Dev warns that Steam sales "screw your fans"

With very exceptions, gamers are used to new titles launching at their highest price point and then gradually decreasing over time.

But one developer has argued that the entire games pricing model needs revising, particularly when it comes to digital titles.

A bargain rack for physical retail makes perfect sense and is actually pretty great for everyone,” The Castle Doctrine creator Jason Rohrer argues. Shelf space is limited, as are the number of available copies of a given game, and retailers need to eventually liquidate old games to make room for new ones.

When we’re talking about digital games, the potential full-price lifetime is pretty much eternal. There is no shelf space. Even the long tail isn’t a hard-and-fast rule anymore. As the game’s audience grows, revenue can actually climb over time, sometimes even making launch week look like an insignificant blip.

What if, instead of inevitable sales as a game ages, the price rises over time instead?

For the fans, this is a great thing, because their die hard fanhood is rewarded with a lower price, almost like a secret deal for those who new about the game before anyone else. When the price goes up later, they feel smart. Most importantly, they don’t feel torn between supporting their favourite developer at launch and saving money. They can do both.

For people who find out about the game a later, after the price has gone up a bit, they may regret not buying the game before the increase (a lesson learned for next time), but they can still feel smart buying the game now, before it goes up again.

For the people who buy the game the latest, after the final, permanent price has been reached, they had the chance to wait to hear more about the game before buying. They had less to lose at that point, because the game has been vetted and the community established.

But in general, people who missed lower prices in the past may not even be aware of what they missed. They come to buy the game now, and see the current price now. On the other hand, when your game goes on sale later, everyone who bought it at full price remembers what they paid and feels the sting.”

However, for such a model to work it requires something pretty significant – for developers to resist buying into the Steam sale culture that is a big part of the reason why the service has enjoyed such huge success.

That also means ignoring the income that these temporary spikes in sales offer.

After that initial taste of extra, no-effort money, I participated in sale after sale,” Rohrer admitted. I was hooked. In the long tail, my daily revenue dwindled down to almost nothing, except during the sales, when there would be another big spike. I mean, making $3k over a few days, and a full year after launch? Hard to resist.

On its face, this seems like an obvious win for game developers: they get to revive their dwindling long-tail numbers with a big revenue boost, and a sale will bring more latecomer players into their games too.

But I suspect that something different is happening. Something that is arguably bad for players, and possibly bad for developers as well. To put it bluntly: sales screw your fans.

Your fans love your games and eagerly await your next release. They want to get your game as soon as it comes out, at full price. But they are foolish to do that, because a sale is right around the corner. It makes more sense to wait, unless they love you and your work so much that they’re willing to throw economic reason out the window.

There’s the possibility that the culture of sales actually reduces developer revenue over the long term. If just half of the players who buy the game during a 50%-off sale would have bought the game at full price if that was their only option, we’d already have a wash.

All that said, I get why a culture of sales has blossomed, and I also get that it’s impossible to escape from it now. To Valve’s credit, they never force developers to put their games on sale.

Of course, when most developers are putting their games on sale, it becomes harder for the remaining developers to make sufficient revenue without joining the sales, which means even more developers will put their game on sale, which means that players will know that pretty much every game will be available at a deep discount sooner or later, which means that more players avoid buying games at full price, and so on.”

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