Monday, April 22, 2013

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The iDOLM@STER's Seemingly Insane iOS Launch Price Is a Reminder of How a $50 Game Becomes a $15 App

Idolmaster app store 1
Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style

Hopefully Hamlet will forgive me for stepping on his toes with this story (since he's the mobile app expert between the two of us) but, Japanophile that I am, I couldn't resist. Namco Bandai's popular rhythm game series, The iDOLM@STER, made its debut on the App Store today, and they've made a pretty big splash in the process. And not in a good way.

This release is the very first iDOLM@STER game to be localized in English, so you can finally experience the phenomenon for yourself... Provided that you have $165 burning a hole in your pocket. Alternately, if you're on a budget, you can opt to buy just one of the game's three episodes, which sell for $54.99 apiece. Sounds reasonable to me!

So WTF was Namco Bandai thinking? Well...

A little background, first: While I can't exactly afford to take these apps for a spin myself, fans over at Touch Arcade have pointed out that the games seem to be ports of The iDOLM@STER SHINY FESTA games which were released for the PSP last year. Each of the SHINY FESTA games featured a different animated episode, but much like the different versions of Pokemon that are released the core game is pretty much the same from version to version. You play as the manager of up-and-coming JPop idols, handling their careers as well as their dance moves. The management side of these games is what sets them apart from so many other rhythm-based titles... But this aspect of the series is apparently not even included in the iOS versions.

Idolmaster app store 2

And yes, there's DLC too. Everything pictured in the screenshot above appears to be free, so to their credit maybe all the DLC is included gratis in the iOS version to compensate for the hefty price tag... But that's not usually how in-app stores work, is it? The free stuff lingers at the top. but a few pages down you'll likely be knee-deep in $5 character costumes and song packs.

Now it's important to note that SHINY FESTA on the PSP was also sold in three episodes for (as far as I can tell) approximately the same price as the three episodes on the App Store are going for now. The games themselves aren't that old so aside from the fact that these appear to be pared down versions of those PSP titles, this could almost make sense on paper: Fairly recent games, ported to a new platform, for more or less the same price as the original version. If we were talking about almost any other platform, I doubt we'd be batting an eyelash.

But we aren't talking about any other platform. We're talking about iOS, and the pricing expectations on iOS titles are no mystery. Plenty of companies have released trimmed versions of their big titles on iOS, usually for around $15-$20 each. The older the game or the more abbreviated it is to fit the platform, the lower the price seems to slide. iOS pricing is a balancing act that, unfortunately for a lot of developers hoping to do more than break even, was established before there were many "serious" or higher-budget gaming titles available on the App Store. That's why it's understandable that many iOS developers find themselves caught between pricing at a point that will sell well and a point that will keep their doors open.

A quick glance at Namco Bandai's other iOS releases reveals a lot of reasonably priced iOS entertainment, from free and bargain titles to games like SoulCalibur at the $15 mark, so it's not like they're unfamiliar with the pricing benchmarks for the platform. Is the borderline insane pricing for The iDOLM@STER iOS games a mistake? A misunderstanding? Maybe even a legal issue behind the scenes? It's impossible to say at this point, but given the attention and criticism they've already received it will be interesting to see if Namco Bandai will stand by that $54.99... Or cut it in half the very first chance they get.

If you're curious, check out The iDOLM@STER SHINY FESTA: Harmonic Score, The iDOLM@STER SHINY FESTA: Melodic Disc, and The iDOLM@STER SHINY FESTA: Rhythmic Record on the App Store for yourself.

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It's not simply that the pricing was established before serious, high-budget developers were involved. A serious, high-budget developer generally gets $12 for every $60 game sold that they developed. The middle-men in the publishing company get the other 80%. What the publisher's costs are or whether they deserve that much is irrelevant; the bottom line is, even developers of serious, high-budget games are used to selling their games for $12/copy, they just usually sell them at that price to publishers instead of to consumers directly. App stores are disruptive since they let developers cut out the middle-man, and now big publishers that also want to enter this market have to compete with developers who've already become accustomed to selling their games at those prices.

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