Tag Archives: Steam

Opinion – Fixing Steam

That’s a big pile of shit.

Steam has a problem.  The now dominant delivery method of computer games can’t seem differentiate good games from bad.  Once the light of hope for all computer gamers, now Steam is clogged with half finished “early access”, buggy trash, and crap left over from yesteryear.  Indie developers used to rely on getting to Steam’s front page for instant wealth, but now must compete with the dreck of the community.  How does Steam deal with the flood of terrible games?

Welp, it would help to learn from the past.

This isn’t the first time the video game community has dealt with this problem.  Back in 1983, the video game market crashed after customers stopped buying games.  The consoles of the day got greedy and decided to allow large numbers of low quality games as a way to take advantage of the video game “fad”.  As a result, the developers flooded the market with low quality products and the unsavvy game market couldn’t tell which games were worth buying and which games were shit.  After buying several bad games, customers pulled out of the market resulting in the devastation of most of the North American video game community and an effective reset of the market.  This phenomenon happened again with the Wii.  Nintendo produced an ultra-popular console that brought in tons of new players.  Studios produced terrible games to take advantage of the fad resulting in the unsophisticated players buying bad games and leaving the market.  Interestingly, it was the same console maker, Nintendo, that found a solution to this problem 20 years earlier.

After the 1983 crash, the North American market lay dormant until the arrival of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).  The NES boasted better graphics, a brilliant game bundled in, and the Nintendo Seal of Approval which gave Nintendo’s guarantee that the game met a minimum standard.  Nintendo knew that Atari and its compatriots lost their market due to the flood of bad games.  As a result, Nintendo both limited the number of games a developer could make and played them to ensure they weren’t terrible.  By limiting the number of games, Nintendo incentivized publishers to focus on the quality of their games (as they only got five shots a year) over dumping as many games on to the market as possible.  By playing the games, Nintendo weeded out the shovelware and ensured that customer’s knew the game would work if it had the seal.  Finally, Nintendo published the Nintendo Power magazine to review games and provide strategies to both bolster its quality assurance efforts and help players get the most from their games.  The effort worked and laid the foundations for the games industry as it stands today.

In many ways, Valve, the creator of Steam, has it easier.  The decades old game market educated many gamers on how to recognize quality products and the healthy reviewing ecology ensures that reviews are available for those who want them.  Steam doesn’t need a “Steam Power” to educate its customers.  What it does need is a Steam Seal of Approval and a limitation on the number of games a publisher can make.  Unfortunately, the Seal requires something that Valve is very bad at: people.  Valve generally strives to automate its processes which is why all of its business initiatives (reviews, curators…Steam itself) have little human intervention and the bits that require people (its god awful customer service) are weak or lacking altogether.  To implement a quality review process, Valve would need to get a handle on hiring and managing people rather than just automating everything.  Understanding that isn’t likely to happen, limiting the number of games per publisher would help.  Many bad games come through shovelware publishers and limiting said publishers to a few games a year would force them to support better games or rely solely on the meager profit of a few terrible titles.  This system would still require additional people, but would only need a savvy few over the numbers a quality control system would take.

Whatever Valve decides to do, it needs to act fast.  The digital distribution market has grown in the past few years with major titles now available on a number of sites.  Steam still commands most of the market due to sheer size, but that need not continue.  If customers find it too difficult to discover the games they want, they can move to greener pastures.  Valve has time to fix this problem, but they don’t have forever.

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Review – Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc – PC

Killing high schoolers has never been so much fun!

Murder mysteries are an often neglected part of video game design space.  Whereas books, movies, and tv series have seen great success with that theme, games have generally avoided it due to the lack of obvious gameplay.  Those that have tried (Batman Arkham Asylum or L.A. Noire come to mind) have trouble making the investigatory process interesting as compared to the shooty/fighty bits of the rest of the game.  Given the challenges of the past, it’s not surprising that the game that finally gets it right is the one that commits to being a detective.  Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc succeeds because it knows exactly what kind of game it wants to be.

The story begins with Makoto Naegi attending the first day of high school at the ultra-exclusive Hope’s Peak Academy.  He walks in, falls asleep, and wakes up to find the school has been shut off from the rest of the world.   Stuck with him are his hyper talented classmates who are then informed by the sadistic murderbear Monokuma that the only way they can leave is by killing one of their classmates and getting away with it.  The rest of the story focuses on the interaction between the characters as the bodies pile up and the desperation sets in.  The set up creates a great deal of natural tension between the characters as they grapple with their desire to avoid killing (or being killed) while still wanting to escape.  Each character feels more fleshed out than your standard anime archetype and the game explores their backstories as a way to both empathize with them and establish their motivations.  The murder mystery style pushes the characters in interesting ways so much so that you’ll be sad to see them go.  In between investigations, the player can hone in on characters they particularly enjoy and these mini vignettes fill out their personalities.  Danganronpa’s character depth helps the player invest in the world and care about the outcome.

