Gaming is one of my favourite things. I've declared my love for controlling the fate of pixels on a screen in excruciating detail in the past, and how much I enjoy replicating the tiki-taka playstyle of football in EA Sports' FIFA. But there's a big problem with gaming in India, one that has been around for so long that many have simply accepted it as fact: it's an expensive hobby.
Firstly, there's the big hardware investment. If you're looking to get into gaming, you've got two camps to choose from: the PlayStation 4 or the Xbox One. Officially, the PS4 retails for Rs. 30,990 in India, which is almost 1.6x its price in the US at $300 (about Rs. 19,500). If you'd rather go with Microsoft, you're looking at Rs. 23,990 for the Xbox One S, which is 1.3x its US price at $280 (about Rs. 18,200).
The mark-up is considerably higher for those interested in 4K gaming. In India, the PS4 Pro has a sticker price of Rs. 41,990, nearly Rs. 16,000 more than its $400 (about Rs. 26,000) price tag in the US. Xbox fans don't have it any better: the Xbox One X will soon be Rs. 48,490, which is Rs. 15,990 more than what it costs in the US, at $500 (about Rs. 32,500).
Of course, this isn't a problem unique to gaming consoles. One of the reasons for the high price is the customs duty levied by the Indian government, which affects nearly every product from phones to TVs. But while most categories have affordable options – there are some great Rs. 10,000 phones, and you can get a 4K TV for less than Rs. 40,000 – that's not the case with gaming. Sony and Microsoft have a duopoly, and there's no looking elsewhere.
Moreover, India doesn't see Black Friday-type hardware sales, which brought both PS4 and Xbox One to under $200, or about Rs. 13,000, last November. That's half the cost of both consoles in India, which even at their best retail for just a couple of thousand rupees less. Essentially, you could buy two PS4s for the price of one. That's ridiculous.
Earn less, pay more
Unfortunately, that's only the tip of the iceberg. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, the annual median per capita income in India stood at $616, which placed India 99th among the list of 131 countries polled, and last among the BRICS – Brazil ($2,247), Russia ($4,129), India, China ($1,786), and South Africa ($1,217) – which was formed owing to the similarities in their economies. India's average is roughly a third of China, and lower than the likes of Costa Rica, Kazakhstan, and Mexico. The US, if you're wondering, came in sixth with $15,480.
Of course, this doesn't paint a true picture. As of 2014, 58 percent of India's population lived on less than $3.10 per day, according to the World Bank, for whom video gaming remains an unthinkable proposition when basic needs can't be properly met. But even for those with similar urban jobs in India and the US, average incomes are roughly 6-10 times more for those in the latter. According to data collected by job listings aggregator Indeed, a McDonald's assistant manager earned $3,902 (Rs. 2,53,794) in India annually, as opposed to $25,764 (Rs. 16,75,948) in the US. A software engineer working for Google nets $13,685 (Rs. 8,89,968) in India, and $130,889 in the US.
With such a big gulf in income, a salaried middle-class Indian has to work 9-14 times more to afford a PS4. Add to that the fact that some game companies such as Nintendo don't care about India, which means you've to import the Switch (and in turn, pay even more) if you're a fan of Mario and Zelda. And hence, even though console games – $60 in the US, and Rs. 3,999 in India – cost the same, Indians are essentially paying over 10 times more for every game as well.
The high price of games means you get less for your money compared to other forms of entertainment in India. If you're a film and TV shows buff, you're likely subscribed to the big three streaming services: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hotstar. Netflix comes in at Rs. 650 per month (that's Rs. 7,800 annually), Amazon Prime costs Rs. 999 a year, and Hotstar is usually Rs. 199 per month (that's Rs. 2,388 for the year). Put that all together and it comes to just over Rs. 11,000.
On the PS4 and Xbox One, Rs. 11,000 will get you two big titles (Rs. 3,499 - Rs. 3,999) and a couple of other smaller games (Rs. 1,499) at launch. That's it. And that's if you choose not to spend on Sony and Microsoft's subscription service PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live Gold, which are mandatory for playing online, and cost about Rs. 4,000 for the year. If you do need that, you can take one big title off your shopping list. Of course, if you don't mind waiting – movies take months to arrive on streaming services too, by comparison – you can get games for Rs. 999 - Rs. 2,499 during sales, helping you squeeze a couple of titles more.
But I'm not going to count the free games in PS Plus and Xbox Live Gold, as most of them are either really bad or really old. Hence, even a best case scenario involves enjoy five great games a year, compared to dozens of new titles on Netflix, Amazon and Hotstar. And oh, you don't need dedicated hardware for those.
A troubling future
There isn't a lot Sony and Microsoft can do on the hardware front since the government levies duties, but surely it's worth experimenting with regional pricing like they did in the PS3-Xbox 360 era. And it's not like it's impossible. Film studios from Disney to Warner Bros. have made it easier to buy on disc in India. Two of the biggest movies in recent months, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Black Panther, are Rs. 899 and Rs. 799 respectively on Blu-ray, which is about half their $25 (Rs. 1,625) listed price in the US.
Granted films make most of their money from theatrical releases. But what's stopping console and game makers from putting together a similar pay-per-play setup? For what it's worth, Sony has PlayStation Now, but it's only available in a few places, runs via the cloud and hence costs too much. Microsoft's efforts with Xbox Game Pass, which is here in India, allows downloads and includes the latest exclusives, are more commendable. But both have a big common problem: they don't offer new third-party titles at launch.
EA, the owner of franchises such as FIFA and Need for Speed, has its own offering on Xbox One (EA Access) and PC (Origin Access) that goes a step further, but then limits access to new titles to 10 hours unless you pay for the full game. It's obvious why, EA is afraid it'll cannibalise its existing business if it removes that restriction. But maybe that's not true. Since I first signed up for a music streaming service in 2014, I've listened to a lot more artists than before. And if gaming were entirely subscription-based, I'd definitely try out games that I might never consider outright buying.
Unfortunately, with the current model serving the industry well, and the prohibitive cost of gaming hardware in India keeping most away – unofficial estimates put the PS4 at 250,000 units sold, and a mere 30,000 for the Xbox One – the gaming powers that be are more than happy to squeeze out as much as possible from the dedicated ones. We deserve better, but is anyone even listening?