Budget games are a big deal. We're not all made of money, as the saying goes, and, as the prices of major new games start to tumble faster and faster, the number of high quality games shipping out at a budget price point is on the up. Just last week in fact, Sony revealed that PS2 Platinum titles would soon hit £14.99 in the UK, and surely it won't be long before Nintendo and Microsoft follow suit.
With this in mind, we recently spoke to Andy Payne, managing director of The Mastertronic Group, which is responsible for labels like PC Gamer Presents (a selection of games marked at 80% or higher in the pages of the respected UK games magazine), MAD (titles that have sold more than 100,000 units worldwide) and Sold Out (cheaper, £4.99 titles), addressing the issues of how games turn up on budget, which games we can expect in future, and even the question of whether the altered packaging is good or bad news for hardcore fans.
Eurogamer: Judging by the figures you're quoting, Mastertronic dominates the UK budget sector. Is that a good thing for our readers?
Andy Payne: I don't think it really matters to your readers, there are plenty of great games available for their PCs at unbeatable prices - we happen to offer a pretty decent selection at both £9.99 and £4.99 so hopefully your readers will like what we sell.
Eurogamer: Reviews aren't always kind on a lot of your re-releases, but presumably you still see decent returns on games that are scoring low in magazines and on the Internet because of the price point. Apart from the PC Gamer range, which obviously has the bar set at 80% review score, is quality a major concern in selecting games for the labels?
Andy Payne: Quality is a major factor and always will be, however, not all games are of an equally high standard and not all games suit all people. Reviews are always subjective and that works both ways. If PC Gamer eulogise about a particular game for example and award it 90% plus (which is very high in their book), it may not necessarily mean that the game will sell. We took a risk on two games by a small British developer - Pom Pom - Mutant Storm (90%) and Space Tripper (92%) - both were critically acclaimed, but because consumers and importantly retail had no idea of the quality of these games, they simply did not sell. This was a huge disappointment for us and the developers. Other games may get a high review score, but when you actually read the review, the reviewer has little if anything positive to say about the game. A high score does not guarantee quality or sales, because it is purely subjective and subject to the reviewer's prejudices. But a high score at least makes a game seem credible from the consumer's point of view and most of the time, the higher the score the better the game. Equally some games sell in huge volumes and not always does this mean that the game is of a high quality, after all the hype machines of the full price publishers are paid to get games sold. Most of the time, games that sell in vast quantities are of pretty high quality.
As the PC market consolidates even more (fewer bigger developers and publishers, games costing more to develop and market) a lot of the lower quality products are being squeezed out - call it natural selection. The result of this is that the numbers of products coming to budget has reduced over the last couple of years and those that do get re-published are of a higher quality. This is great news for everyone, your readers included, if they want great games for their PC.
Eurogamer: When buying a budget game, for example something on the £4.99 Sold Out label, what level of support can gamers expect?
Andy Payne: A very high level indeed. Firstly all Mastertronic games on all of our labels are wrapped with our own plug and play installer and all of the various patches added to the game since launch are included. Then if the customer cannot get the product to work, we have a customer support line, manned five days a week and actually answered by a human being. No matter the cost, we like to try and give all our customers the highest level of service.
Eurogamer: What happens if the game was released on an older operating system than we currently have? For example, what happens when you want to publish a DOS game originally aimed at DOS and Windows 95/98 users, when a lot of people are now using Windows XP?
Andy Payne: We no longer launch any PC games which are not XP compatible; we have not launched any games that were not XP since June 2003 and we have dropped non XP products from our back catalogue.
Eurogamer: What kind of high profile titles can we expect to see released as part of the range over the coming months?
Andy Payne: We have Far Cry, Rollercoaster Tycoon 2, Prince of Persia, Deus Ex: Invisible War, Hitman Contracts and Shellshock Nam '67, Champ Manager 03/04... all penned for this year.
Eurogamer: At the moment your main interest is in PC titles, with Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo seemingly in total control of their own budget releases on consoles. Is that something you'd like to see change?
Andy Payne: Yes, although the current re-publishing model which is prevalent for the PC platform is not replicated on the console platforms, and is unlikely to change. Our strategy is to produce low budget licensed titles for the mass market which we can be sold at a pocket money price of say £9.99. Time will tell if this strategy will work, but it is what retail are asking us to concentrate on as a new part of our total offering.
Eurogamer: £19.99, the price of most budget console titles, is twice and in many cases four times what you charge for PC. Given your experience of the sector, do you think that represents good value to the average consumer?
Andy Payne: The Sony Platinum range has now been reduced to £14.99, and the reality of retail promotion is that there are more and more multi buys being seen at retail - especially in supermarkets - namely two for £19.99 or two for £14.99. Overall I think the value for money is good from a consumer's point of view, but consumers always want more for less and prices will definitely fall. The biggest growth area right now is not budget console games or full price games, but second-hand games. This actually means that the real price of games is falling. Time will tell if this is a good thing or not, for all players.
Eurogamer: Something that's come to light since E3 is Nintendo's plan to re-release its own games digitally. Do you plan to move into digital distribution at some point, or offer it as an option?
Andy Payne: Yes we do plan to enter this market. But like everything the theory and the practice need to be properly matched. We have to embrace the investment and brand values we have built in the current budget/value market into the digital distribution market. Technology, distribution reach and content will be the initial kings, but customer service and satisfaction will always win the day. We will look to partner on the technology side of things and use our experience in the other areas to build a compelling service.
Eurogamer: Do you feel threatened by other companies' plans in this regard?
Andy Payne: Threatened no, but inspired yes. It will be a huge market place, so our choice of partners will be key. Bring it on.
Eurogamer: One of the things we've often thought about budget games is that it's a shame the product's original packaging isn't preserved. Obviously that's a taste issue, but we feel sure plenty of gamers feel likewise. Do you think your current packaging, which obviously pushes your brand names very heavily, is perhaps a turn-off for some gamers who may be tempted to scour bargain bins in search of originals instead?
Andy Payne: As an avid collector of many things, I am with you on that to a degree. But in order to build a range and a brand we needed to standardise our packaging, such is the retailer's expectations. We do always stick to the original packaging as the main feature of the packaging and we do feel that the branding helps to build a quality brand and assurance and that will help the new gamers and more casual gamers who may not be familiar with the original titles first time round.
Eurogamer: Generally speaking, what can we expect in the future from Mastertronic?
Andy Payne: More of the same - i.e. quality, range and choice at both price points and hopefully more products on the console formats - priced fairly.