Should Digital Games Be Cheaper?

The idea of a digital object still doesn’t sit right with some people. Paying money for something that doesn’t really exist seems counter-intuitive and a waste, but the expansive popularity of Steam shows that people are quick to get over that when they can buy games for cheaper than their physical counterparts. That being said, this isn’t always the case. When a new game comes out it is often put up on Steam, the Playstation Network and Xbox Live for full retail price.

This is when things get interesting. Should a game cost as much brand new if it’s a digital copy? The distribution costs are much smaller – no manuals, cover art or cases need to be manufactured and they don’t need to ship them out to game stores around the globe. Digitally, their expenses are the same if they sell 10 copies or 10,000. It would follow then that digital games should be much cheaper then physical copies of the same game. Similarly, they should also be released at the same time, if not earlier, than their physical counterparts. For the sake of fairness I can appreciate both titles being launched simultaneously, but why some digital releases on consoles take so long to hit the online store is beyond me. Are they trying to drive purchases to the physical copies? These are the ones with higher overhead that involve the packaging and distribution costs. Distributors should be in love with the idea of digital downloads.

An issue that often comes up when discussing the price of digital games, and indeed the price of games in general, is the price gouging going on in Australia.  Australians can expect to pay up to 200% more for games that require no special servers or additional localisation. Games released their retail between $70 and $90, which is up to 82 US dollars. The reason for this is largely sketchy, but relates to the fact that Australian retailers are forced to buy products produces in Australia as opposed to importing them for cheaper from Asia. This, naturally, jacks up the prices. What is extremely baffling is the Steam prices for Australian games, as illustrated by this chart:


As you can see, Australian gamers can expect to pay an average of 232% more for the exact same download. Why is this? It’s so that retailers in the country have a chance at actually selling games. If the prices were the same across Steam, all Australian gamers would flock to it’s comparatively irresponsibly cheap prices. Instead, game publishers have forced the Australians into a position where it is cheaper to not buy digital games and to have physical games from the rest of the world shipped to their country. This is insane and an inexcusable cash grab.

It’s clear that we haven’t quite got a grasp on how to handle digital purchases. Take Magic: The Gathering Online for example. This digital client offers players the ability to play with Magic cards for the same price as the physical cards.  To many, this seems initially baffling. If you’re not receiving anything physical, why would you pay the same price as people who buy the physical cards? The issue is that humans don’t have a full understanding of value. The digital cards may seem worthless, but you can sell them to other users who want them – often much more easily than you could sell physical cards. People complain that because the cards don’t physically exist, and as such only retain the value that other people put on them. The physical cards aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on though either, and are only valuable because people will pay money for them. And yet, people feel ripped off in the digital case even though they are paying for equally useless objects.

Should Magic Online be cheaper than the physical game? Yes, I think it should.  It doesn’t need to be because you are getting the same experience for the same price. However, we hit the same issue that we do with digital video games – Wizards of the Coast are paying no distribution costs for the digital cards. This should indicate that the digital object is cheaper. Now, it’s true that plenty of people are employed in creating, improving and upholding the Magic Online client, so perhaps it’s more acceptable in this case. But video game publishers don’t pay for keeping the Xbox Live Service up, do they? They should absolutely sell their products for cheaper online because it costs them less to produce.

Unfortunately, this is a case of the publishers selling digital games at full price because we are buying them at that price. This is a situation where we have to vote with our wallets if we want games to eventually become cheaper when bought digitally. Steam has already made strides in this direction with ludicrous sales, but games, especially Triple A titles, still launch at full price. In order to try and combat this you should buy games that are cheaper online over ones that aren’t, and refuse to buy games that are sold at full retail price. Unless you live in Australia, in which case take to the streets and riot because it’s your only hope at this point.