The interesting setup and strong characters would have been enough to carry the game, but the gameplay elements form a nice compliment.  Danganronpa cycles through three sections: exposition, investigation, and trial.  The first two, exposition and investigation, have the player walking around the world in a first person perspective interacting with people and objects.  There’s more than a little walking simulator DNA here, but the perspective and dingy colors establish a haunting mood.  The trial is the most interactive part.  The player plays a serious of mini games designed to piece together clues found during the investigation phase.  Most of the games get at the player’s understanding of the clues and how they fit together.  For example, one mini game has the characters speaking.  The player must select the right fact that counteracts a phrase being said.  This isn’t the deepest gameplay and one of the minigames stumbles a bit, but it neatly includes the player in the business of figuring out the mystery.  I occasionally felt confused about the answers, but they largely made sense.

…and that’s the strongest aspect of Danganronpa.  If the game indulged in the leaps of logic endemic in many other Japanese series, the mysteries and solutions would have felt unsatisfying.  Instead, developer Spike Chunsoft took the time to come up with logical solutions to its puzzles and understandable motivations for its characters.  It makes sense in the way that good murder mysteries should.  It rewards the incredible interest that its unique premise generates making the player want to continue to solve the overarching mystery of how everyone got into this mess in the first place.  The only time it falters is at the end and, even then, that’s only for a piece of the big reveal.  In all the ways that matter, Danganronpa nails it.

With Danganronpa 2 coming out on Steam (the series has primarily been Sony handhelds) in a couple of weeks, now is the ideal time to pick up the original.  My only hesitation on recommending this game is the violence.  While there is no gore, there is a great deal of blood and brutal deaths.  If you’re okay with that, the intriguing mysteries, clever characters, and unique set up will grab you until the end.

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Opinion – Problems with the Playstation Store

Bolding exploring the aughts.

Did you know that Duck Dynasty for the Playstation 4 is a quality game? It is! Do you know what I’ve purchased before? I don’t! Do you think matching prices matter? Sony clearly doesn’t. The PS4 online store is a collection of outdated design decisions that haven’t been seen from their PC brethren for years. It’s shocking given the importance of the online store and the obvious examples from which to draw from.

Let’s get back to Duck Dynasty. Metacritic rates it at a 2.1 user rating and has zero professional reviews on record. Screenshots show a game that wouldn’t look out of date on the PS2. In short, Duck Dynasty is yet another cheap cash in designed to separate naïve show fans from their money, yet it’s got a solid 4 out of five stars on the Playstation store. It’s hard not to conclude that Sony believes that artificially high ratings in its store help it sell more games. Unfortunately for Sony, the Internet exists. It only takes a few minutes to determine if a game is good making inflated ratings seem quaint and useless. Even if the high ratings convince a few poor souls to buy the game, I have to wonder if that actually helps Sony in a meaningful way. Any purchaser is unlikely to remain dazzled by the high score for long. As soon as they figure out that Duck Dynasty is a terrible game, they are likely to also realize that the online store ratings are manipulated. Whatever benefit Sony derived from their deception is lost along with some goodwill. Compare that with Steam that has actual user reviews that are helpful to determining the value of a product. When I find an unknown title on Steam with a good rating, I’m happy to impulse buy. If I find the same on PS4, I’ll probably pass it by.

Since we’re on the topic of Steam, now is a good time to mention how effective it is at inventory management. Steam presents a one stop screen that has all the games that I have purchased, lets me know if they’re installed, and allows me to categorize them to my liking. The PS store has…well…a worse version of that. In its attempts to be everything to everyone, the PS4 lumps all media together along with a slew of features that merely clutter up the screen. Finding just an alphabetical list of games I own is damn near impossible, particularly since the library screen comes prepopulated with every Playstation service. Programs are represented with blocks that both take up a large part of the screen and don’t include additional useful information beyond the title. It’s clunky, it’s cluttered, and it doesn’t come close to matching Steam.

