When I was small, I had pocket money and a Commodore 64.

A shop in town sold Commodore Format and budget C64 games for around three to four quid. If I saved up – I occasionally did – I could buy a “full price” C64 game for ten pounds (I remember doing this with James Pond 2, after Commodore Format gave it the coveted “It’s A Corker” accolade). The games were piled high, and sold cheap. Even on the Amiga, games got released at the 25/30 quid price point and then after a few months you could grab them for a fiver on one of the budget labels.

As games have been made more expensive due to increasing costs of production (It takes longer to build a high definition level than it does an old one) games have retained their price point, roughly. Inflation from 1995 to 2010 is about 45%, meaning that in monetary terms a £30 game in 1995 would be a £45 game today, which fits with Activision’s vision of top tier game pricing. PC games new are apparently stuck at around 30 basic (~45 for a “Special Edition”), which implies that a million selling game in 2010 would make the same, maybe less, than a 1995 game allowing for inflation, which means that instead of more expensive games to make being more expensive to buy, we’ve ended up with more expensive games to make just being under more pressure to sell more copies. Selling copies is perhaps easier, given the retail pie is a massive amount bigger than it was in 1995.

The thing that’s interested me is Steam.

Steam is a DRM/Digtal Download system created by Valve Software and released for Half Life 2. It’s interesting because while it does provide a DRM system, it balances this with things that are a benefit to the user, not just the publisher. That is, the Publisher gets a reasonably successful DRM system, and the customer gets a discless install process, ability to access their games from anywhere (and saves, more recently) automated patching and integrated DLC, social aspects, matchmaking. It’s also replaced the traditional budget market, to some extent, as games on Steam – where the publishers wish it – will generally decrease in price as the game’s shelf-life decays. However, while the shelf-life of a game was always a literal space concern for retail, here it will fluctuate based on popularity.

The thing that triggered this originally was the release of “CODBLOPS” (Call Of Duty: Black Ops, recent followup to the incredibly popular COD: Modern Warfare 2), which made me want to go and finally take a look at MW2, to see if it was at a more reasonable price for a year-old game. It’s not. As of a couple of minutes ago, over a year after its release, it’s still at prime-retail day-one release price, £40, which is stupid.

When Valve did a 50% off of L4D about six months after release (Putting it to ~£15, as I recall) sales went up by 3000%. Publishers appear to be divided on the maths of this. From Valve’s perspective (and 2K games, which received a similar boost to 3-year-old Bioshock when they put it out for £3.50) a few thousand people who hadn’t bought their game in the last six months/three years decided to do so, and 3000% of a small number sometimes beats 100% of a larger one. Activision appear to still be attempting to squeeze as much profit from each individual sale, without dropping the price, on the basis that while people will still pay £40 for a title, it seems silly to drop it, even if ten times more people would buy it at, for example, £20.

Secondly, the bit where I don’t need to find the DVD to play Bioshock? Is valuable. Valuable enough to throw a fiver at Steam for a digital copy of it so I don’t have to anymore. Same for Civ4, Freedom Force and a few others. Games I own on DVD, but picked up in a Steam Sale anyway so they’re as convenient to play. The point where I did that was £4.

Bringing it back around, £4 appears to be a magic number. It’s the point where I’ll buy a game that I’m not sure about, or a game I already own. It’s less than an overpriced latte, and even if it only holds my attention for a couple of hours while I work out if I like it, it’s cheaper than a movie ticket (London, remember).

So some things really don’t change.