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Plugged In

Some next-generation games come with a stealth price increase

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(Credit: Getty Images)

The launch of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 ushered in more than the era of high-definition gaming: it also introduced us to the $60 video game.

For many gamers, it was a hard pill to swallow - and while people managed to choke it down, they warily looked ahead, fearful that next generation systems would bring another price bump with them.

Technically, they didn't. $60 is still the going price for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One games. But emboldened by the success of in-app purchases in the mobile world, some publishers are trying to convince players to pay more in a different sort of way.

In-game purchases aren't exactly new, of course. DLC has been a staple of the game industry for years. And it’s pretty much expected in free-to-play games, which we'll see plenty of this generation.

They're not especially shocking to see in Crimson Dragon, a $20 downloadable game, either. But then you get to Forza Motorsport 5, which offers you the chance to buy boosts that double your experience points. The cost? Anywhere from $1 to $100.

That's the start of a new chapter in console gaming - and it could be a dangerous one.

"The question is: Do consumers react as they have in some categories and view this as nickel and diming?" asks Steve Beck, managing partner at consulting firm cg42. "In other entertainment categories, nickel and diming has substantially eroded customer loyalty and customer advocacy. It creates frustration and that frustration often leads to reconsideration of products from that manufacturer in the future."

The trick to these in-game purchases, Beck notes, is they'll have to present a compelling value proposition to players. Gamers shouldn't be forced to pay for items that ought to be included in the finished product or for something that normally would be unlocked by progress in the game.

"Publishers need to be very careful," says Beck. "The line of ‘too far’ is not drawn by the publishers or [console] manufacturer. It's drawn by the consumer."

There are, of course, reasons we're seeing these in-game purchases becoming more a part of the landscape. First off, they work. EA, for example, has made over $100 million from in-app purchases in The Simpsons: Tapped Out over the course of roughly one year. That's not small change.

Development costs are also on the rise. EA predicts it will costs up to 10 percent more to create a game for the Xbox One or PlayStation 4. Ubisoft says things will stay the same initially, but will then start to rise sharply. And Capcom says it expects costs to "soar".

If publishers can convince players to spend a bit more in the games, that will help cover those costs - and boost the profit margins.

Of course, there are risks they'll have to weigh. Children, for instance, could play on their parents' console and unwittingly run up bills. (We've certainly seen that happen in the mobile world.) That could put publishers in the uncomfortable position of being asked to refund sizable bills.

The biggest risk is reputational, though. Gamers share information through a variety of means - and the first publisher to push things too far with these in-game purchases could face an intense, ugly backlash.

"The fundamental question each publisher is going to have to wrestle with is: How do we make sure we don't step over the line?" says Beck. "Stepping over the line will create an immediate social backlash among this close-knit community."

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