One of the great advantages of the digital revolution was its effect of pushing down prices for consumers. Retail costs disappeared for the publishers while extreme competition forced vendors to reduce their prices. Sales spread at the speed of the Internet and checking prices is as easy as visiting a website. Sony finally got on board with sales, but still doesn’t seem to understand reducing the base price. Final Fantasy Type 0 regularly retails for $30 to $40 yet it remains its original sale price of $50 on the Playstation store. In fact, most things not on sale remain at their original list price. I can’t imagine that older games like Far Cry 4 or The Last of Us Remastered are really selling in big numbers, yet their prices are those of games just released. This is counterproductive. Sony doesn’t get new sales from the lower price point and gamers don’t get cheap games which means everybody loses. Once again, Steam just does it better. Prices decrease over time and the sales are regular. There is no excuse.

The short and long version is that Steam is playing the digital storefront game far better than Sony. While I could understand it if many of the Playstation store’s issues were new, they’re not. Sony is grappling with problems that Steam publically dealt with years ago. Sony has no good reason not to follow the Steam model. PC is already experiencing a resurgence and, with bone headed mistakes like these, Sony is helping them along.

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Opinion – Steam Mod Charging Ugliness

That will be $5 for air, please.

The biggest story of the week was Valve’s attempt to offer Skyrim modders a chance to charge for their content via Valve’s Steam store.  The idea is solid on its face.  Modders can spend thousands of hours creating additional content that dramatically extends the life of a game, fixes bugs, and sells more copies.  There’s every reason to allow modders to reap the financial benefits of their work, both as an incentive to produce better mods and a way to allow, in theory, full time modding studios.  Unfortunately, Valve royally screwed up the roll out and had to pull the feature back.  Here’s how they did it.

They told no one

At least, they didn’t tell the gamers.  Gamers just arrived at the Skyrim page to discover that some of their favorite mods were stuck behind a pay wall or wouldn’t receive future updates unless they shelled out cash.  One of the greatest sins a business can make is to ambush its customers while charging them for something they got for free.  It leaves the customers feeling robbed and powerless which they will inevitably combat by complaining online.  It also didn’t help that Valve barely gave the modders notification.  A select group of modders had 45 days’ notice before the feature went live.  This isn’t enough time to put together a new, quality mod that people would happily pay for.  Instead, most of the day one offerings were tweaked versions of older mods or quick cash-ins that adding nothing to the game.  By not telling anyone, Valve insured that gamers would be taken by surprise and that modders would put their worst face forward.

They got greedy

The proposed cost split for a mod was 30% to Valve, 45% to Skyrim developer BethesdaSoft, 25% to the modder, and an optional 5% from the Valve portion to go to collaborating artists.  In short, a whopping 75% went to someone other than the modder, the theoretical beneficiary of this whole feature.  This split opened up Valve and BethsdaSoft to accusations of greed and made the payment option look like a money grab.  I can understand how both companies would want some of the profits, but it’s hard to argue they deserve the lion’s share.  Neither company is adding anything (remember, the modder paid for the original game and is doing all of the work) and both companies get compensation for any additional copies sold.  I imagine both companies intended to start high with the understanding that they may have needed to downshift, but they obviously misjudged what the gamers would tolerate.

They used an existing mod scene

The fact that mods are free has created a unique ecosystem unlike any other in the gaming world.  Whereas game developers jealously guard their assets and fight hard for their intellectual properties, modders do none of this.  The lack of a profit option means everything falls under fair use and can be bundled with someone else’s work.  A well-developed modding community often has basic mods that other mods incorporate wholesale without a single dollar exchanged between the modders.  When Valve allowed modders to slap a price tag on their work, it raised huge questions about who was owed.  Does a modder owe other modders if they incorporate their work?  If so, how much?  What if the borrowed mod has also been changed?  Valve also created a system of hidden costs where a mod that relied on, but did not incorporate, another mod could charge one price without noting (or being aware of) the cost of associated mods.  A modder could charge $5 for their mod and never state that a player needed another $5 mod to play.  It got ugly.

I support the basic idea.  Modders invest considerable time and energy into their work and deserve compensation for it.  Valve should continue to refine this concept into something that most people can support.  That means socializing the idea before realizing it, giving a more favorable split to the modder, and picking a new game where modders can build a community around the understanding that money will be exchanged.  I sincerely hope we see a more intelligent application of this idea in the future.

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Submissions and Social Lubrication

It’s officially been a year since I started Mind Decline and it has honestly been wonderful to see the site grow.  Starting from humble origins, MD is now slightly less humble pulling in about 100 views a month.  It’s not much of a platform, but I’d like to share it.  Starting now, MD is accepting submissions.  Read over the Submit to MD! page and send in your article!

