There's been a bit of a controversy going around with the release of the latest Fire Emblem, and I'm not talking about that weird "petting" minigame. Basically, Fire Emblem Fates has three unique, full-length campaigns: one easier and tooled for newcomers, one more difficult for veterans, and a third which is something of a mixture. The controversial part, though, is that Nintendo split them into three different, full-priced games: Birthright, Conquest, and Revelation. Whichever you buy first costs you $40, and then if you choose to buy either or both of the other two, they're bumped down to $20. The argument is over whether Fates' individual campaigns ought to have been split up like this, essentially doubling their price.
The whole thing's stirred some fun back-and-forth, even here on our own site. Some say the individual titles each having campaigns of unique content roughly the size of the previous Fire Emblem Awakening justifies their full prices, others say Fates is all one game and should be released as such, and neither has particularly solid grounding. To actually figure this out requires a lot more thought and a little bit of delving. It's inspired me to think about exactly what it means to pay for a video game and how the price and value of these products actually works.
See, there's something really interesting about the common argument approving of Fire Emblem Fates' split. "The games are worth their individual prices because each of the three campaigns are about as long as the one of Fire Emblem Awakening," is the generic version, but the true argument therein is that a sizable part of a game's worth can be determined by its amount of content. Unpacking that statement is where things really start to get interesting.
Games Aren't Standardized Like Other Media
The whole idea of content equating to value comes from one of the oddities of video games as a medium, namely that the media form of "games," at least the physical copies, have a universal price but not a universal amount of content. In that respect, they are unique.
Every movie you see is going to have roughly the same runtime: 90 minutes to three hours, generally circling the two-hour mark pretty closely. Likewise, the price of movie tickets, blu-rays, DVDs, and VHS tapes, respectively, have always been fairly standardized. New blu-rays of any feature film cost somewhere around $20 to $25. Similarly, music albums of a given physical medium and time period have an approximately universal length and track number. CDs always release at $10 - $15, and basically any Amazon MP3 album is going to cost you $9.
So, assuming you've already decided to spend money on a movie or album, your considerations between which new album to buy or which new movie to go see are based simply on the strength of your desire for a given album or movie relative to the others. It's unaffected by the price or amount of content therein because those last two metrics always basically match up.
Not so with video games. Like movies and albums, video games — at least physical ones — do have a universal price (though it is platform dependent), but they do not have a universal amount of content — not even roughly. Both Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim came out in the same year (2011) at the same price ($60), but the former lasts about ten hours while the latter boasts having more than fifteen times that amount of content, over 150 hours worth. So, when buying new video games, our desire is based not only on the particular game but also on the length of that game, on the amount of content contained within.
Because there's no standard for games, length and content become an attribute of the purchase — the more the better. They're all the same price, so we like them to be longer. As consumers of video games, we assign a higher relative value not only to the games that we want to play more, but also to the games with more content. So, with Fire Emblem Fates, we're willing to spend more money than normal because we already really want to play Fire Emblem, and this one — Fates seen all as one entity — has way more content than the last.
That makes a fair amount of sense, right? More value to the consumer, higher price. Well, no… not really. There's actually a huge economic dissonance with that idea. The thing is, video games only cost money to buy because they cost money to make.
Games Have no Objective Economic Value
Companies invest money — the budget — in making a game, and they need to recoup that money, and then some, to make a profit. To them, the question of a game's worth isn't determined by the amount of content therein or the quality of the game, but by its potential sales — the more units it moves, the more profit it will generate. So, the metric a company goes by in determining a game's value looks something like this: the game's budget subtracted from the number of copies it will sell.
That need to make money is completely arbitrary to what is actually in the game. Those consumer metrics of content and quality still matter, but only in so far as the company must manipulate them to generate more sales and thereby recoup and profit off of the budget they originally invested. Companies don't price based on quality and content; they price based on wanting a profit. That is the reason games cost money.
To understand cost, you have to understand conflicting interests. We like to imagine that there are these ethereal, objective factors determining consistent "worths" for things, that you can convert quality or content into dollars, but the reality is not so graceful. The truth is, there are two entities — consumers and companies — with two very different ideas of what makes a mutual product — in this case a video game — valuable: amount of content and quality versus number of sales relative to a budget.
And of course it is not always that cut and dry. The executives and even moreso the employees at a given company are still individuals; I'm sure most of them care about the quality of the games they produce. As well, there's all sorts of new territory to be covered on this topic now that digital sales and indie games are screwing with any standard even close to a content-budget-price correlation (see: No Man's Sky, an indie game, is going to cost $60, and I have no idea how to feel about that). But what stays true across the board is that game companies need to worry about profits if they want to stay afloat, and that's going to give them a fundamentally different perspective than the consumer on price.
