The Gamer’s Anchor: $60

If you ask anybody who owns a console what a game costs, the answer you get will be nearly universal: $60. If you’re reading this page, you know that just about every major game release that hits store shelves will carry this price tag. Of course, there is a significant level of variability in pricing when you factor all the different collector’s editions of a game, the DLC bundles, and the mictrotransaction purchases. But $60 is the baseline.

Spend that money, and you can reliably enjoy 10-20 hours of new content. More, if you’re lucky. Like buying a movie ticket, or a novel, the sellers aim to provide a baseline value that is difficult to articulate, but easy to feel.

Critically, nearly all of the greatest games released from 2005 to present day today cost $60. It’s the price point of kings. Sure, plenty of mediocre games have charged just as much. As a baseline price for the whole market, that comes with the territory. But if you’re a publisher asking for an order of magnitude more than Sony did for God of War…  say, $6,000… you’d better be delivering the best game ever made. Anything less will feel like a con to players who use $60 as their primary price anchor.

The market has given core gamers 14 years to get a strong feel for what $60 of content should provide… and by extension, what $30 – or $300 – of content should look like. Being given a trusted, tried-and-true price anchor by the games industry is a gift; it allows you to accurately determine if something is over-priced or under-priced immediately. When you consider paying for a subscription service like Xbox Game Pass, this anchoring effect factors heavily. Is the membership worth spending $10 a month? Well, 12 months of the service is $120, so… is it offering the value of at least two games purchased at full retail price? If the answer to you is yes, the value feels good.

When I was looking at the Assassin’s Creed Odyssey DLC, I measured the $40 value against what I’d expect to get from a $60 purchase. The value seemed good – two big expansions, as well as the remastered edition of Assassin’s Creed III in March to sweeten the deal. That $60 measuring stick is super useful.

So useful, in fact, that I insist on using that benchmark to measure the value of any game content I’m offered. This means that for me to consider ANY in-game sale, the sale item MUST be clearly defined (no random offers), and it must be presented in real-money currency. With these rules in place, I can look at a costume being offered for $24.99, and decide if it’s worth nearly half the cost of a full retail game. I can’t make that same snap judgment if the price is listed as 6700 gold bars. When sales are presented as virtual currency instead of cash, it becomes far more difficult to pull out that universal price anchor and determine relative value. This introduces painful friction, both from the need to decipher the actual dollar value on my own, and from the suspicion that the obfuscation tactic is meant to trick me into spending more than I would if the offer was transparent.  It crosses a line; it violates trust.

And this effect is often intentional. From Ramin Shokrizade, author of the the Gamasutra post The Top F2P Monetization Tricks:

Having the user see their amount of premium currency in the interface is also much less anxiety generating, compared to seeing a real money balance. If real money was used (no successful game developer does this) then the consumer would see their money going down as they play and become apprehensive. This gives the consumer more opportunities to think and will reduce revenues.

Earlier in the year, I was trying to accept the idea of virtual currency in a game, finding comfort in the fact that the lowest-priced bundle was $9.99 for 1,000 coins. Move the decimal two steps to the left, and you have what appears to be transparent pricing. But there’s a catch. The second you agree to use their currency, you must begin to work with their price anchors, not yours. You’re always encouraged to buy more expensive bundles, which will offer ‘bonus coins’ – up to 30% more coins, if you agree to spend $100. Staying at $10 for 1,000 coins feels like a bad deal, because that’s not what the publisher wants you to spend. It’s not the intended buy-in price.

Let’s say you accept the bad deal, so you can keep your costs in line with real dollar value. Another problem crops up: You’ll always have to buy more currency than you need. So once you buy what you want with the virtual currency, you’re left with more virtual currency in reserve, leading you to experience that is called the sunk cost effect. GameSparks, a “Meta Game and Economies” company that encourages publishers to embrace dark patterns as best practices, explains the sunk cost effect in their blog about game currencies:

“We can look even deeper at why the “Premium Currency” formula works so well. It’s harnessing some well documented psychological patterns with its players. Everybody experiences loss aversion, we are afraid of waste and try hard to avoid it. Premium currency packs take advantage of this loss aversion through the “Sunk Cost” effect to encourage its players to pay more. The “Sunk Cost” effect is when not losing money in a losing proposition becomes the main reason to throw in more money. In this case leaving unspent Premium Currency is the “losing proposition” and the player, having already invested money into the game, is inclined to spend more to acquire additional premium currency and use the unspent currency sitting in their accounts effectively, thereby in their mind, nullifying the initial loss.”

Losing your anchor is the first step on the path to spending vastly more than you intend to in a game. I’ve experienced this myself. Obfuscated pricing and loot boxes nudged me into overspending on a mobile game called Hellfire. The game wouldn’t make my “Top 1,000 Games of All-Time” list, yet I ended up spending more than $300 on it. This left me with a profound sense of buyer’s remorse… and a reminder of why it’s SO IMPORTANT not to let a company reset or remove your personal price anchor. I could have had five more AAA games in my library, instead of… whatever Hellfire was.

Only accepting clearly defined offers presented at a real dollar value has allowed me to use the traditional $60 price anchor to full effect. It’s left me feeling comfortable navigating this new digital gaming space, confident I won’t experience price gouging. This approach has given me a harpoon shield.

And in the end, all I’m doing is simply refusing to accept the market’s F2P monetization models, choosing instead to make purchases the way I always have… transparently.

That said, I am open to new pricing models if they are a good deal. I sure am happy to embrace the new subscriptions models! My $60 price anchor has helped me see that Xbox Games Pass, EA Access, and PlayStation NOW are AWESOME deals for the heavy player. How nice that we’re seeing models emerge where everyone else subsidizes the heavy player, instead of the other way around.

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