Are Steam Sales Bad?

So says The Castle Doctrine developer, Jason Rohrer.

steamsale2

I have to admit, at first I was armed and ready to completely discount this idea. Sales, bad? He makes some points, but I think ultimately he is wrong.

Before I get into that, though, I think that there are several successful strategies possible. For example, the Minecraft/Castle Doctrine pricing model works to a degree: I was keeping an eye on Castle Doctrine, and now he’s saying it is 50% off for the last time ever, I think I’ll add it to my library (possibly never to be played…) (also not really to my library, because it’s not on Steam.)

So the points I agree with: Yes, tricking players into buying something they don’t want is a bit anti-ethical. However, most sales folk wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Marketing is practically built around the idea. (Basic premise of marketing: create a need, then fill the need. Note they CREATE it first. For example, shampoo will talk about “damaged hair strands” and then go on to say how their brand fixes that. You’re not supposed to realise that damaged hair strands isn’t really a thing. i.e. they trick you into buying something you don’t want.)

However, no-one feels burned by this. People pick the games up super cheap, knowing full-well they MAY NOT PLAY IT. They buy it for that price, JUST IN CASE THEY DO PLAY IT. For $5? Sure, I’ll take the risk. I’m paying for the possibility of playing should the mood strike me. Best-case scenario: I play an excellent game for very cheap; worst-case scenario: I throw away $5. Honestly, something I can live with.

If I bought a game, full-price, and then it later went on sale I also wouldn’t feel burned. I paid for the privilege of getting it early. And I’d be fine with that. I knew if I just waited 6 months it’d likely be on sale, but NO WAY I’m waiting that long for a game I’m hanging out for. Even if it DOES go on sale, for the first 12 months it’s usually barely 25%. And how does that make me feel? Not bad at all. I’ve probably played and dropped the game by the time it comes on sale. I don’t feel burned at all. In fact, if I really liked the game (e.g. Tomb Raider) every time it goes on sale, I tell my friends: You should get this game!

Now, I have to admit, the frequent sales have definitely changed my buying habits. I now only buy 3 or 4 full-priced games a year and unless it was something I was really hanging out for, I do feel pretty ripped off. A perfect example is Splinter Cell: Blacklist. I loved Conviction, but didn’t like some of the stuff I was hearing about Blacklist. I hummed and harred, but after watching a few videos decided to take the plunge. For a game I wasn’t pumped about, paying a full $80 for it was pretty painful. All the worse because the game was pretty average, not great.

On balance, I’d estimate I spend about the same amount on games per year but, I don’t pirate any more (much easier to just wait for a sale) and I buy less full-price games and tons more cut-price games and games on special.

Also, one final point: I never bought Minecraft in part because of the rising price model. I was always on the fence about the game, and the longer I delayed the more expensive it got. It never got to the point of “OMG so costly” but it passed the point where I was willing to pick it up “just to try” a fair while back… the sort of scenario where I might have picked it up if I saw it on special. But that isn’t going to happen. So I never got it.

So, in summary:

  • I don’t think sales hurt long-term income at all and gives your community a regular injection of a new players.
  • I do think it cannibalizes your launch week community a little bit, but for the most part these losses wouldn’t have been people who were pumped for your game anyway. I think it’s a minor sacrifice.
  • I think in the long run, regular sales would ultimately bring in more money and more players – particularly when you consider that it’s the guys that pick it up on special who then get their friends to buy it full-price (I cannot count how many times I’ve done this (both as the sales-person and the full-price purchaser.))
  • I think that other sales methods (such as the open and up-front rising price model) will work fine as well. In fact, it might depend on the sort of game (games that are grass-roots and grow over time might benefit more from this model, while games with lots of hype benefit more from Steam Sales.)
  • There are some people who will feel “burned” by the rising price model.

========

The background for this pic: The dev just added the ability to arm your wife with a shotgun, so when the robber comes knocking, she can blow him away – and/or hit the panic button and… release the hound. Did I mention the “robber” is another player?

Having said my piece, The Castle Doctrine is only $8 right now, and seems like a fascinating idea. So I have grabbed it “just in case.”

It’s fortunate I came across this article when I did, because it is NOT going to be on Steam, and will go up to $16 very soon. Those two things combined probably would have meant I would not have made the purchase.

It seems like Jason has a unique mind: it shows in his game design. But I think his desire to be unique is hurting his bottom line.

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