I remember a time when you couldn’t get computer games any way but by going out to Funcoland, or another store to buy them. In those days places like Funcoland had bargain bins, whole large bins full of games that were often rightly called shovelware. Most of these games would have fit right in on todays overcrowded indie game sphere, with the one difference that they had a box. Digital distribution has killed the bargain bin box, but not what lived inside it, it’s found a new home on Steam, and to a greater extent the twice annual steam sale.
As I peruse the current steam sale a title catches my eye “Angels Fall First” is an indie tactical, infantry, first person shooter, set in space, where you fly your ship in first person too. Whoa, that’s a mouth full, all of that costs 14.39 (20% off today!) and that’s just one example of hundreds. This one happens to be in early access and absolutely screams feature creep, but it still caught my eye. Why? Well it had the right price tag (for me <15$) a laundry list of features and a flashy splash image that was featured in today’s deals. It’s that kind of exposure that can mean a huge infusion of cash to a developer and major media coverage for an otherwise sleeper game. This has created a get rich or die trying type of culture in today’s indie game sphere where a game can go from being unknown to a major hit in just a few days, with no publisher or PR. The end result of this is that we get a lot of games that might not have ever seen the light of day going up on steam and getting a lot of sales during these twice annual times of deep discounts.
The Sale Now
Steam sales started out as something great. Twice a year Valve thanked their users by throwing them some pretty extreme sales on titles. The result was a great way to get your hands on games you might otherwise never play. It also had the perhaps unintentional side effect of giving huge boosts to several indie developers. The steam Green Tags have become legendary 20% 40% 70%, steam even has a tab for games under 10$ and games under 5$. The psychology of the sale keeps us buying, but is it really worth it? Its clear that Steam is playing its audience here. Steam knows at what price point people buy, and how much they have to discount a game to get it out the door in quantity. I remember the first time I saw a game on steam listed at 50% off, it was normally a 50$ game, and that green tag was just too much resist, despite having never intended to buy the game for various reasons, I put the game in my cart and bought it. Why? Because it was 50% off, I played about 20 minutes of the game and then got bored, never to play it again. It now sits in my library with literally hundreds of other 10$ titles that I buy on impulse because they are 10% off, and then install and play for 30 minuets or an hour then never touch again.
I don’t think cheap games have to be bad, I got more play time out of Terreria that almost any other game ever, and it’s been on sale for as low as 1$! I also have plenty of 60$ games in my library that haven’t been touched. It’s really a question of quantity and availability. I have over 300 games in my steam library and somewhere in the neighborhood of half of those have never been installed. Now you chalk a few of them up to things like the full Valve pack which I picked up on sale (40% off!) and humble bundles (2$ for 5 games?|!!?!?!) but a lot of those games I would never have if it wasn’t for the steam sales. The sum total of those games represents enough capitol investment to purchase lots of new computer parts, or invest elsewhere.
On the other hand, I also have some games I doubt I ever would have noticed if they hadn’t been on sale. Dungeons of dreadmore, Recettear, and Oblivion fall in to this category. In 2011 I purchased all three of these in various steam sales for <20$ total for all of them. All three of these games have >100 hours of play time in my library. They all together cost about 15$ during that steam sale. That same year (the same sale even) I also bought Supreme commander 2 (>30$ and also 40% off) and that game never even got installed. It’s a great good and a terrible evil. While I have a lot of games, the more games that I have it seems the less inclined I am to play some of them.
Quality vs Quantity
The quality of the sale has also decreased recently, the most prevalent games get 10% discounts and the smaller indies get larger ones. Im not sure im ever going to play Doorkickers, but you can bet I have it in my library. Why? Because in 2014 it was on sale for 5$ and I thought it looked kinda neat. Turns out its basically a mobile tactics game, and really not up my alley at all. If I had bothered to do any research like I would have if I had spent 20$ (the games MSRP) I would probably have known this and been fine and not bought it. Instead I saw a green price tag with -75% on it, and decided I need the game regardless of the content.
And so dear readers we arrive at our conclusion, and that is Caveat emptor (buyer beware) because Steam is an amazing platform for equalizing million dollar PR budgets and 0$ PR budgets. That of course creates an obvious problem. Those games with million dollar budgets also had three year (or longer) development cycles, whereas the others might have been put together in 6 months or 6 years, and not subjected to playtesting or quality control. Quality of the sale has also gone down as the number of sales has gone up. When you have 4 sales a year you have to find at least 4 sales worth of items to sell. While I appreciate the recent abolition of flash sales, which were clear bait to get you to come back to the sale as many times as possible, but I honestly think its time for Steam to evaluate how its running its sales, and maybe cut down to one a year.