The ‘GDC 25’ Chronicles: A Numbers Game

numbersgame.jpg[Continuing his ‘GDC 25’ archival research ahead of the 25th Game Developers Conference in San Francisco next February, official GDC historian Jason Scott unearths a GDC 1997 talk on the arcane art of pricing retail games in the ’90s.]

I’ve been humming along with audio recording digitization for the GDC Vault (and intend to start doing video as well) and as I cast the net wider, I get to listen to a range of subjects I normally wouldn’t sit around for. It’s like I’m suddenly an attendee who went to every panel, in every year. And in the front row, besides!

With this mega-attending of a quantum GDC, I’ve gotten a real appreciation for clear and well-spoken speakers, and subjects presented comprehensively. The titles don’t have to sound sexy, and they don’t have to have speakers’ names that are ripped from the cover of top-selling games. They just have to give a great talk.

So with great pleasure, I present to you “Strategic Pricing”, a Game Developers Conference 1997 presentation given by Phil Adam and Ann Stevens, and for which the audio is available on GDC Vault for free. A talk in which… hey, come back here! I’m serious!

Phil Adam co-founded Spectrum-Holobyte, a grand game publisher founded in the early 1980s; the company nearly made it to 20 years before being absorbed by Hasbro in 1998. At the time of this presentation, Mr. Adam is working at Interplay, a company he’d ultimately become president of.

As we’re all living in the future now, the urge to point where the past got it wrong is pretty strong. But what I think is more useful than pointing out this prediction versus that prediction is the clear, straightforward way the speakers describe the nature of choosing what price to charge for retail games and when, how to assess the lifetime of a game, and some examples of successes and failures they’ve been a part of.

After introducing himself, Adam talks about his early days in the market, where it wasn’t hard to have a top-20 game when there were only 18 products on the chart. He brings in details about the current price structure of games that are interesting with perspective: his no-nonsense classifying of the size of the gaming/target markets in 1997 describes a community/customer base now considered the size of the indie market. “We do not sell 10 million units.” “We are niche.”

Ann Stevens gives a presentation about prices changes in which she credits Myst for dominating and then causing a price drop in the adventure game genre. I’ve found, playing through the tapes I’m digitizing from these years, that Myst‘s effect on games in the ’90s is so dramatic and far-reaching that it’s sometimes hard to find it not mentioned in a presentation, regardless of the subject matter or speaker. She also talks about the phenomenon of chains (including supermarkets) selling computer games at a loss, and why they might do that…

She also describes the competition for shelf space, and the influence of “outside” companies like Disney and Mattel on pricing for their software products. She mentioned how the computer game version of The Lion King had reviews that mentioned how it didn’t actually work in some cases, and yet it still sold well.

The open question is how this industry will grow from here – as Adam points out, “We’re not in the software business. We’re in the entertainment business.” He then provides some of the strategies various firms employ to extend the life of their products, including this little piece of software he helped release in the U.S.: Tetris.

Opening the floor to Q&A from the crowd, subjects mentioned include planning rebates, creating buzz, the changes in the retailing landscape in recent years, and whether internet sales will ever be significant.

It’s a great snapshot, and an excellent additional set of tools. Go listen to it on GDC Vault right now, and check out the full ‘GDC 25’ Chronicles archive for more historic audio, video, and documentation.