How much is too much for mobile games?

XCOM Enemy Unknown (Windows screenshot 002)

I was going to write this post when everything was raw, soon after the news had developed and the internet was awash with people seemingly frothing at the mouth. Frothing, apparently, for one of two reasons.

Firstly, we had the people frothing because “ZOMG, 20 dollars for an iPad game!!!!.” Apparently anything the wrong side of free is just about the developers trying to squeeze money out of their hard work. Because, well, it’s their living.

Then secondly, there were the polar opposites. People screaming back, apparently oblivious to the fact they were wasting their time, claiming that developers deserve to be paid and that free to play games have ruined the App Store, caused world hunger and possibly even kicked a kitten once.

The truth though, as is so often the case, is somewhere in-between…

So assuming you bothered to click the little ‘Read More’ button, I’ve still got your attention. Right now the chances are you’re either sharpening your pitchfork or genuinely confused at the rather meandering narrative of this opinion piece. Either works for me, so let’s continue.

First, a little back story.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown was originally a PC game way back in the 90s, back when Apple sucked and Google didn’t even exist. Then, last year, the game got what all time honored classics get: re-imagined.

Now according to popular belief, unlike most re-imaginings, this one was actually pretty good. Xbox 360, PS3 and PC releases later and we now stand on the verge of a new platform for the title to branch onto. Apple’s iOS, be it iPad, iPhone or iPod touch.

The title itself remains largely unchanged from its big brothers, which is worth remembering for later on. It’s had touch-based fanciness added here and there, but it’s the same game you’d play on a PC. It’s even the same game I’ve got sat on a shelf in a brand new Xbox 360 box. I’ve never gotten around to playing it. But I digress.

Back story all fleshed out, the 20th of this month sees that aforementioned title reach iOS. Its price? $20, or £14 if you use proper money or all kinds of denominations if you’re from one of the other umpteen App Store territories. Regardless, it’ll be a lot.

Or will it?

Let’s get back to that first group of people I told you about earlier. The ZOMG crew, let’s call them. The band of miseries took to their Twitter accounts, Facebook feeds and blog comment sections to denounce publisher 2K for having the audacity to charge so much for a mobile game. $20 when the App Store is literally littered with a myriad of free games. At a push, people will pay a couple of dollars. Maybe $5 if it’s got EA plastered on it somewhere. More than that? You’ve got to be kidding!?

Well, no, not really.

The reason for the ‘high’ price tag, as I alluded to earlier, is that XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a direct port of the console and PC game. It’s, for want of a better phrase, a proper game. It’s not watered down, it’s not been bastardized to work on a tablet or smartphone beyond having the touch-based magic sprinkled on top.

It’s also $40 currently via Amazon should you want to play the same game on PC. Or $33 on Xbox 360 or PS3. That’s double, or at best over 50% more than the iOS version, depending on your platform of choice.

So, it’s at this point that this almost indecipherable rant would have ended, probably with a line telling everyone to stop being so damn cheap and to cough up $20 for what by all accounts is a pretty fine title.

But this is 48 hours later, and I’ve slept since then. I’ve had time to think about about it since then, and I’ve contemplated my own buying decision given the fact that I’m actually rather excited about the game. I’d likely actually get around to playing it on iOS, especially thanks to 2K’s cloud save functionality that keeps your game in sync no matter which device you are using. But there’s a problem.

I find myself straddling the two groups of people we spoke about at the beginning of this growing collection of words. I’m fully apologetic of the price, and agree that it’s no doubt entirely worth $20 of anybody’s money. But I won’t be buying it.

I just can’t bring myself to do it, and I don’t know why. There’s a mental block of some sort. It feels like it should be cheaper, even if it shouldn’t. It’s the curse of the App Store and its incessant race to the bottom. In a bid to make cheaper and cheaper games, developers have conditioned us to expect them, regardless of quality. XCOM: Enemy Unknown can be the best game ever to grace an iPad. It can be the game we’ve all been waiting for. But are we ready for it?

Perhaps the real question is this: is Apple’s own App Store standing in the way of iOS becoming a real gaming platform to rival the likes of Nintendo and Sony? And if so what does Apple do about it?

What can it do about it?