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Only Speaking Professionally | Sale Economy

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Jason Rohrer, developer behind fascinating games like Passage and Sleep is Death, and the upcoming Castle Doctrine, recently had some things to say about sales over on Gamasutra. I highly recommend you read it in full. It makes some pretty neat points and has some very functional graphs. Go read it, I’ll wait.

His basic points are this: if potential buyers know that a sale is just around the corner, they’ll wait. This is a bad thing for developers in the long term, and it is a bad thing for fans of a game.

Basically, I agree with his argument. But I want to expand and theorise a bit more. Just because I can.

Video game pricing currently has a sickness, and that is the issue of constant sales. Just taking the PC digital scene, we currently have major Steam sales about five times a year, with a different game on sale for (usually) 75%-50% every day. Every week there is a Humble Weekly Bundle, with a Humble Bundle proper every few weeks. And those are just the two major digital distribution platforms. Sales are rampant, and that impacts the perceived value of products.

It creates a consumer expectation. If it’s an indie game, and it’s good, then it will go on sale. Because good things go on sale. Because everything goes on sale all the time.

That’s actually false. Not everything goes on sale. But that’s sort of irrelevant in the minds of developers and consumers.

Firstly, there is a psychological expectation in consumers. It comes from sale visibility. If you see so many sales all the time, with such massive discounts, and every game you see on the front page of Steam is discounted, then obviously the idea that everything goes on sale will propagate. There is an expectation that newly released game X will be 75% off in next week’s sale, because EVERYTHING ELSE WILL BE because THAT’S HOW IT WAS LAST TIME. Well, that’s what you saw last time. The fact that the games that aren’t on sale disappear behind everyone else’s massive sale percentage badge is not registered.

Secondly, developers feel the same expectations. If you don’t put their game in the pot, then they won’t get seen. They’ll miss out on that much needed sales spike. A game not on sale during a massive majority sale goes right to the bottom of the wishlist, and developers can’t afford to take that financial hit. If you aren’t in the sale, you lose.

On a purely theoretical, economical, big-picture sense, the rampant participation in frequent, large discount sales is not a healthy thing for the long term viability of the industry. It’s not healthy for any industry.

I do want to make this point perfectly clear, though. It’s easy for us commentators to espouse the benefits of playing the long game. But developers are a group made of individuals with a whole range of personal motives, working in a highly competitive space. Developers currently make plenty of money during sales – as they should. Not participating in a sale is a potentially quite large loss of revenue in the short to medium term, and there’s always someone else willing to make that money. And that’s perfectly fine. People need to eat, and the life of a developer can be a veritable financial rollercoaster. If participating in a sale means the developer can pay rent and feed themselves and their family, do it. Please.

Sadly, the issue hits indie games the hardest. Indie devs don’t have the financial and organisational muscle to support their product that AAA games have. AAA games with their massive publicity budgets can fall back on the crutch of expensive marketing campaigns, ensuring that the demand for their game remains relatively stable. Indie developers, though, are reliant on sales spikes to bring in revenue to overcome the slow months of consumer forgetfulness.

But I suppose the sale discussion is a micro-issue. The real issue is, I think, how we value games.

How do we value a AAA game? How do we value an indie game? Why is there a massive disparity between the two on a price level? And why are we constantly told that either extreme is best?

I think the answer comes down to moderation. In everything. Too many games at too high a price, and the shifting goalposts of AAA games intimidates the average player. $60+ for a brand new AAA game is, in my opinion, unreasonable. PC digital games used to be $40. Console games were $50. Because the idea of consumers paying a higher price than that was considered unreasonable. Then Modern Warfare 2 bumped the price up $10 to $60 on consoles, and it sold gazillions. So everyone else followed suit. And consumers bought it. And then digital PC and physical console parity happened and now a AAA game was $60 for everyone. Creeping price hikes, with greedy publishers circling the pool, waiting for someone else to make the first $10 increase.

Contrast that with the independent scene, though. A complete, reasonable quality indie release generally sets the buyer back $20. Sometimes more, sometimes less. But I think the $20 figure would be wildly recognised as being the indie price benchmark. In a rich, diverse, wide marketplace, distinguishing your product at that price point can be extremely difficult, especially without massive marketing budgets. So, independent developers who don’t have the luck of being picked up by a major gaming website have to do something to distinguish themselves and make themselves visible, and that generally means participating in sales.

Too many sales, though, and you threaten to destabilise the entire economy. That expected $20 price goes right out the window. If you can get the same product for $5 for a few months a year, then why would you ever pay full price? And if you see the product going on sale so often, that further entrenches the idea that it’s not “worth” full price. And thus, you create a false expectation that $20 indie games are only really “worth” $5. In the long term, that’s bad for everyone.

In a world where we’re constantly bombarded with the conflicting images of a) expensive things being higher quality and b) cheap things on sale is great, it’s no wonder that sales have such traction, and such a negative long term effect. Video games aren’t the only industry where this happens, but digital distribution platforms have less margin for error. If you buy a game once digitally, you can (currently) access it as many times as you want per purchase. You will never “lose” that copy of Gone Home you bought through Steam, because it’ll (currently) never be gone from your Steam account. Additionally, digital products are essentially infinite – there will never be a Gone Home shortage because ten million copies get sold on one day through Steam (related, Gone Home should sell ten million copies). There will never be physical rarity to enhance value. There will never be an emotional value equivalent to a box on a shelf.

Digital copies, being intangible, are cheap, and are treated as such in sales. Frequent sales of digital products for digital money for digital enjoyment. It’s a practice that constantly devalues the work of those that desperately need support, and it needs to stop.

I don’t mean “no more sales”, I simply mean fewer sales at a lesser discount. Bring the value of games up in the eyes of the consumer. And that way, more developers can eat more often all year round.

Lachlan Williams
Former Editor in Chief of OnlySP. A guy who writes things about stuff, apparently. Recovering linguist, blue pencil surgeon, and professional bishie sparkler. In between finding the latest news, reviewing PC games, and generally being a grumpy bossyboots, he likes to watch way too much Judge Judy. He perhaps has too much spare time on his hands. Based in Sydney, Australia. Follow him on twitter @lawksland.

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