There are times when I think that the gaming industry -- and to no small degree, gamers -- are just like those goofily grinning pigs, sitting obliviously in a precariously balanced bunker of crystal and wood beams. But forget the wolf. What's that screeching noise you hear? It's the sound of an Angry Bird shrieking through the air, ready to send the house crashing down.
You've been living under a fleet of feather-down pillows if you haven't played or at least heard of Angry Birds, the poster-child success story of modern mobile gaming. After gathering hundreds of millions of download-fueled dollars into their ringed talons, the birds recently ported their house-crashing act to the PlayStation Portable, got their own line of plushies and their very own animated series. Avian trifecta, baby.
But as much as I salute Angry Birds and its developer, Rovio, for the deserved and runaway success, there's a dark corner of my mind that's wondering if, by getting their claws into the app catalogue of nearly every iPhone in America, those birds are also doing something else.
Building up the dubious expectation that a couple bucks is a reasonable price for a video game.
The business and pricing strategy publishers have deployed to move Angry Birds and its cute compatriot from Chillingo named Cut the Rope, is nothing short of brilliant: Sell the initial game for a few dollars, then offer free, full-service updates in the ensuing months, building up a ton of casual-gamer goodwill in the process.
If you opted to purchase Angry Birds Seasons, which, depending on when you opted to click "download," cost you as little as 99 cents, you got a sizable group of 45 Halloween-themed levels and, a few months later, a free set of 25 Christmas levels. Last week, the more modest Valentine's Day pack hit, free for Angry Birds Season owners and 99 cents for newbies.
The equation is now firmly set in the consumers' mind: New Angry Birds fix = 99 cents and/or zero. In a sense, this makes sense, since Angry Birds, for all its charm and clever presentation, isn't really anything -- anything more, that is, than a catapult-physics model with a loose narrative and a scoreboard.
Thing is, the 99-cent model isn't just limited to the birds nest. Even deeper and more substantive game apps from other developers that cost a little more seem to have become addicted to the App Store's blow-the-doors-off 99-cent sales, events that have become about as common as Packer sightings at pop-culture events. In fact, there are five or six Valentine's Daythemed sales going on right now, featuring popular publisher/developers like GameVil and Namco.
You can say that's great news for gamers, who can cash in and quickly load up on a bunch of mobile-gaming goodness for around five bucks. It's not such great news, though, if it means that this particular Abe Lincoln doesn't go toward the purchase of a copy of, say, Killzone 3 or LittleBigPlanet 2. And if because it doesn't, a bigger, more expensive and innovative game project doesn't get funded. Gamers already complain about the high price of new releases, even though they're mostly getting their money's worth. Unless we're talking about Deadliest Catch: Sea of Chaos.
There's obviously a world of difference between the complexity of Dead Space 2 on consoles (retail price $60) and the surprisingly robust Dead Space 2 app (full retail $7), and it's clear there'll always be a market for both. How big each of those markets remains is really what's at stake here. The one who might most need to worry about this trend is Nintendo, whose upcoming 3DS titles are reportedly going to cost $40-$50 each. If they don't offer an experience that's substantially more complex than the latest GameLoft franchise rip-off, the House of M may find itself needing to scramble to find a new business model.
Like everyone else in these difficult economic times, the gaming industry has become hypersensitized to the bottom line -- just look at what Activision did last week in ruthlessly euthanizing its underperforming Guitar Hero, Tony Hawk and True Crime franchises in order to beat its Call of Duty horse down a couple more financial-quarter stretches. Just as in every other industry, companies naturally gravitate to where the money is -- and right now, that's looking a lot like Angry Birds Mansion.