Digital Distribution Prices: E-Books vs Games

Supreme Commander 2, VGReleases informs me, came out in the US on 2 March 2010. The PC version originally sold for US$50, and the Xbox 360 version sold for US$60. At the time, it received solid if unspectacular reviews (a Metacritic score of 77%).  On 5 November 2010 – just eight months after SupCom2 launched – I bought the game, plus an expansion (“Infinite War Battle Pack”), from Steam for the grand total of…. US$8.50, representing a discount of 83% from the initial price (and I threw in the battle pack as well!). Admittedly it was on sale at the time, but even so, the base price for the game on Steam is just US$15, which is still 70% cheaper than it was at launch. Not a bad reward for being patient enough to wait for a little under a year.


Compare this to a book. Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie, came out in June 2009 (according to Wikipedia). Amazon provides a hardcover “List Price” of US$25. which has been crossed out to show the difference to Amazon’s own price of US$16.50 for the hardcover. Amazon now sells the Kindle and paperback editions of the book for US$8, which represents a discount of 51.5%. If I just compare the Kindle price to the non-sale Steam price, so that I compare digital apples to apples, the Steam price is only $7 more expensive, and represents a larger percentage discount. But more importantly, I see games going on sale on digital distribution services such as Steam and Impulse far more often, and at much larger discounts, than I see books going on sale. It seems the only time books can really compete is when they get remaindered.


Now, I would be the first person to warn against placing too much weight on my observation. Firstly, I have not followed the e-book market particularly closely, so I am open to correction if, indeed, e-books regularly go on sale at swingeing discounts. Secondly, I do not know the market well enough to explain why this is the case, although my initial impression is that, because the e-book market is still relatively immature, pricing power has not yet shifted very much to the Amazons of the world. While I would think that the “long tail” argument would apply equally to both industries, it may be that, say, their relative cost structures make this more viable for games than books. And thirdly, the existence of libraries means that we can borrow books for free, which evens out much of this discrepancy.


But as far as I can tell, that discrepancy does exist. It helps explain why I tend to impulse-buy games more often than novels (non-fiction is a different story; that’s where I’ve tended to grit my teeth and buy books at full price).  And I hope that it does fade, both so I can treat myself to more books, and also – hopefully – so that authors will be able to find wider audiences.

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