To kick it all off, see the below article by Blergosaurus:

Social Lubrication

By Blergosaurus

I do not self-identify as a gamer. On the gaming spectrum (I don’t think it is so much a spectrum as it is two distinct groups of gamers and nongamers that overlap little if at all), I would consider myself something of an ignoramus. I played a little growing up, watched college friends and roommates play for hours, and occasionally helped in Starcraft II. I have a Steam account with two games, both of which I enjoy playing.

I guess I use gaming as a social lubricant. I don’t have anything against gaming, I’m just not interested in pursuing it for my own satisfaction. I am generally aware of big developments in the gaming world through word of mouth, online buzz, or other news stories, which enables me to be part of the dialogue with gamer friends by asking them to expand on what I know already. What little I do know does not come from personal interest in gaming, but from an interest in the individual with whom I’m seeking to interact. It’s like my relationship with football and fantasy leagues: I watch games and learn basic statistics so I can have a conversation with the custodian or a potential employer.

I know when a major game is coming out insofar as it will affect my social interactions with people. I deliberately saw a classmate before Diablo 3 came out because I knew I wouldn’t see him for a few weeks after it did. I couldn’t go out with a roommate Monday or Wednesday nights because his WoW guild met then. An old boyfriend had his custom level featured as a “level of the week” on Little Big Planet, and that’s awesome so of course I played it.

I like knowing things so I can interact with people about a topic they care about; however, I find it intimidating because I am aware of how little I know relative to the amount of knowledge available, and I never feel like I’m asking the right question(s). Thankfully, many acquaintances will dumb things down for me so I can understand what they are saying and how it applies to other ideas. Sometimes it can get frustrating because I can never hope to engage with them on a level that actually interests them. It’s like having a conversation with a child: the speaker may enjoy explaining an idea to the receptive listener, but ultimately isn’t going to get anything out of the conversation himself. I would like to understand more than I currently do, especially for an industry as ubiquitous as gaming. I want to relate to acquaintances on this topic, but don’t know where or how to start.

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Review – Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius – PC – Steam Review #3

Apparently we needed more skevy shots of underage women. Thanks Sunrider!

I’ve never played a visual novel before largely because the genre has never seemed all that interesting. The basic idea of a visual novel is to read a story interspersed with minor gameplay elements, which seems to deny the benefits that the video game format offers.  Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius adequately shows the appeal of the visual novel.  It uses solid writing, a space opera setting, and anime tropes to bring together an engaging story about a captain of defeated planet and his motely crew of underage girls.

I did mention anime tropes, right?

The story centers around Kyato Shields, the newly anointed captain of the experimental ship Sunrider, who fights back against the evil PACT empire after it conquerors his home planet of Cera. Joining Kyato is a group of teen girls who pilot ryders, the game’s mechs, and who serve as the games cast as the story develops.  The girl’s personalities, the mech fighting, and the whole feel of the game is that of a quality Japanese anime.  Strong writing helps elevate the story beyond the usual clichés, but it’s the tough decisions that add weight to what could have been another staid space opera.  Sunrider repeatedly asks the player to make painful choices between lofty principles and practical reality.  One of the long running plot lines involves an ambitious admiral whose willingness to sacrifice lives and freedoms force the player to think about how much those things are worth.  In one situation, the admiral proposes destroying a highly populated space station to prevent the annihilation of his fleet and a potential war losing blow.  The decisions the game poses are tough and the situations surrounding them feels believable and natural.

Sadly, those decisions don’t mean much. Sunrider isn’t Mass Effect and the choices you make don’t seem to matter.  The game has a linear plot that doesn’t permit much player input and regularly justifies even the most naïve choices as the right ones.  The decisions are still emotional affairs, but the knowledge that they don’t effect the world takes out much of their weight.  The story is also undermined by the creepy sexualization of the underage female costars.  The Sunrider is positively teeming with girls dressed in school outfits (military issue, I’m sure), crushing over the dashing Captain Shields.  The game goes further with gratuitous skin shots, an unnecessary shower scene, and dialogue boxes framed across teen crotch.  I get that anime does this kind of thing, but it undermines the rest of the narrative.  It’s hard to get invested in Captain Shields’ struggle to deal with the weight of the war when he discusses his woes with a 15 year old sub wearing an ass high skirt.  It’s uncomfortable and unwelcome.

