It’s a familiar buying habit for many of us. A game you’ve been interested in for a while goes on Steam at 50% the original price, and you and thousands of others snap it up instantly. For many of us, Steam sales, Humble Bundles and deals on PSN and Xbox Live are the most affordable ways to buy games, and it seems like a win-win. We get cheap games, whilst the developers get a large - sometimes vast - increase to their normal revenue.
But indie developer Jason Rohrer - who is behind the indie hit Inside A Star-Filled Sky, and who is currently working on massively multiplayer home defense game The Castle Doctrine - has hit back at the sheer number and magnitude of Steam sales, predicting that whilst they might seem universally beneficial in the short term, they will have more damaging long-term consequences both for devs and gamers…
Whilst the developer freely admits that Inside A Star-Filled Sky made 10% of its total revenue in its first sale, and that sales helped to spike units sold frequently, he also argues that the growing frequency in sales and in humble bundled and similar models is - in the long-term- ultimately discouraging fans from buying games at full price. In turn, he argues, it actually punishes those fans who buy your game early out of loyalty, by just weeks later offering it at a slashed cost. Coming at it from a multiplayer point of view, he also posits that this “culture of waiting” as he refers to it actually contributes to lower first week sales and a subsequent weaker player base at the games launch.
Instead, he promotes a Minecraft-style system of pricing, where a game starts off cheap to reward the fans who buy it early and eagerly, and raise the price as the game gets more popular, rewarding players who get in earlier. It has certainly worked for Minecraft, and is not dissimilar to the practice undertaken by Blizzard, who lower the prices of their games only in exceptional circumstances, such as their Christmas sale. However, Minecraft is arguably the biggest indie game ever, and Blizzard has a dedicated following of millions and millions of people. Whilst this strategy of pricing may work for those much-hyped games, the impact of Steam sales and bundles on smaller devs who just want to get their name out there with their first title can be vast.
Whilst Rohrer mentioned having made 10% of the profits of his game on his first Steam sale, some of those who have featured - particularly on the front page of the sales - have reported much, much greater revenue. Minor Key games founder David Pitmann reported a couple of weeks ago that his game Eldritch’s feature on the front page of the Steam Holiday sale had literally doubled sales of the game overnight, reaping in large profits in spite of the 80% price slash. Of course, Rohrer was railing against the long term effects, rather than short term earnings, of Steam sales, but Eldritch proves how crucial Steam sales can be in promoting lesser known indie titles to wide audiences.
It’s difficult to predict the degree to which this is scaremongering, and to what extent Rohrer may have a point. The issue of pricing is a sticky one in gaming right now. Not only is crowdfunding becoming a more and more popular way to fund low-budget games, but developers are increasingly charging for early access games still in beta or even alpha. On top of this, the free-to-play and microtransaction models have grown exponentially in the last few years, aided by the increase in mobile and tablet gaming among other factors.
But with more and more indie devs throwing their games into every sale, it’s understandable that Rohrer and others have expressed worry about the rapid price degeneration of titles in a competitive, sale-driven market, and how that could affect fans in the future.
What do you think about the frequency of Steam Sales? Would you be more inclined to buy a game at full price if you were a fan of the developers? Do you think the rapid decrease in price of games after their initial release is detrimental to the industry as a whole?