Last week, 2K made waves by becoming the first publisher to set a $70 asking price for a big-budget game on the next generation of consoles. NBA2K21 will cost the now-standard $60 on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, but 2K will ask $10 more for the upcoming Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 versions of the game (a $100 “Mamba Forever Edition” gives players access to current-generation and next-generation versions in a single bundle).
It remains to be seen if other publishers will follow 2K’s lead and make $70 a new de facto standard for big-budget console game pricing. But while $70 would match the high-water mark for nominal game pricing, it wouldn’t be a historically high asking price in terms of actual value. Thanks to inflation and changes in game distribution, in fact, the current ceiling for game prices has never been lower.
To measure how the actual asking price for console games has changed over time, we relied primarily on scanned catalogs and retail advertising fliers we found online. While this information was easier to find for some years than others, we were still able to gather data for 20 distinct years across the last four decades. We then adjusted those nominal prices to constant 2020 dollars using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI inflation calculator.
To avoid the influence of low-priced bargain bin games or retailer discounts, we focused on the highest asking prices for individual games we could find in each year (collector’s editions excluded). But to avoid undue skewing from outliers like the $100 Genesis version of Virtua Racing, we averaged the highest top-level asking price we could find for a “basket” of games representing up to eight different genres. So for NES prices in 1988, the $49.99 top asking price for Blades of Steel in the Sports slot was partially balanced out by the $34.99 top asking price for The Karate Kid in the “fighting/brawler” slot.
I’m old enough to remember $70 cartridges
The resulting data is a little noisy from year to year, depending on which specific games were included on extant advertisements we could track down. Over time, though, the pricing trends are still pretty easy to spot.
While nominal cartridge game prices in the early ’80s topped out at $30 to $40, inflation makes that the equivalent of $80 to $100 per game these days. Nominal prices stayed relatively flat into the late ’80s as the industry started recovering from the great crash, but inflation brought the actual value down a bit in constant dollars.
As the industry transitioned into 16-bit cartridges in the ’90s, though, nominal prices for top-end games rose quickly past $60 in nominal dollars and $110 in 2020 dollars. That’s in large part because of the expensive ROM storage and co-processors often included in games of the day. By 1997, late-era SNES and early-era N64 games were routinely selling for $69.99 at many retailers, the highest nominal prices the industry has generally seen and still the equivalent of over $110 in today’s dollars.
An optical disc plateau
The late-’90s transition to disc-based games relieved a lot of the cost pressure on physical game production, which translated to generally lower prices for consumers. But that pricing transition didn’t happen immediately. Early Saturn and PlayStation games in 1996 would regularly sell for $59.99 or more, translating to about $100 in 2020 dollars.
Disc prices settled down to a more reasonable $49.99 soon after that, setting a functional nominal price ceiling that would remain until the mid ’00s. It wasn’t until the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 hit the scene that top asking prices started increasing to $59.99. And that’s the de facto ceiling that has remained in place to this day, even as digital downloads and the explosion of indie games has meant many titles now launch at well below this price.
Adjusting for inflation, we can see the actual (2020 dollar) value of top-end disc-based games plateaued right around $70 for almost a decade through in the ’00s and early ’10s. Inflation has slowly eroded that value in the last decade, though, to the point where a $10 increase like the one for NBA2K21 merely gets games to the same actual price point as they enjoyed earlier in the century.
As the “real value” of big-budget games has increased, publishers have looked for new ways to squeeze more money out of the average player. Trends like collector’s editions, widespread downloadable content, season pass subscriptions, and annoying microtransactions have meant some players already spend much more than $60 for a single top-end title.
Raising a game’s basic asking price to $70 won’t eliminate publishers’ need or desire to exploit these further revenue streams. But it may help make up for the bottom-line deficits brought on by ballooning development costs for graphically intensive titles in the consoles’ coming ray-tracing era.
Those additional costs may be hard for many gamers to swallow, just as similar increases for streaming video subscription services have been over the years. That’s especially true now that there’s so much gaming competition from lower-cost and even high-quality free-to-play titles.
But a bump to $70 would not be a historically unprecedented increase in console gaming’s price ceiling. Accounting for inflation, in fact, it would merely bring those prices back in line with the recent historical average—something to keep in mind as you prepare for a new, seemingly costlier generation of console hardware.
Listing image by Hughes Johnson