Budget games mean more than pocket money to the software industry — they account for more than half of sales now. And while there’s still a value stigma attached to £1.99 quickies, cheap doesn’t necessarily mean nasty, as BARNABY PAGE explains in this analysis of the games world’s latest incredible watershed with grave and far-reaching implications (Number 65 of a series).
There’s nothing like a good apocalypse to get this nervous industry excited. Every year, the pundits says the bubble is about to burst. Amstrad gobbles up Sinclair — whatever happened to gentility? CSD collapses — is this the end of distribution as we know it? American giants Electronic Arts muscle into the UK market — was the battle lost on the playing fields of Pasadena?
But perhaps the biggest bugbear this autumn is the boom in sales of budget software. When Mastertronic first launches £1.99 games three and a half years ago, the flourishing industry laughed at them. Fact: Mastertronic has sold about 12 million games in under four years.
Now Mastertronic General Manager Martin Carroll claims his software house’s many labels (M.A.D., Americana, Entertainment USA, Bulldog and the rerelease label Ricochet, all budget) account for about 15% of all sales in the UK leisure software market.
And the Gallup market-research organisation reckons some 60% of all games sold this year will be budget — an estimate pushed up from less than 50% in the light of soaring sales. So far from being a pesky thorn in the side of full-price sales, budget is big business; some normally sober observers reckon the UK leisure market is worth as much as £80 million a year.
Already, the figures tell a story: Mastertronic’s Carroll will put out 10,000 or 15,000 copies of a game at once, while the first production run for a full-price product might be just 2,000 or 3,000 copies.
But reports of the death of full-price software have been greatly exaggerated, most industry bosses agree — because though budget and full-price are both battling for the consumer’s money, they’re fighting by different rules.
Full-price games sell quickly when they’re hot and new, propelled up the charts by magazine reviews, ad campaigns and word of mouth — or they flop. As Code Masters Manager Jim Darling puts it, ‘for a full-price game to succeed now there has to be something pretty special about it — and that’s more to do with the licensed names and the hype than the actual product’.
Budget games are low-profile, unadvertised (‘there’s just not enough money to do it’ — Darling’), and there s not much profit on each unit. But they keep on going, casually bought like magazines in corner newsagents and garages, which the full-price games don’t reach. ‘A good budget game will sell for one or two or three years, enthuses Darling, and as an example-in-the-making he cites Code Masters’s BMX Simulator released in the New Year, it hasn’t dropped off at all’.
Though the profit margin on budget games is tiny, overheads are low — cheap packaging and duplication, often minor bargain-basement programmers — and budget labels produce far more games each month than their full-price counterparts. ‘The key to success in budget publication is low overhead and high production run,’ says Mastertronic’s Carroll with authority.
Some critics see the budget labels churning out cassettefuls of dross, scraping a few pennies and letting the pounds pile up any old how. But budget producers insist that they can’t afford to release poor games — because the individual titles aren’t well-known, it’s the name of the label that makes or breaks sales. Indeed, even within the industry, it’s the range — Reaktor, Americana, The Power House, whatever — rather than the actual game which is promoted.
Darling of Code Masters takes an understandably optimistic view: ‘The real reason for our success is quality of product. With one or two exceptions, we’ve not released any duff products.’
And he’s dubious about the value of full-price hype, saying ‘the manufacturing and distribution end of this industry underestimates the ability of the end users to know what they’re buying and make an intelligent purchase.’
Darling also gives credit to his archrival, acknowledging that ‘what Mastertronic proves is that for £1.99 or £2.99 the kids can get games as good as they used to pay £8.99 for.’
One dissenting voice: Electronic Arts supremo Trip Hawkins. ‘If you buy a book, you expect it to be well-edited, well-printed and there to be no typographical errors,’ he pontificated in a recently-published interview. ‘If you buy a record you expect all the instruments to be finely-tuned ... with budget software, a lot of the production values aren’t very good.’
Strangely, though, rerelease budget labels like Elite’s £2.99 Classics haven’t sold very well — even when the games were Smashes available at a fraction of their original price. It’s those crazy, crazy markets.
There’s another side to the story, though. About half of all budget games are sold through small outlets such as garages and CTNs (confectioner/ tobacconist/ newsagents), but the rest go through specialist software shops and the high-street multiples, where they positively profit from the presence of hyped-up full-price packages.
The goggle-eyed sprogs of industry myth wander along the software racks and pickup an £8.99 game — and when you re blowing a £10 note anyway, you don’t miss another couple of quid, so the consumer picks up a budget game on his way to the till.
Perhaps the psychological appeal of buying, obtaining means that budget games will never quite supplant the higher-priced products and their fancy packaging. And, to be fair to the full-price games, it’s not just a matter of glitter; some of the best software will always be full-price because budget producers can’t afford to spend a long time programming or to pay the teams of specialists for sound, graphics and so on which big games require.
Maybe that’s why b***** is still a dirtyish word. Take the Playability By Design team (U.C.M. — The Ultimate Combat Mission): they don’t do budget games, oh no, they do ‘low-price full-price games’ which Mastertronic happen to sell at £2.99, according to programmer Dave Thompson.
