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Commentary Consoles

This is the one problem with the Nintendo Switch

Commentary: Nintendo's transportable console is a massive hit, but the pricing of its games remains a sore point for this CNET editor.

My entire Switch games library.

David Carnoy/CNET

What do the Nintendo Switch and the new $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta have in common?

Not much. But when I heard how Arthur M. Blank, the owner of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons and Major League Soccer's Atlanta United, decided to introduce a value menu with $2 hot dogs, $5 cheeseburgers and beers and refillable sodas when he opened the new stadium -- and that it had paid off with higher food and beverage revenues -- I was somehow reminded of the Switch.

Not because the Switch has anything resembling a value menu. Just the opposite: Many, if not most, Switch games cost more than their counterparts on Sony's PlayStation 4 and Microsoft's Xbox One, and the "on sale" pricing is nowhere near as good as it is on those consoles. (PlayStation and Xbox both have subscription services -- PlayStation Now and Xbox Live Pass -- that offer dozens of games for a monthly or yearly fee, but I'm strictly talking about the a la carte title sales.)

In the case of Atlanta's new stadium, the bargain eats alongside the expected assortment of craft beers, sushi, tricked-out tacos and fancy sandwiches (brisket grilled cheese or portobello mushroom burger anyone?) was pitched as a goodwill gesture to make up for more expensive tickets, parking and everything else.

The Mercedes-Benz Stadium value menu.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium

While overall profit was down -- according to a Bloomberg article quoting Steve Cannon, CEO of Blank's company, AMB Sports and Entertainment -- revenue was up 53 percent and the amount spent per fan rose by 16 percent. Also, fans arrived earlier to games to consume food and beverages, better staggering entry into the stadium -- and they also bought more team merch.

Nintendo, meanwhile, is selling Switch hardware at a record-setting pace. It's nearing 15 million units before its first birthday, meaning that it's already surpassed the entire lifetime sales of the Wii U. But on the software side, I really wish it would take a page out of Blank's book -- not to mention Microsoft and Sony's -- and go for a value menu approach.

I now own six Switch games, but only paid full price for one: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Rocket League, Riptide Renegade, NBA 2K18, FIFA 18 and NBA Playgrounds were all on sale. Some, like NBA Playgrounds ($10) and Riptide Renegade ($5), I only bought because they were relatively cheap. I don't like to buy physical copies anymore, but made an exception for FIFA 18, which was on sale at Best Buy for $30 on Black Friday.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey, the two biggest Switch hits, are not in my library. That's partially because I bought the Switch more for my four kids to use, so I've been mainly focused on investing in multiplayer games they can play together. (Yes, I bought two extra controllers so they could play Mario Kart.) But even when Arms went on sale recently, I didn't pull the trigger, because the game just isn't worth $40 ($20, maybe).

Sale prices on Switch games? Keep waiting

While I can afford to buy $60 games, as an owner of both an Xbox One and a PlayStation 4 I've been being spoiled by all the great sales. I also can't profess to being the Nintendo fanboy that some of my CNET colleagues are, so I can live without Zelda and Mario Odyssey despite their awesomeness.

If the past is any indicator, Nintendo's AAA titles will probably never go on sale -- or only get small discounts. (The price for a physical copy of Mario Odyssey recently dipped to $48.66 on Amazon, for instance.) That's par for the course with Nintendo, particularly when those titles are a big reason people are buying the console. Four Nintendo titles topped the bestsellers list for 2017, at least for physical media. But what's more irksome is how much third-party titles cost.

For instance, the 2016 version of Doom costs $60 to download on the Switch and $30 on the PS4 and Xbox One. The Switch may be a new console, but Doom isn't a new game -- I bought it for $20 for the PS4 last year. Neither is Minecraft. It's $20 on the PS4 and Xbox One, but $30 on the Switch.

