It’s that time of year again. Assuming you live in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s Summer! Meaning the Sun is out, and you’re likely incarcerating yourself inside buying dozens of ludicrously cheap games and racing to put enough hours into them to feel like you’ve gotten your 99c of value before the next flash sale pops up 6 hours later.
That’s right! It’s the Summer Sales. I’d have said Steam Summer Sale but GOG are currently doing one too and Humble just finished up with one also – not that you’d know as, without scrolling, I can see the word ‘sale’ three times on the Humble home page right now.
For laughs, and I haven’t planned this in advance (having written the blog title after the article), I’m going to give you, dear reader, 100 HP (hit points / health – but if you don’t know that you’re probably not reading this blog), and each time we discover damage, I’ll subtract HP and see if you make it through this blog-dungeon intact.
I’m going to subtract -7HP now for the aforementioned time of year and the fact that Summer sales are making you miss good weather. If you live in Australia I’m still subtracting those points because it’s probably sunny and warm there too right now, chances are.
To set the scene, there are two major sales periods on Steam annually; Summer and Winter. These sales are huge, nearly everything gets a discount, and they last about 10 days. The rest of the year there is something on sale every day, and the weekends are always worth looking at too for free-weekends where you can install the game and play it normally for free all weekend, then buy it at a hefty discount if you want.
Humble Bundles are always selling games, though the selection is far more limited, and GOG are a quickly-growing competitor to Steam who are following suit with very regular sales as well as larger seasonal ones.
In short, if you don’t have to play a game on day-one, and you keep an eye on these sites or just drop in for the big sales, you need never pay full price for a game. Ever!
Great for us, sure, in the short term, but let’s look at the problems this might cause.
As consumers, and I’m as guilty as anyone here, we don’t often pay full price for games any more. This means that retailers and developers can expect to never really get full price. Considering that games make us gamers happy, and developers and retailers make and sell the games while they’re happy (financially speaking) to do so, we can agree that it’s best that everyone is as happy as possible. Lower selling prices make consumers happier (supposedly, we’ll look at that) but can thin out developers’ profits, making them less happy, when we want to be aiming for win-win.
In the past year, there’s only one game that I’ve bought at full price, and that’s GTA V for the PC. It wasn’t offered on sale, wasn’t likely to be soon, and I’d been wanting to play it for years while it was out on consoles, but waited for the PC version. Furthermore it’s actually worth the money by any measure. Amazing game! Apart from that, though, I couldn’t tell you the last game I paid full price for, and I’ve bought new AAA games like Far Cry 4, Alien Isolation, Watchdogs and Wolfenstein. I suppose I paid “full price” for Sid Meier’s Starships, but that was only €15 (actually, my 1-sentence review: Just about worth €15 but there’s not a full game there).
The reason for this is not that I wouldn’t pay full price for some of the games I have bought, but because I don’t need to. I’m still busy playing the last lot of games I got on sale by the time the next one comes around, and I’m mostly pretty good at limiting what I buy to what I’m actually going to play. Many people buy games on sale and never play them at all. This is bad for the games as innocuous art pieces, as nobody is enjoying them. Poor games. -6HP there.
It’s bad for the consumer too as they will regret their purchase. €1 wasted is still money wasted, after all. Even if they do get around to playing them, until they do they’ve added a task to their mental To-Do list and this adds to our stress levels. Whichever of the two is your problem, that’s -11HP.
You’d think that for consumers, particularly cash-strapped ones, that it’s great there are so many sales, and in a way it is. For the same money we get to play more games. We like games and we like saving money. But the amount of games most of us want to play is far longer than the amount of games that we can play, especially if we want to both do the game justice and get maximum value for ourselves by completing it!
I could easily argue here that the benefit to consumers is illusory. The cake is a lie! For me, who likes to beat games I feel it is, though I acknowledge that people might buy games cheaply in a shotgun approach, try them all for a little bit, and play the one they found themselves to like. I just find it hard not to fuss over the games left underplayed.
Whichever your problem there I think you’ll find games are taking up more of your time than they perhaps ought to. The lowered price point makes them “too cheap not to buy” and you’re going waste hours playing games that you know aren’t really for you (everyone has their own taste) just because people recommend it, though they’re maybe an RPG player and you’re an action guy. -9HP for leisure hours spent doing something you knew you didn’t really want to do.
(edit: I’m all for trying new games, but sometimes you just already know, you know?)
Moving on, are the sales good for the vendors? Sales obviously have their origins in the physical goods industries, where vendors need to clear stock either before it perishes, or just to clear room for newer seasonal stock. Sales make sense there. They make zero sense for digital distribution, looking at it that way. Bricks and mortar game shops had discount bins because they needed to clear the shelves of ageing stock, not to give gamers better value or to boost sales particularly. It’s likely that the marketers, in their divine, short-sighted wisdom, decided to apply sales to the online stores purely because of the psychological effect it has on consumers. People are more likely to buy something if it’s discounted, and to feel good about it. This would have started as 10% off, say, but if you look on Steam today, you can find multiple titles, some of them really good games, with 90% off! It’s a race to the bottom! Once your competitor is doing sales, you have to do them too, and do them better, if you can! So Steam and GOG, for example, now have to out-do each other in discounts every day of the year, and especially at the arbitrarily-set bi-annual mega sales times. So while they may have increased volumes of sales, the cash-value of each sale is lowered, and so even for them, they’re potentially doing themselves more harm than good in the long run. -11HP for opening that Pandora’s Box, because that monkey won’t go back in his cage too easily.. not to mix metaphors or anything.
