prices were cut for promotions. Gabe mentions a few examples, but a striking one was how a promotional price cut of 50% for Left 4 Dead, from $50 to $25 resulted in a 3,000% increase in sales! Should there be lessons in Gabe’s stats for wargame developers and publishers?The article is worth a read for more stats and more interesting speculation, for example, a 75% price drop for a third-party game resulted in a 1,470% increase in sales. So are games to expensive, or is Steam simply an excellent content delivery platform? Perhaps the real reason for the massive lift in sales is that customers see a $25us game as good value so long as most games are released at $50us. If all games were $25us would sales growth be so strong?

Of course, it’s very hard to answer these questions, but one observation I can make, as a customer, is that wargamers have often paid a lot more for their hobby than “regular” gamers. It has not been uncommon for a wargame to release at $60us and to stick at that price for a long time. Why? The standard developer argument has been that wargamers are niche games and as they don’t have the mass appeal they necessarily cost more. I believe this thinking is flawed, and as you’ll see, it seems some publishers agree, but not all, lets take a look at some particularly egregious examples of silly pricing:

All of those examples are from Matrix Games, and I really wish I knew why a six year old game that has had one sequel already, and another on the way this year still costs $50! And those prices are for the download only versions!

Thankfully, not all strategy game publishers are quite so stubborn. Strategy gamers have managed to beenefit from Steam, Battlefront, Paradox and Stardock’s Impulse, which all offer deep discounts on their older games. It’s neat to see that if I wanted to encourage a friend to pick up three or four of their classic strategy games they could do so easily for less than $50.

Is Matrix the only “bad” example or are there more high-price holdouts out there? It’s clear that the growth of download game delivery services has benefited wargamers in recent years, but I think we could do with more companies prepared to offer sensible price changes over time. What do you think?

Categories: News
  1. August 17, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    Matrix seems to have staked out this position – along with Shrapnel Games, I guess – as Game Publisher To The Grognards. This means they’re basically selling into a boutique sector of the market, and I think they’re probably right in believing that that market is fairly inelastic. Lowering the price to $20 isn’t going to convince someone who doesn’t play wargames to suddenly buy Battlefront (shudder).

    It’s a shame from my perspective because I don’t think there’s anything intrinsic about these games that makes them not appeal to the public as a whole. It’s largely about user interface, which is something that can be solved by planning and technical implementation.

    My vague rule of thumb is “If the game by default, when resolving combat, actually has little pictures of dice on the screen, it’s directed at the grognards and the UI is probably hopeless.” Those games are going to not change in price, because purchases aren’t driven by lower prices, but by the appearance in the market of new addicts.

    • August 18, 2009 at 11:45 am

      Well, your rule of thumb is largely true – except when I’m playing BloodBowl! Which is awesome 🙂

      But I do get your point that the games often seem to deliberately make themselves hard to understand and hard to follow. That being said, I think there are developers and games who can bring the grogs and the gamers together in a perfect consensual union of geeky pleasure (legality varying by state).

      Recently I would point to the success of Uniwar on the iPhone and the enjoyment people are getting out of BloodBowl to demonstrate that there’s great strategy and even PC-boardgaming out there, just you won’t see much of it from the “big” name strategy publishing houses who prefer to charge a lot and sniff their noses at non-grog gamers. Their loss.

  2. maas
    September 19, 2009 at 2:17 am

    I am a new wargamer who would purchase downloadable Matrix Games if they were in the $20 price range (as opposed to $50-60). If Matrix Games were on Steam and showed up as a weekend deal for 75% off they would see the same 1500% increases as mentioned above. I think they are limiting their market by keeping their prices artificially high.

    • September 21, 2009 at 9:44 am

      You and me both, but it seems the publishers don’t agree. I really think there’s a general gamer audience for the star wargames that these publishers own. Bundle them up and ship them while there’s still an OS that will run them. Steam would be perfect.

  3. Drood
    October 13, 2009 at 10:32 pm

    I just paid over $100 on Matrix’s site for the hard copy of the new War in the Pacific! I have never EVER paid that much for a game, not by a long shot.

    The high prices stop me buying lots of games. I’ve wanted to get Operational Art of War III since release, but I am NOT paying that for it. I don’t care if it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.

    Pricing like this is why software piracy is so rife. It’s a gouge, pure and simple. Someone I know has friends at Matrix and during their big Christmas sale last year (or was it the year before? I lost track of time) they saw HUGE sales. I know I bought multiple titles. (Advanced Tactics for starters.)

    Actually I bought that and Puresim Baseball (and one other. I forget the name) in 2007, and last Christmas I picked up Harpoon.

    It’s very disappointing as a fan to essentially be punished for having niche tastes.

    Ah well.

    Love the site BTW. Been browsing around it. Full of win!

  4. October 13, 2009 at 10:34 pm

    Also, hope you update soon:) (He said as a shameless excuse to post his website that he’d forgotten to mention last time:))

  1. May 27, 2010 at 7:33 am
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