Game pricing comparison

Title PS4 Xbox One Switch
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim $40 ($30 digital) $40 ($30 digital) $60 ($60 digital)
Rocket League $30 ($20 digital) $30 ($20 digital) $40 ($20 digital)
Doom $30 ($30 digital) $30 ($30 digital) $60 ($60 digital)
Dragonball Xenoverse 2 $30 ($60 digital) $30 ($60 digital) $50 ($50 digital)
Lego Ninjago $50 ($50 digital) $50 ($50 digital) $50 ($50 digital)
L.A. Noire $40 ($40 digital) $40 ($40 digital) $50 ($50 digital)
Batman Telltale Series $20 ($25 digital) $20 ($25 digital) $40 ($40 digital)
Overcooked Special Edition $20 ($20 digital) $20 ($20 digital) $40 ($20 digital)
Payday 2 $20 ($20 digital) $20 ($12 digital) $50 ($50 digital)
Minecraft $20 ($20 digital) $20 ($20 digital) $30 ($40 digital)
Just Dance 2018 $60 ($60 digital) $60 ($60 digital) $60 ($60 digital)
FIFA 18 $40 ($30 digital) $40 ($30 digital) $40 ($60 digital)

(Most expensive version in bold. The Switch version of Payday 2 is coming late February.)

Yes, it's true that these games have been on PS4 and Xbox One longer than on the Switch, and their prices may drop once they get equally long in the tooth on Nintendo's console. And I suppose Nintendo would argue that Switch users are paying a premium for the ability to play on their big-screen TV and on the go -- something you just can't do with these same games on other consoles. (Nintendo didn't respond to my request for comment on its game pricing strategy.)

But consider the Special Edition of Overcooked. It's currently $20 on all three platforms, but it frequently goes on sale on the PS4 and Xbox One. I bought it for a little more than $6 on the PS4, for instance. I'd be surprised to see that price on the Switch anytime soon.

What was the No. 1 downloaded game on the Switch last year? Despite being released in October, it was Stardew Valley, a $15 indie farming title that didn't take up much space on gamers' memory cards, according to Eurogamer. Leaving aside its merits as a game (GameSpot rated it 9/10), I'd venture to guess its $15 price tag was one of its bigger selling points.

Welcome to Nintendo tax season

A lot of folks wrote about how the physical version of Rockstar's LA Noire remaster originally cost $10 more on the Switch than the PS4 and Xbox One (the Switch digital version was recently on sale, but it no longer is). The reason behind that price inflation, which some people call the Nintendo tax, apparently involves what Nintendo charges third-party publishers for platform and game cartridge fees. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo each take a cut of each game sold on their respective consoles.

According to Niko Partners analyst Daniel Ahmed, whose tweet was cited in a Forbes article about Nintendo game pricing last September, between the platform fee and what it costs to put a game on a 32GB cartridge, it costs a publisher "60 percent more for them than it would for a 50GB Blu-ray" on PS4 or Xbox One. "Your game needs to be less than 8GB," he added, "because 8GB carts are cheaper, if you want to make the same margin as a PS4/XB1 Blu-ray disc."

The added cartridge and packaging costs don't apply to digital sales, but you may be more likely to see bigger discounts on physical copies of certain Switch games as stores attempt to move excess inventory. In the digital world, there's no need for that.

What's unfortunate is that while the Switch may be a revolutionary console in terms of its ability to easily transform from mobile to home console, its cartridge system and lack of internal memory -- you have to buy your own microSD card, which is OK, but it'd be nice if it came with some base storage like the PS4 or Xbox One -- is a little too like the PlayStation Vita, Sony's now all-but-forgotten portable console.

I was a little surprised when Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus was half price ($30) over the holiday, just weeks, not months, after its release. But that's increasingly what consumers have come to expect. As platforms like the PC (led by Steam), PS4 and Xbox One all embrace the flash discount and volume sale model, you learn that if just wait a little bit, you can pick up great games for much better prices.

The new Atlanta stadium was also apparently designed with volume sales in mind. Cannon noted in a video interview with Bloomberg that long lines, high pricing and the quality of the food have been "pain points" for sports fans and that the new stadium -- and value menu -- was addressing them, creating happy customers. He said that next season, which will culminate with Atlanta hosting the Super Bowl, they're working toward becoming even more efficient. And yes, the $2 hot dogs will be available even at the Super Bowl.

Sadly, with the Switch being the huge success that it is, I doubt Nintendo is motivated to make its own or third-party games more affordable. Only time will tell, but I'm still waiting for its goodwill gesture.

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