Returnal is one of the PS5’s first big post-launch exclusives, and that means it’s the first of its kind to be put through the price point discourse meat grinder. Last year, when the new consoles released, many were already wincing at the thought of £70 games, but these fears were swallowed up by excitement surrounding the new generation, the chatter about new features, the pros and cons (mostly cons) of buying a console at launch, and the general scarcity of the hardware itself. People remain excited and consoles are still incredibly hard to find, but those initial debates have faded away somewhat, and what we’re left with is a £70 price tag on Returnal – and it’s hard to argue that it’s worth it.
This isn’t really about Returnal, either. I do think its difficulty and niche mix of genres make its price hard to swallow, but this issue is bigger than Housemarque’s roguelike. It can quickly be turned into an argument that Sony shouldn’t be making experimental risks, backing new IPs, or thinking outside the box, which is the opposite of what I actually believe. I don’t think God of War: Ragnarok should cost £70 either, or Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, but they will, because it appears to be Sony’s strategy this generation. I would guess that more people will be willing to pay £70 for God of War or Ratchet & Clank, but with prices on the rise and the pandemic economy squeezing everyone’s pockets, it’s harder to take a laissez-faire, vote with your wallets, don’t like it don’t buy it attitude. People are being priced out of an entire medium of entertainment, and the worst part is, they don’t need to be.
Xbox seems to understand this. Thanks to Game Pass (and the much lower price point of the Series S compared to the PS5), Xbox is allowing players to join the new generation on a budget, while Sony is locking them out. Not only is there an impressive back catalogue of games on the subscription service, but some of gaming’s biggest titles are launching there for free on day one. Outriders and MLB: The Show were the two big hitters last month, despite The Show being made by Sony San Diego. Sony’s alternative, PS Now, has a smaller selection and does not grant access to the biggest PlayStation games; although the PS5 does come with several of the PS4’s biggest games included thanks to the PS Plus Collection. That feels like a one-time offer though, like a free gift to sweeten the deal. Game Pass is a service that’s in it for the long haul. It’s true that Xbox’s strategy is motivated by trying to undercut Sony and wrestle console dominance off its competitor, but the reasons don’t really matter – what’s more important is that Xbox is shaping a much better future for players that don’t have bags of disposable income at their, well, disposal.
I know what argument Sony (and its defenders) will make. Sony makes premium exclusives, and can point to The Last of Us, Ghost of Tsushima, God of War, Horizon, Uncharted, Spider-Man, and many more to prove its point. Xbox currently cannot. Sony knows that it has the upper hand, and that means it gets to shape the market – Xbox can undercut as much as it likes, but if you want to play God of War, you need to pay what Sony tells you. If I scribble my name on a picture of myself, it’s worth nothing. If Taylor Swift does it, it’s worth money. Sony understands this, and it knows The Last of Us is its Taylor Swift – but this system can only sustain itself for so long.
I suspect that Returnal won’t have the sales or the staying power to establish itself as a top tier Sony exclusive that gets wheeled out in the list along with The Last of Us or God of War. Because of that, off the back of the news about Days Gone being culled due to lack of critical acclaim, I’m worried experimental new IPs might be off the agenda at Sony going forward. That leaves Sony in a tough position. New games take a long time to make, especially if they’re going to be huge blockbuster affairs that take advantage of the PS5 – which is exactly what Sony wants them to be.
That means that Ghost of Tsushima 2 and The Last of Us Part 3 will be years away yet, with Insomniac on Ratchet and fresh off Miles Morales, a new Spider-Man game won’t be around for a while, Uncharted has run its course… God of War: Ragnarok and Horizon Forbidden West are both slated for later this year (although both could be delayed), and after that… what else is there? There’s more new IPs, like Deathloop and Kena, but much like Returnal, they’re risks. Especially when you consider Deathloop is a Bethesda game (meaning it is owned by Xbox), and the fact both Deathloop and Kena are coming to PC as well.
Sony asking players to pay a premium for an established franchise like God of War can be defended – you’re paying for Beyonce’s signature. But these new IPs? We don’t know them. They might be Beyonce one day, but why are we being charged Beyonce prices now? Sony’s prestige exclusive strategy is not futureproof, because it means new franchises don’t get the opportunity to build big fan bases and become the next God of War. Days Gone’s director lambasted fans for not buying his game at “full fucking price,” but when full fucking price is £70, he can fuck off.
We don’t talk about price enough in this industry; and when we do, we spin it as ‘value’. A trip to the cinema costs £10, and games last seven times as long as that, so £70 is good value. But the fact is, most people cannot afford to go to the cinema seven times a month. It doesn’t really matter what arguments to have to justify the £70 – some people just don’t have the money, and that means gaming’s accessibility is shrinking. It’s a very short term view to praise triple-A studios for breaking new boundaries when they often do it by crunching their employees hard and pricing many players out of the experience entirely.
“I would have paid £70 for it,” or even “I did pay £70 for it,” doesn’t matter – we get to claim taxes on our games, we get to monetize them, and we typically get a good chunk of the yearly releases for free from publishers. Our relationship to the gaming space is very different to that of the players’, and we need to keep that in mind while we talk about the rising prices. It’s not really about Returnal, it’s about a whole group of working class people being kept out of gaming as a whole because the prices keep going up. The Xbox Series S and Game Pass is a godsend for people like that, and Sony seems determined to lock them out. Face it, a PS5 is a rich person’s console.
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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