Indie developer Cliff Harris wants to open up the debate on those unplayed games, and what it means for the industry

The negative effects of big game discounts

[Cliff Harris is an indie developer for Positech Games who has developd titles such as Democracy 3 and Gratuitous Space Battles. This article was originally published on the Positech website.]

You hear the comment quite often ‘I’m not buying anything till I clear my backlog’ and ‘I bought that game then realised I already owned it’ and ‘I bought the first one but didn’t play it, might pick this up…’

This is nuts. Gamers are being played, played like a fucking piano, every time you see the word SALE. This is a big psychology trick that is being used to siphon money from gamers, and it’s a bad thing, and if we can (and I think we probably can’t) we should stop it. Here is why I think using deep discounting to sell games to non-players is bad:

  • It kills off game launches. That thing where everyone plays the latest game doesn’t happen so much now. The game is ignored until the first 50% or 75% off sale. You don’t get that ‘water cooler moment’ where everyone talks about a game. That means some multiplayer games launch without the proper size of players, and the company isn’t making enough to retain support staff to patch and improve the game at launch.
  • It’s a step away from selling based on quality. When a game is in a one-day 75% off sale, how much research do you do before buying? Did you watch a lets play? The trailer? Did you read any reviews? How many? Admit it, you have bought a game based on the name, a logo and a screenshot because it was under $5 haven’t you? If so, this is a problem. We are rewarding games with cool names & screenshots over actual quality.
  • We are handing power to people who run sales. If anyone can sell $50,000 in a day with any game just by being on the front page of a sale, then that makes the people who manage the sale webpage the kingmakers. Is that right? Is it fair? Is it an optimum maximisation of everyone’s satisfaction and enjoyment? Or is it more likely making hits out of games who are well known (or liked) by the owners of the big portals?
  • We devalue games. We expect games to be $5. We don’t ‘invest’ money in them, so we give up and discard them at the first time we lose, or when we get confused or stuck. Some games are complex, tricky, hard to master, take a while to get to the point at which it all makes sense. We are increasingly likely to not bother with complex games, if we paid $5, we want something quick and disposable.
  • We don’t play beyond the first 10%. There is not a single game in my Steam collection I’ve finished. Not ONE. And I almost always buy full price. There are many games I’ve played for under 30 minutes, some for under ten minutes. They may have wonderful endings, who cares? I have another X games sat there I can experience the opening level of instead. And yet… gamers insist on 50 hours of gameplay. Cue 49 hours of back-tracking and filler, because game devs KNOW that 90%+ of buyers will never see the game ending anyway…

I’m not sure there is anything we can do about it. Discounts work. Sales work. There is some mileage in building a reputation for maintaining high prices for longer, I think I’ve built that up to some extent. Democracy 3 has never been lower than 50% since release back in October, with no immediate plans to re-do that 50% off or go lower. This is quite rare though. I got called a ‘fascist who hates gamers’ one month after release because the game was not on sale. *Sigh*.

I understand that varied price points to suit different gamers is good, I understand the reasons for sales being economically efficient ways to maximise global utility. But this implies utility is derived from the product. We are no longer selling products, we are selling discounts. The endorphin rush is now from getting a bargain, not the fun of actually *playing* the game. This is bad.

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