And, with that, finally we arrive at Nintendo, Fire Emblem Fates, and you.
We've established that after developing a game, companies need to sell individual copies of it to make a profit, but what if there were a way to generate a higher number of sales of the same game without needing to sell copies to a higher number of people? What if a company could just take advantage of the consumers' connection between content and value to sell them the same product in multiple pieces without spending too much more on those pieces? Make a lot more content for only a little extra budget, and sell that content in portions as separate, full products? Since anyone who wants to can still buy just one of the individual pieces, you won't be losing any standard consumers, and consumers who really want to play your game are suddenly worth multiple sales instead of just one.
That is the thinking behind the split of Fire Emblem Fates into three separate games. Nintendo did not need to split this game; they just wanted to make more money.
Fire Emblem's Split is Purely for Profit
Fire Emblem Fates' enormous amount of content was almost certainly not made on a similarly enormous budget. Yes, Fire Emblem Fates probably did take a larger investment than Fire Emblem Awakening, but I sincerely doubt the increase in budget was so much that, had all three parts of Fates been released on one cartridge for $40 (and we already know they would have fit), Nintendo would have been selling the game at anything close to a loss.
With the success of Fire Emblem Awakening, everyone knew Fates was going to sell terrifically, so for selling the whole package as one $40 cartridge to be selling at a loss, Fates' budget would have to have been astronomically high, much higher than Awakening's or that of the average big 3DS game. And, frankly, I find that idea pretty absurd. Birthright, Conquest, and Revelation share an identical engine and core development team, meaning their creation can't really be compared to that of three — or even two — entirely separate games. Further reducing labor and costs, the engine they all share is almost definitely an updated version of Awakening's; the three parts of Fates share a lot of assets; and, from what I hear, playing one of Fates' campaigns doesn't even really take as long to finish as the one of Awakening, despite the identical number of chapters.
And all that tells me that the development of the grand, three-part Fire Emblem Fates was not some incredibly ambitious and herculean undertaking. I don't have the exact stats or anything, but, hell, if it did come to light that this game actually had the ludicrous budget required to justify the split and an eventual price of $80... why!? Where did that money even go? Developing a bunch of new content in certain styles of high-fidelity cinematic games like Uncharted might be somewhere near that expensive, but for Fire Emblem on the 3DS? Just making more levels, adding a few more unit types, writing more dialogue, and whatever else just isn't that hard for this kind of game with an already-built engine.
What all that means is this: Nintendo did not split Fire Emblem Fates' and effectively double its full price because the title's budget made it "worth" that much, or because that increase was necessary to recover a decent profit margin. No, this is not an objectively confirmed fact, but based on the evidence available — everything above plus testimony from friends — I feel confident claiming that all three campaigns could have been released on the same $40 cartridge and still made the company a solid profit.
Instead, what's more likely happened here is that Birthright, Conquest, and Revelation were split up because Nintendo saw a rather exploitative opportunity. They knew that people saw Fire Emblem Awakening as being "worth" its $40 price; they knew that people saw a large part of a game's value as relative to its amount of unique content; and, with those two facts in mind, they knew people would be willing to buy Fire Emblem Fates' campaigns separately, provided each of them had about as much new content as Fire Emblem Awakening did — regardless of whether they really needed to. So, they did it. They split the game into three parts and marketed each of them as being unique, fully-fledged Fire Emblem games, even making it almost seem like a bargain. I mean, if you buy one for the standard $40, you can get two whole other games at half price.
So, is Fire Emblem Fates "worth" its price? Does the amount of content in the game make it worth paying extra money for? Well, there is no objective answer to that. This is Sociology, Conflict Theory: there are two entities working toward different ends, the consumers and the sellers. All I can tell you is that Fates is probably not some special, phenomenally expensive piece of software. It seems fairly certain Nintendo would have made out just fine on this game without the split; they just knew people would be willing to buy it anyway. Then again, who am I to judge your game purchases? I never had plans to buy Fire Emblem Fates anyway, but if, say, Sony decided to be a bunch of stupid jerks and up the price of The Last Guardian to $100? Anyone who knows me knows I'd still buy it. I want it that badly, and if your desire to play the entirety of Fire Emblem Fates is "equivalent to" or higher than the price, go ahead; by all means, get all three.
But make no mistake: Nintendo did not split Fire Emblem Fates up because they needed to. They did it because they saw an opportunity to make some extra money off you.
Enjoy reading this? Check out Barry's previous editorial: "A Game's Atmosphere is Defined by its Mechanics, Not its Aesthetic"