Halo 3: The Nickel & Dime Generation

This generation of video game consoles has paved the way for a new generation of pricing. Publishers settled into the idea of charging $60 for a new game rather quickly, but that’s hardly where the abuse on our wallets ended. Armed with a new line of online consoles, publishers also had a new potential revenue stream: the ever so popular microtransaction. There are many examples of modern console games that have used this model to produce a tremendous amount of capital; games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero are among the best examples. With the recent debut of Microsoft’s Halo 3: ODST, we’ve been handed a stunning illustration in the art of padding your bottom line.

In many ways, Microsoft deserves much of the credit for many industry trends. The successful attach rate of software in conjunction with the Xbox 360’s relatively strong position in the market has made their third parties happy to follow in their footsteps. It could be argued that Microsoft introduced gamers (and perhaps other publishers) to the concept of hidden costs; their online service carries a subscription cost; their accessories are proprietary, allowing them to dictate total control over pricing and availability; and the Xbox 360 was the first gaming platform to provide the framework for these types of transactions. The success of this model meant that software giants like Activision and Electonic Arts wouldn’t be far behind, and the rest is history.

Now that we’ve established the basics, let’s take a more detailed look at what this means for the consumer—the gamer. Before we can go any further,  we should audit the real cost of the Halo 3 experience to date:

  • Halo 3 (standard retail SKU): $60 USD
  • Heroic Map Pack (DLC): $10; 800 Microsoft Points
  • Legendary Map Pack (DLC): $10; 800 Microsoft Points
  • Mythic Map Pack (DLC): $10; 800 Microsoft Points
  • Halo 3 ODST (standard retail SKU): $60 USD
  • Two years of Xbox Live: $100 USD
  • Total cost: $250

It’s only fair to point out that these prices only reflect initial costs. If you’re just entering the Haloverse now, you could easily obtain the original release at a discount, or simply purchase Halo 3: ODST and enjoy the full 24 map multiplayer experience at a significantly lower flat rate. If you’re a dedicated Halo fan however, chances are that you consumed these products with haste.

Since ODST is effectively an expansion itself, let’s also compare this new price format with the old way. Way back in 2003, Infinity Ward and Activision released the first entry into the now famous Call of Duty franchise. A year later, they released a full featured expansion pack, United Offensive. This package was launched at a discounted price, and included 11 new multiplayer maps, 13 new campaign missions, and three new multiplayer modes. The amount of content deployed in a traditional expansion pack would have dwarfed what ODST delivered, and they were a fraction of its price.

These initial costs are astounding when you compare them to previous generations, but they’re even more ridiculous in light of contemporary alternatives. For the total costs of the Halo experience, you could have purchased four entire Call of Duty titles! If you include the cost of the console itself you can put it on the same page as World of Warcraft*, its expansion packs, and a two year subscription!

If this sounds a little bit like a rant, well, it is. I am not however picking on Microsoft, or Halo. The fact is that the entire industry has caught on, and the competition has played a role in proliferating “nickel and dime” pricing. I remember a time when additional multiplayer levels were an expected form of post release support. In a few isolated scenarios, this is still the case, but as the market continues to move briskly towards a downloadable future, the microtransaction is here to stay. How we’re treated as consumers is largely up to us – as cliché as this sounds – we vote with our wallets.

*If you’re reading this, you already own a rig capable of venturing into Azeroth.