While we await today’s Nintendo Direct with bated breath, Nintendo itself may have made a rare slip-up overnight, triggering intense debate throughout online gaming communities. Specifically, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom might cost $70.
A jump to $69.99 would mark the first time Nintendo has priced a game in this bracket, but it’s also part of a wider trend. PlayStation, Xbox, and a raft of third parties have all begun to sell games at this more expensive price. In those cases, the price bump has generally been introduced as part of the shift to the new console hardware generation - but for Zelda, it’ll be a late-gen price hike.
Nintendo removed the price from its website pretty sharply, but not before the internet grabbed it and made it into a major talking point - and in fairness, there is a lot to talk about. Specifically - games are probably going to have to get more expensive. But on the flip side, can people actually afford that?
Around the world, things are pretty rocky at best right now. Many people are struggling to pay their heating or electricity bills as energy costs skyrocket. But, conversely, games are exponentially more expensive to make now - and this axis combines to feel like something fairly unsustainable.
We’re all intimately familiar with the consumer side. Games are creeping up in price, but at the same time the greater economic picture doesn’t support that. Inflation is up, wages are stagnating – often down in real terms – and people are having to tighten their belts to afford things that, a few years ago, were a given. If you have to make cuts, the first thing to go are those that are frivolous – indulgent take-aways, trips away, and, yes, video games. For many, these are the little things between work and sleep that make life worth living, so it’s fair to say we’re in the midst of a pretty grim time for many.
And what of the business bit? Well, publisher side, it’s still complicated, even for faceless megacorps. Let’s stick with Zelda. In 2006, Twilight Princess arrived as a launch title for Wii and was $50. If we adjust that for inflation based on US government data, in today’s money that’s just over $72 - meaning that if Tears of the Kingdom is hiked to $70, it’s more or less exactly in line with inflation.
That sounds fair enough, if things must rise, in-line with inflation makes sense (or would if wages rose at the same rate - but that’s another discussion). But then one has to step back and think and remember: games are just… more, now. They’re larger, more intricate, and with sprawling development teams. You only need to compare the credit scrolls of Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, and Breath of the Wild to see the explosion in the scale of talent needed to create modern games. Those people need to be paid for, and we want them to be paid well. We also want them to be free to create without crunch. For that, games need to be profitable, of course.
I reckon that part of this is chicken-or-egg stuff. Games are more expensive to make, so publishers want to pack them with content to ensure players feel they’re getting good value. Those over-stuffed Ubisoft open world maps feel like a direct response to focus groups where people said ‘games are expensive now, so it’s important that they last a long time’. But to make all that content, even when it’s copied-and-pasted open world fluff, takes time and effort, which further raises development costs. Is it a vicious circle?
The obvious socialist-leaning choice here would be for organizational reform at companies themselves. Could publishers run leaner operations in administration and the like, freeing up more resources for developers? And how many millions do those top-tier executives really need anyway? Could they be compensated less? Though Nintendo has been better about this than most in the past, it’s still pretty painfully unlikely in the society we live in. It’s not structured that way. So… what’s the answer? Short of outright revolution, obviously. I genuinely don’t know.
Arguments about if Zelda ‘deserves’ the extra $10 are, I think, pretty moot. I’ve seen people going into this debate about the Switch not having true next-gen visuals and therefore not being as worthy of the price hike as PS5 games - but I think this is silly. A game is more than how many polygons it’s pushing. The broader debate is about affordability - to development houses, but more importantly to individual consumers who are feeling the squeeze in every direction of their daily lives.
Ultimately, we’ve gone from a world where a tiny team could turn out a game in a few months and then sell it for the equivalent of well over $100 in today’s money to a world where hundreds of people toil for years to put out a $70 product. Some games are able to make it up on the back-end with microtransactions, multiplayer hooks, and gacha mechanics - but Zelda typically hasn’t been that sort of a game, and nor would that monetization be welcome in a Zelda title.
The market has expanded and granted far larger overall sales numbers, which is naturally a help. Games now sell at a scale not before seen. And yet, it still feels like the economics of video game development and publishing are a mess. Which makes it a fine match, I suppose, for the economics of the world, where for your average person that hike to $70 is significant and, for many, unaffordable.
Is the answer subscription services, like Game Pass? Maybe, although we know so little about the performance and profitability of such services that it’s impossible to say if they really are the future. As such, the price rises for retail games seem an assured, unstoppable march now. That gives developers and publishers some wriggle room, but it makes the deal worse for many consumers. It feels like an impossible scenario - and it’s something that the industry needs to address sooner rather than later.