Somebody hates sales? Really?
Gamasutra recently ran an article (here) by Jason Rohrer that attacked the value of video game sales. Specifically, he argued that sales hurt fans by allowing them to pay more when they could pay less and promoting a culture that encourages waiting to purchase thereby undermining multiplayer user bases. I’ve boiled down the argument below:
- Fans pay full price – Fans buy at launch when they should wait a few months and buy for less at a Steam sale. Fans won’t derive enough enjoyment from playing at launch to outweigh the cost of paying full price.
- Sales culture – Frequent sales create a culture of waiting for sales and therefore creates a dependency on those sales. That culture of waiting reduces the number of players at launch thereby undermining the initial player base for fans of multiplayer games.
- Sales might reduce developer revenues – If half the players who bought in during a 50% sale paid full price, you’d break even. Rohrer suspects more would pay full price if they didn’t know a sale was coming.
- Sales promote hoarders – People buy tons of games that they will never play because they are cheap. Sales take advantage of the lure of saving money to influence people to buy things they wouldn’t normally buy.
- Minecraft is the model – The price for Minecraft increased as the game reached its final development stage. Fans bought in cheap, whereas newer players paid more for a more finished product. This prevents people from feeling cheated when a sale hits, because the player will never have a chance to buy in at a cheaper price than the current one.
There are a number of issues with Rohrer’s argument, but I will only highlight two (others are included below). The first is the issue of purchaser agency. Rohrer assumes that most purchasers are intelligent enough to anticipate sales, but, fans, for unexplained reasons, are not. Give the prevalence of Steam sales, this is a hard argument to make. Far from being hidden, Steam sales are a celebrated part of the service. A fan who is ignorant of that potential is a rare and strange bird who should not have access to a credit card. Instead, we should accept the more likely answer: Most purchasers will pay full price completely aware that delaying their purchase would likely net them a good discount. Similar to the previous argument, Rohrer’s belief that accessing a game “early” couldn’t possibly make up for the potential money lost is also untenable. Players have long known that game prices will decline as time goes on yet have persistently purchased said games, at launch, in large numbers. Unless we’re prepared to write of a large portion (majority?) of the game buying public as ignorant of that concept too, we must accept that they see value in having a game now as opposed to later and cheaper. In that Rohrer cannot conceive of that value does not mean it doesn’t exist.
The second point is that early access purchases promote the buying of games before sufficient information is known about them. An early access game, by definition, has not yet been completed. Without reviews and hands-on information about the game, it is extremely hard for a player to make an intelligent judgment. Most players who wait to purchase a game until it’s released are doing so because they require additional information before being sufficiently confident to pay money for the game. Instead of supporting this, Rohrer’s pricing model actually penalizes people for wanting to make an intelligent purchase. The more time they have to know about the game, the more they will have to pay. Smart choices cost money in Rohrer’s pricing scheme. This is in conflict with the goal of ethical game selling.
I should note that the above argument appears to contradict my earlier point that Rohrer failed to treat the player as a reasonable adult. If I’m identifying waiting for reviews as the intelligent move, then isn’t pre-purchasing stupid and therefore pre-purchases undermine the theory that players are intelligent enough to make their own decisions? Put simple: No. Players can and do look at the available advertising material and intelligently decide that a game is so far into their wheelhouse or that a developer is so solid that it’s worth an early purchase. They also may buy games to support the developer. My argument is not that pre-purchases are the wrong move rather that they are only the right move for a small group as compared to the general gaming scene. Rohrer seeks to lump all fans into that small group, and penalize those who don’t fit.
The above two arguments are my biggest problem with the “sales are bad for fans” theory. If you’re interested, there are plenty more:
Sales hurt the bottom line – Point 3 is easily dispatched. Rohrer’s belief that sales might reduce revenues is totally unsupported by any evidence and relies entirely upon conjecture. He suggest possible scenarios where sales would undermine revenues, but there isn’t a shred of proof that this is the case. On the contrary, a limited review of the data suggests the opposite. Both Dustforce and Defender’s Quest more than covered the cost of the sale through sheer numbers. Even more interesting, the number of copies sold returned to the exact same level the following day and continued selling at the previous rate. While I have only presented limited data, it strongly suggests that point 3 is wrong.
Minecraft as a model – Generally speaking, anytime your argument relies on mimicking the success of an outlier, it’s usually a bad argument. Minecraft’s meteoric rise is an oddity. The game practically created a new genre. The idea that other indie games can follow its pricing model ignores the fact that the game’s massive popularity meant that just about any pricing model would have worked. The case of Minecraft is a poor one to generalize from.
Sales hurt the launch player base – This is Rohrer’s strongest point, but even it has flaws. He is right in that the initial player base will likely be hampered by an anticipated sale. Again, he doesn’t have any numbers so it’s hard to say by how much. However, what we can say is that sales drastically increase the player base once they occur. Sales benefit the player base of multiplayer games by reducing the barrier to entry for players on the fence. While the early adopters may lose a little, once the first sale hits, they have a lot to gain.
Hoarding is irrational – The purchasing of far more games than the player will likely play (hoarding) seems irrational. After all, an unplayed game is just a waste of money. However, the decline in the cost of games actually makes hoarding a smarter strategy than the previous pricing model. With the substantial decline in the cost of games, gamers can now by five games for the cost of one. For the same amount of money, gamers can purchases a greater variety of games thereby increasing the chances that one of them is a winner. If two of those games are winners, then the player has achieved twice the success for the same price. This only works if game costs are substantially reduced.
Fans just know about your game – Rohrer never explicitly defines the term “fans”, but seems to mean the individuals who are enthusiastic about a game before it launches. It’s the pre-launch crowd that he focuses on and so creates a privileged class that he seems to believe is defined by its love of the game. While this is undoubtedly a key part of being a fan, he seems to ignore another part of defining fans as pre-launch. Those fans have the benefit of information. Rohrer wants to reward those people who believed in a game before its potential was realized, but the people who would believe in a game and do believe in a game are not the same population. There are 7+ billion people on this planet and only an extremely tiny subset are aware of a given indie game at a given time. Even if the entire planet would be interest in a game, if they don’t know about it, they cannot become “fans” as Rohrer implicitly defines them. By rewarding pre-launch fans, Rohrer is unintentionally rewarding the well informed. By refusing to do sales, he is penalizing those who love his game, but heard about it too late.