I think that one of the most difficult decisions a developer has to make is determining what to charge for their game. It is just as difficult for those of us who comment on video games (like me) to advise developers on pricing. There are so many factors to consider. For instance, do I have any right to tell a company what their hard work is worth?? Even if I did, is it appropriate for an eXplorminate staff member to include that recommendation in a review or forum post? I’ve wanted to address this aspect of gaming for a while, but wasn’t sure how.
The idea for this article was sparked by a conversation in our Polaris Sector launch thread. It seemed that there were some people who recognized that PS was a decent game, but not at the price SoftWarWare and Slitherine were charging for it. PS isn’t alone. Other games such as Worlds of Magic and Sorcerer King were likewise chastised for their prices. I’m not going to take a stand in this article on whether any of those comments were right or wrong. But after reading them, I felt the issue should be addressed somehow.
So what I’m going to do is go through the 4X genre and describe exemplary games at every major price mark as listed currently on Steam. Companies making games and customers buying games could, if they wanted, use this list as a yardstick to judge whether a particular game is worth that level of investment. They could also gauge what type of competition a new title might be up against at various price points.
I’m not going to tell people what to do with this. Price is such a touchy subject that I’m not sure I’m in any position to make a prescription to fledgling 4X designers. I do, however, believe that information empowers people to make good decisions, and I hope by posting it all in one place some helpful discussions will be sparked.
[NOTE: All the prices listed below are the regular asking price from Steam as of 4/11/16]
At ten bucks, we have some older classics. While these games are venerable, they are quite dated. As far as newer 4X games go, the only titles at this price point are Arcane Sorcery and Apollo4X which earned a Beware and Avoid, respectively. I would rate competition at this level as very low.
The $20 mark gives us a mix of older and newer games. All three major genres (space, fantasy, and historical) are represented here along with what could be considered the two best titles from the Civ and GalCiv franchises. Warlock 2 hasn’t gone over well since its launch in 2014, but Thea won our Game of the Year Award for 2015. Competition here is still pretty minimal. Twenty bucks isn’t much to spend on a game nowadays, so anything that gets released here stands a good chance of getting noticed.
$25 – Star Ruler 2, Sorcerer King
There aren’t too many 4X games on Steam for $25, but what is here is pretty innovative. SR2 and SK break all kinds of conventions, but once you get past those two games, there isn’t much to choose from. Competition here is low. SK is an interesting case, however. It started out as a $40 game and sold fewer than 15k copies according to SteamSpy. As soon as Stardock dropped the price below $30, the sales took off.
$30 – StarDrive 2, Endless Legend, Civilization V, Age of Wonders III
At $30, competition is incredibly high – new games are up against an all-star lineup. We can begin with our 2014 Game of the Year winner, Endless Legend, and the runner-up that year, Age of Wonders III. We also have the best-selling “indie” game from 2015 in SD2 and the behemoth that is Civ 5. Granted, these games are starting to show some age, but they’re all still terrific choices. Customers will rightly wonder what a new title at this level offers that isn’t already out there.
There are a couple of titles with big sales numbers at this level. GalCiv3 is approaching a quarter million games sold on Steam, but that’s nothing next to its neighbor at this price point. Civilization: Beyond Earth has sales numbers (1.4 million copies sold or there about) that eclipse almost every other recently released 4X, but might still be considered disappointing for Firaxis – just goes to show that expectations are often as important as actual data. Polaris Sector and Worlds of Magic, on the other hand, are also available at $40, but they’re hardly breaking any sales records. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Endless Space 2 and Stellaris come in at this price point, but that’s just speculation. Competition at this specific level is moderate at the moment, but recall that for $10 less, you can get some best-in-class games.
Two behemoths currently occupy this price point: Civ V Complete (the $30 version with all the DLC) and the new MoO game (which also includes the original three Master of Orion titles). MoO: Conquer the Stars hasn’t been met with rave reviews yet, but we’d be kidding ourselves if we believe that it won’t sell a lot of copies. Civ V still ranks in the top 10 games played on Steam every single day. Competition here is very high.
$60 and up – Distant Worlds: Universe
There’s only one game with the jewels to charge sixty bucks for itself. I’m not even going to debate Matrix’s decision to charge so much for this game. It’s immaterial. DW:U is an amazing 4X game; I think we can acknowledge that. Any game that prices itself here must be a genre-defining game of great importance, in my opinion.
There were several things I didn’t mention in this list. For instance, I didn’t discuss where these games were priced when they were launched. I also didn’t include price promotions (a term I use instead of “sales” to avoid confusion). I’ll save these for a future article. Developers launching games into the 2016 4X maelstrom have to deal with things as they are, not as they were or could have been or should be.
So what does this eXamination tell us? Naturally, it says that the further you go up the price scale, the tougher the competition gets since you generally compete against games with higher production values, as well as all the games priced below that mark. We can also see that competition at $25 and under is fairly sparse – anything released in the last two years that’s sold more than 100k+ copies is priced higher. Finally, I think we can see that price doesn’t always equate to quality. With the exception of DW:U, the games that have received the most praise from eXplorminate are priced right in the middle of the spectrum at $30.
Writing this article wasn’t easy. Talking about money never is. The purpose I had in mind was to break the ice about the topic of sales price and get the conversation going.
I’m not going to tell any studio to take any specific action when it comes to pricing their game in this piece. One of my personal passions is seeing smaller studios succeed, and it kills me inside when I see a new game get priced out of its market by a well-meaning but overly ambitious new studio. If they see this article, I sincerely hope it helps them make the right decision for their game. For fans of these small studios, I hope it informs them so they can discuss price from an informed position.