Following on from that is the stupidest example of all of this. The meta-sales games. I don’t want to get too into it because I’ve never wasted my time with the nonsense, but during Steam’s big sales, you can get reward cards for voting on what sales are next, or buying games on sale, or other random stuff. The rules change each time as they try newer and stupider ways of making a game out of the very selling of games. Essentially you turn the cards into badges, or gems, when you collect enough, and you use those to.. craft more badges? Or something? Oh and you’re on a team now.. and can trade the cards with other people so you can… what?! Look, I feel I did it all the justice it deserved with that explanation and I’m not looking further into it. All I know is that somebody actually buys these stupid cards so I can actually sell the ones I get (for doing nothing) for about 10c a go to some joker, and thus I get maybe €1 store credit when all’s said and done that I can put towards my next purchase. That’s after Steam’s commission, of course, clever bastards. Make something out of nothing, give it to somebody for doing nothing, then get someone else to pay you and the the first somebody just so they can be the one to have that nothing. Genius! That’s the easiest to understand version anyway. But the existence of such a system is ludicrous! Constantly selling the product (which is games, Steam! remember?) so low has made even the sales unexciting and Steam feel they have to jazz them up with this marketing tripe.
GOG’s current equivalent makes more sense, at least. If you spend a certain amount during the sale period, you’ll get a free game. A higher amount means another, better free game. This, at least, I can understand, but it’s symptomatic of the race to the bottom and it really hits me hard in the sense part of my brain. Let’s say -15HP.
(edit: have you figured out that my numbers are arbitrary yet? I’m not even rolling a dice here!)
Having established that serious gamers like myself would actually pay full price for many games but never really have to, it’s clear that games are becoming less and less valuable. I actually now always check how long a game will take to beat before I consider buying it on sale. I’d like the experience, but not if it takes more than 8 hours. Kid-me would hate me for that. -5HP for making your kid-self cry with your first-world “problems”.
Finally, I want to look at it from the developers’ viewpoint. Games are very expensive to make, and individual games being less valuable means you can’t count on getting your RRP (recommended retail price) for each unit. Or even close to it! So AAA publishers releasing the big games, in the knowledge that many people must have them on day one, are pushing that RRP higher and higher, and adding on day-one DLC and season passes. A standard game is pushing past €60 now, while with DLC and a Season Pass for more of it, games like Evolve can break the €100 mark. Arkham City is €80 if I want to play the ‘whole game’. Which I do. But I’m not going to pay that much. -18HP for either taking more from our wallets, pushing games out of our price range, or withholding content behind a pay wall.
It also tends to normalise the games that are being made, with big studios less and less likely to take risks because they need to know what their sales are likely to be for a given game-formula. This results in less interesting games coming out from the AAA side. Ever wonder why Assassin’s Creed is (debatably) the same game every year? -5HP.
Wait a second; rising prices, less and less value per unit currency, product not worth what you’re paying for it? Sounds familiar, particularly if you bought a house between 1990 and 2007. It’s not unrealistic to suppose that the AAA bubble might be going to burst in the next few years. It’s worth noting that EA actually shy away from doing too many of these major sales on Origin. They know the harm that the perpetual sale is doing to their sector and they’re not contributing, or trying not to. They do seem extremely unwilling to takes risks with their games franchises though (unless you count risking shipping them as unfinished buggy messes).
On the indie side, where a full price game is rarely more than €20 and DLC is rare, they don’t have far to go to the bottom. Before long they might not be able to count on selling at more than €5 per unit average (and that’s before vendor commission – often 30% – and before all other costs) on their €20 RRP game. (As a disclaimer, the numbers are my own fabrication as I’m hypothesising on the future.)
-9HP for making it harder on the little guy. It’s notoriously hard to make a living as an indie game developer unless you have that big success. Indies need to stand out to have that success though, so on the positive side, this does at least result in more interesting games being made, rather than a normalisation (if you exclude the myriad zombie survival games out there). This would be true with or without sales though so I can’t really add back any HP, sorry. Healing spell failed!
In all areas of life, it’s very hard to be a responsible consumer. We know we should recycle, we don’t want to support slave labour or animal cruelty, or the killing of the bees, or the harming of our beloved industries, but it’s not always easy to see how we’re doing these things as the end consumer. I do think we should stop and think once in a while instead of always jumping for the carrot. Do I have a useful suggestion though? No. Am I going to stop buying games on sale? No, probably not, although I’ll buy them full price if I’m ready for a new game and it’s not on sale.
Short of all parties agreeing to stop sales and get back to selling games at reasonable recommended retail prices (and there are laws against collusion like that, see ‘cartels’) I think we’ll just have to ride this wave until it crashes into the shore and see what the industry looks like after that. Change is not always a bad thing, after all, even if it can be painful. Just make no mistake, these perpetual sales are definitely driving a change in how we perceive, play, purchase, and create games, and it’s not necessarily a good thing. We behave like the consumer is king, but even the all-consuming bushfire can run out of fuel and burn itself out.