If you’re a person who lives in Australia who has the Internet then chances are you know of the vast disparity in prices between goods available here in Australia and those overseas. For some things a small gap is reasonable, I mean it does cost a bit to ship things here to Australia, but when it comes to things that don’t require shipping (like software) the price gap makes a whole lot less sense. Indeed this point was highlighted when the price difference between Australia and the USA was enough to cover the cost of a flight and still come home with change to spare. For those of us who’ve been dealing with this for years now (thanks Steam!) we have a term for this sort of thing.
We call it the Australia Tax.
We’ve found our ways around it though like using DLcompare for finding cheap games and doing all my major purchases online from overseas retailers. This does mean that we sometimes have to resort to slightly devious ways in order to get things sent to us but the savings we can make because of it are usually worth the effort. I had honestly given up on this situation ever changing as the word from those distributing their products here was essentially that we were willing to pay more and, therefore, should pay more (which, strangely enough, only happens because we used to have no other way of getting the product). It seems that a few people in power have noticed this however and last year they launched an investigation into the reasoning behind the huge price disparity specifically centered on IT goods and the results have just come in.
The Australia Tax is very real and it is quite unjustified.
Most of the recommendations from the investigation are then what you’d expect, mostly more government action and increasing public awareness of the issue. However there were 2 points that seem like absolute gold to Australians, if they ever manage to get through parliament:
Getting around geoblocking is a pretty trivial exercise these days, if it can’t be done via the use of a Chrome extension then you’ll need to spend a few dollars on a VPN service although that can sometimes lead to issues of its own. Enacting a law preventing companies from geoblocking in Australia might stop some of the less than savy companies from doing it but realistically I can see most of them hiding behind the cover of “currency conversion” or something similar to achieve the same effect. The last round of inquiries into price gouging were enough to get some of the big players to drop their prices in response so maybe just the threat of that will be enough to get them more in line.
The second point is something we’ve heard a little bit about before although not within Australia’s borders. There’s a few cases in the EU looking to establish this exact legal framework, opening up the opportunity to resell digital only content. Indeed that was one of the better features of Microsoft’s restrictive DRM policies for the Xbox One, something that I’m sure not too many gamers were actually aware of. As someone who’s got dozens of spare game keys due to Humble Indie Bundles and whatnot this is something that I wouldn’t mind having although it ever getting through isn’t something I’m counting on. What the outcome is in the EU will likely heavily influence such a decision.
So it’s great that the government is now aware of the problems facing Australian consumers but now they need to seriously considering the recommendations so that some pressure can be applied to these retailers. Whilst the outcome of most of the recommendations won’t affect the savy consumers much (we already know how to get our way) I know that not all consumers want to do those things and, honestly, they shouldn’t have to. Whether the more out there recommendations get implemented though will be really interesting to see although I get the feeling we’ll be seeing Gerry Harvey in the news ranting about them sooner or later.
I’m not usually one to complain about the prices of games since I’m usually one of the chumps who’s buying the collector’s edition, usually at a rather hefty premium. I don’t mind paying extra though as that’s just how I roll and those extra geeky goodies are part of the experience of getting a new game. Still sometimes games forego a collector’s edition (like nearly every indie title) so I’ll usually just grab the game from Steam since I can get the download for free thanks to Internode hosting a steam content server. However there’s been a rather worrying trend for games on Steam to be priced way above what they are elsewhere, enough to stop me in my tracks when purchasing some games.
Long time readers will remember that in my Call of Duty: Black Ops review I stated openly that I simply refused to play many Call of Duty games on release day because the price was just bonkers. It’s made even worse by said games being released at sane prices only to be changed shortly afterwards leaving customers who didn’t get in early faced with coughing up the cash or going without. For me I went without for a long time only grabbing a copy once it was below my pain threshold for Steam games. Recently however a friend of mine showed me something that’s changed the way I look at games on Steam, but it still leaves the question of price discrepancy unanswered.
The service I’m referring to is a website called G2Play an online store that mostly sells CD/Steam keys and digital only downloads. I had known about sites like this in the past (Play Asia being another friend favourite) but my trust in them was low since I’d never used them before. However the prices there are simply astonishing with most games being available at very heavy discounts. Figuring that all I had to lose was $37 and possibly a couple hours of my time I ordered a copy of Warhammer 40000: Space Marine. Alarm bells went off when they asked for a copy of my photo ID but I decided that since my friend had used them successfully they couldn’t be all bad and plus it’s nigh on impossible to do much with a bad cell phone picture of my ID. Less than an hour later I had a code and, surprise surprise, it worked like a charm.
I’ve since bought a few more games, each one working flawlessly.
It seems then that the price discrepancy isn’t some hard and fast rule that Steam is keen on enforcing, otherwise they would just deny any codes purchased in this fashion. Even stranger is the fact that these prices are below what’s available in the Steam store in their respective regions, signalling that there’s another avenue to legitimately purchasing games at below the retail price. Whilst this is true for almost any product (usually direct from the supplier/manufacturer) wholly digital products really don’t have those kinds of relationships since the marginal cost is practically 0 for each new unit. Price discrepancies above a small percentage (to account for currency conversions and import taxes) for such products in the global market are then seem to be nothing more than price gouging.
In doing some research for this post I tried to find some official word on why there were such wide price gaps between countries on Steam when ostensibly we’re all being sold the same product. To cut a long story short there isn’t anything official, at least where Steam is concerned. Kotaku Australia writer Mark Serrels did some solid research into why games were so expensive in Australia but failed to come up with a single reason, citing multiple different pressures that could be responsible for the discrepancy. Some of them apply to wholly digital items but the last quip of the Internet bringing down prices doesn’t seem to have eventuated, in fact it’s been quite the opposite. Prices, especially on big titles, have remained quite steady especially for retail box releases.
It really baffles me because Steam was the pioneer of pricing games to sell like hot cakes and that helped catapult them to being the top digital distribution platform. It’s true that us Australians have put up with higher game prices for as long as games have been for sale but the traditional barriers to distributing your games really don’t exist any more, especially for digital downloads. Perhaps as more become aware of services like G2Play Steam pricing will become more sane, but I’m not holding my breath.