By no means is this saying that consoles are the reason for our present situation, no - don't take it that way at all. The point is that as greedy mega-corporations like Microsoft joined the fray, existing (equally greedy, no doubt) platforms like PlayStation were forced to take a defensive position. We instantly saw a hike in game prices and optimization tactics to more efficiently exploit developers and consumers were set into place. This platform war affected PC gamers as well, if only through peer pressure.
Why are games $60 for PCs and Consoles?
For those that remember the N64 and SNES generation, it wasn't super rare to see the highest of quality games sell for $60, but they often included large, fancy boxes with some sort of peripheral (not to mention the cartridges). Nowadays, though, with most games on the PC being distributed almost entirely via Steam, you're not getting a whole lot for that $60 investment. Not to mention, you don't even own your game -- you own a license (or four) to play and install it, but that license can be revoked at any time and at Valve's discretion. No box, no manual, no cool maps, no game - a serial number. That's what you're paying $60 for: A randomized number and some bandwidth.
The start of the modern $60 price-point -- the one that began before Steam was even considered a competitor -- can be attributed largely to Microsoft and Sony's licensing fees that are charged to the game's creators or publishers. The game companies didn't want to remove themselves from their former $50 model, so they tacked on those publishing fees to each game and made the gamers pay it. Shortly thereafter, PC games saw the same increase in price despite having no licensing to grapple with on Windows platforms (and, in fact, being encouraged to use GFWL for free).
These massive "game" factories aren't out for our best interests -- many have become evil in their own right. We've allowed them to become evil, as a platform warring, now-divided community, and have suffered dearly for our mistakes. Camouflaged as "doing the best for our fans" by strategic use of trailers and interviews, many modern (mostly large) game companies have slowly backed away from the quality of content that was provided in previous gaming generations. None of these PR stunts disguise the fact that it's all a meta-game of mass exploitation: "How can we get the most money from the consumer and pay the least to our employees?" We've fallen for their tricks, sadly, and gamers have become both the peacemakers and the agents provocateur. We're pitted against one another over petty differences in hardware usage and preference while the giants run rampant in the playground.
The outcome of this drawn-out battle amongst gamers -- undoubtedly with the publishers laughing all the way to the bank -- is definitive and historically traceable: In the past decade alone, we've seen a surge in overall game price (the $30 and $50 games have been substituted by their $60 counterparts), former patches have become excessive DLC - to the point of developing DLC prior to launch, and included content-per-purchase has dwindled to a laughable disc - or worse, a simple activation key - with a few hours of gameplay and regurgitated engines. The last note, the one about delivered product content, is one worthy of elaboration: Just a few years ago, a $30 price-point could secure a "Gold Edition," full-sized, stuffed-to-the-brim, high-quality cardboard box of a favored game. Such an investment typically included posters, key chains, grandiose maps, plastic quick-reference guides, bloated manuals, and so much more. Oh - don't get me wrong - you can still get all these things, but you'd better be willing to shell out $100 for the "limited edition." Enjoy that plastic dragon.
With digital distribution - where packaging cost is non-existent, bandwidth is dirt-cheap, and there is no middle-man (every publisher seems to have their own Steam-equivalent or at least a download manager at this point) - all that extra money goes to the publishers. In the case of PC gaming, remove licensing fees from that mix as well - an easy $10 extra per sale. As the next generation of consoles inevitably shifts to a digital distribution platform, you can expect to see the same prices (I wouldn't be surprised if a "convenience" fee were added, too) despite cutting half the work out (retail shops have a markup of around 20-27% on video games; packaging has costs).
So then there's peer pressure - or in this case, perceived value pressure. As more games charge $60 for their titles, especially the large titles that can get away with such robbery, still more games will join the fray with the added $10 premium. Ignoring the fact that we - as a target audience - have been fairly accepting (en masse) of $60 games so far, "perceived value" dictates that consumers will devalue games that are priced lower. Perceived value primarily bases itself off of fallacies of deduction: If most popular games are $60, and most popular games are presumed to be good, then games which are $50 must surely be unpopular and of lower quality. This, of course, is not true - but game makers have only a few options available to them: Price it lower and be seen as either a god among gamers OR as unequal and less valuable; alternatively, price it equally and be seen only as conforming to the market. The first carries with it a risk of lesser value in the under-informed consumer's mind (those reading this piece are but a small fraction of game buyers), whereas the second is seen as the new "normal" and is generally accepted.
The Rise of DLC and the Rise of Gamer Investment
As games move ever closer to an expandable / downloadable content model, I'd predict a freeze in base price as digitally distributed, additional content becomes the lowest risk solution for publishers and developers. If a game can be half-way completed and then put on the market for sale, creators will then be able to cross-analyze the success with the cost of completing the game, with the added bonus of selling that other half of the game as DLC for more money.
This model isn't inherently bad, just like the micro-transaction model isn't inherently bad -- as with micro-transactions, it gives players a way to investigate a game for free (or cheap) before investing a more substantial amount of money into it. Of course, again, as with micro-transactions, the end cost is always more than the cost of a "traditional" game. None of this is new nor necessarily a bad thing. The "bad thing" comes into play when micro-transactions are combined with traditional games -- that's when it gets very expensive, very fast, and is lacking in quality content. There's no sense of direction.
I hate to say it, but the best thing to do is to vote with your wallets. I have absolutely no problem skipping a few Skyrims or SWTORs here-and-there if it's for principles I stand firmly by. I don't overpay for games, and neither should you. There are thousands -- if we include the mobile and emerging indie markets, possibly tens of thousands -- of games produced each year. Many of them are significantly better than the 'massive' $60 titles, yet more affordable. Don't let this get out of control. Pick a spot and draw a line - do not let "them" cross that line. Only we can define what is allowed to fly in this market.