It’s not so easy to really make budget games in the full-price style, though. Production methods are different for budget houses, and so is distribution to those all-important CTNs. Budget games have to get everywhere because they’re not hunted for as specific titles; ‘sales and distribution are extremely important because they’re radically different,’ according to Firebird Budget packaging serves a different purpose, too. Whereas full-price packaging can be glossy and impressive, the inlay for a budget game has to tell you something about the unpromoted title itself.
That’s another reason why ‘it’d be very difficult for a full-price house to go into budget’, as Smith comments.
It’s more likely that the full-price labels will lower their prices to a midrange compromise — £5.95, say, as Software Projects did earlier this year — and indeed some wild estimates put the average price of 8-bit software as low as £7.95 already.
‘It’s going to get harder to maintain a full release schedule on 8-bit at full price,’ says Firebird’s Smith. ‘As 16-bit hardware gets cheaper the 16-bit machines will be the ‘quality’ end and the 8-bit mostly budget except for a few special projects.’
Mastertronic’s Carroll agrees — ‘budget may well take over for existing 8-bit machines,’ he says, because ‘the quality difference between budget and full-price has narrowed’.
A firmer forecast comes from Martin Currey, Sales Manager at R&R Distribution (which handles the Top Ten budget label among others, and owns Alternative): ‘Full-price software is going to drop a couple of quid. There will be a situation where it’ll remain a steady balance; I don’t think budget will take over.
‘There’ll be two distinct price levels after this Christmas: £6.95, £7.95 at maximum, and then your £15/£20 level.’
And, of course, there’ll be the budgets selling away, mostly at the variants of £2 and £3 (£1.99, £2.95 etc).
So budget has boomed, and software houses like Mastertronic have proved that you can produce quality games, sell them at a quarter of ‘full price’ (whatever that is) and still make a tidy profit.
The retail trade is convinced, too — when Woolworth decided to reintroduce software to its shops in autumn 1986, the cautious chain tested the water with budget games in 70 shops and then, when that was successful, realised computer games do sell and risked full-price software as well.
One producer, Ocean’s David Ward, dreads budget taking over the high-street multiples. When deciding what to stock, many chains assess sales value per foot of shelf — and of course a few feet of budget games drags down the value per foot of the whole software section. Despite the Woolworth move, Ward fears budget may force all games out of the high streets.
Still, many full-price houses have decided that if they can’t beat the budget specialists they might as well join ’em, and launched budget labels: witness Hewson’s Rack-It, with its first releases this month, distributed by market leader Mastertronic. Only a few have shied away from the budget battleground: Ocean, Activision and Elite (burned by its Classics experience), for instance.
As the characteristically self-confident industry paper Computer Trade Weekly proclaims, ‘budget has won the intellectual battle; it appears to be winning the commercial one as well’. That’s software for you; another day, another crisis...
THERE ARE LIES, damned lies and statistics. Everyone accepts that Mastertronic sells more ‘units’ than any other budget house, but there’s a constant barrage of statistics as the also-rans fight for second and thirds place. (‘Units’? A separate game and a compilation each count as one unit. Market share is usually measured in units sold, not income.)
Telecomsoft — that’s Firebird — claims 11.6% of the whole games market and therefore, by Publisher Chris Smith’s reckoning, about a quarter of budget sales. He’ll settle for second place after Mastertronic, but insists ‘we’re closing the gap rapidly.’
That’s news to Jim Darling at Code Masters, who says ‘we probably sell more than Telecomsoft.’ Statistic from the Gallup software sales charts give Code Masters only about 15% of the budget market — but, according to Darling, that’s because Gallup doesn’t poll enough of the CRNs where Code Masters sell.
Nonsense, says Alternative’s Martin Currey, worn out and tetchy after a hard day of thinking he sells more than Code Masters.
Even Mastertronic General Manager Martin Carroll quibbles: ‘The Gallup poll consistently underestimates our market share because of the preponderance of WH Smith in the chart sales.’ He reckons Mastertronic takes 30% of the budget market.
Ears must be burning in Gallup’s north London number-crunching headquarters. Social Surveys (Gallup), perhaps the country’s best-known pollsters, compiles the weekly music, video and software charts as well as political surveys, opinion polls and market research.
The Gallup software chart originally listed each week’s 30 top-selling games. It was changed in mid-July to the Top Fifty Computer games — but it’s actually two charts of 25 titles, one covering full-price games and one covering budget games. They’re considered different products — perhaps because they do reach different markets and sell for different reasons.
Every week, Gallup send a list of games to about 150 shops around the country. The shops fill in how many copies they’ve sold of each title, and Gallup compiled the results, publishing them each week in Computer Trade Weekly.
The charts annoy some software producers because they don’t reflect CTN sales as well as they do high-street chains and computer stores; and, as R&R Distribution / Alternative’s Currey points out, a slow-selling budget game may not show up in the charts because shop assistants ‘forget to put things down which did sell but only sell one or two.’
Still, ‘Gallup’s all right as long as you don’t trust it 100%,’ he says. There’s not much choice — retailers depend on the charts. Says Woolworth buyer Nigel Wood, who chooses software for the whole chain: ‘We’re going in a very clear direction — the Top Fifty.’
And Wood reckons those Top 50 account for 65% of games sold each week. They may not be perfect, but you can’t ignore the charts.