As one should expect from a visual novel, the gameplay is simplistic. The player controls the Sunrider and its ryders in grid based battles against enemy fleets.  Each ship and ryder has a limited number of action points that it can use to either move or shoot.  The Sunrider also has access to special attacks that use Command Points which are earned at the end of battles.  The whole system feels clunky and explains very little of its weakly implemented nuance.  Fights aren’t well designed and rely solely on regular waves of enemies arriving with no variance in battle conditions.  On the whole, the fights can convey a sense of fleet combat grandeur, but too often become mired in the weaknesses of the system.  In one particularly frustrating example, waves of action point stealing support units showed up and effectively prevented me from doing anything during the several turns before I died.  The same units nullified long range weapons and hung out in the back of the fleet leaving me without an effective response. More time spent balancing the fights would have helped alleviate much of the frustration.

Your enjoyment of Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius largely depends on your love of anime space operas. Sunrider does a good job replicating the feel of Japanese anime and its free price makes it an auto include in fan’s libraries.  If you’re not as invested on the anime world, the game is of more limited value.  The dialogue is generally good and it’s probably worth checking out if you’ve ever had any interest in visual novels.  Just cover the screen during the crotch shots.

As for my evaluation of Steam, Sunrider represents the strengths and weaknesses of the system. Undoubtedly, I would never have run across this game without the assistance of Steam’s new system.  Sunrider, and its predecessors Grim Dawn and Xenonauts, are outside my usual information streams.  That being said, I didn’t truly enjoy any of these games and all of them felt like second or third tier copies of better ideas.  This all goes to support my previous conclusion which was that Steam’s update definitely increases the discoverability of the genres I like, but can’t make up for bad games.  Hopefully, Steam’s update will allow customers to access previously unknown developers and therefore accord those developers greater resources to improve their games.  We’ll see.

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Review – Xenonauts – PC – Steam Review #1

It only counts as déjà vu if it’s different.

Video game development is largely an iterative process. Developers make small tweaks to the gameplay of their genre predecessors which moves the world forward one tiny step.  Sometimes, a game comes along that takes a giant leap forward into parts unknown.  It reinvents a genre or creates a whole new one.  These games are treasured for the new experiences they provide.  Xenonauts is not one of those games.

For those who haven’t played any of the X-COM clan, the game is a tactical turn based squad game about an international agency fighting an alien invasion. The game is divided into two major segments: the aforementioned tactical fights and a base simulator.  In the fights, you control a group of green recruits as they fight through a myriad of locations to hunt down alien forces.  Actions cost action points of which each soldier has a limited supply that refills at the beginning of each turn.  Using terrain, weapon variation, explosives, and planning, the player must overcome a reasonably capable enemy.  The alien force isn’t particularly smart, but they are durable and will overcome sloppy play or bad luck.

Once the battle finishes, you control a global organization bent on defeating the invaders. You start off with one base that can research technology, manufacture equipment, manage personnel, and launch aircraft to intercept incoming alien ships. You feel a constant tension between the previously mentioned needs and so you require prioritization to ensure that you have the technology and equipment to defeat the ever escalating threat.  Defeating your foe is not just a matter of personal pride, but of funding.  Each base can only cover so much territory and the areas of the world that you miss will reduce their funding as alien attacks go unanswered.  Each aspect of the game feeds into each other creating the clever balancing act that made the original game so compelling.

Make no mistake, this is X-COM: UFO Defense. From the base building to the tactical gun play, this is an almost carbon copy of the 1994 PC classic that spawned a streamlined Firaxis remake in 2012.  The setting, gameplay, technologies, and so much more are ripped (competently) from the X-COM series.  Xenonauts does make a few welcome tweaks, but they are exceedingly minor.  You can now assign loadouts to soldiers that automatically equips them with the right gear.  Basic equipment is free and light flares are in infinite supply for nighttime missions.  Sadly, Xenonauts carries over X-COM’s frustrating percentage based firing mechanic (did two of my soldiers miss a collective 4 point blank shots before they were killed?  Why yes.  Yes they did) and the graphics are often inferior to the pixels of the original.

In many ways, Xenonauts feels like a menu upgrade rather than a new game. It’s not a bad game, but it does feel like an unnecessary one.  Most of its target audience likely already owns the original and will find this version a bit more convenient.  What is sad about Xenonauts is that it could have been more without sacrificing its focus on retaining the old school X-COM charm.  By changing the story, the tech tree, adding new fighting mechanics, or doing something different to anything major, Xenonauts could have established itself as a worthy successor to its obvious inspiration.  As it stands, I’m not sure why I’d buy this with the original in my games list.

Steam Review: I wasn’t wild about Xenonauts, but it’s definitely the kind of game I enjoy.  Furthermore, it’s competently executed and well received.  This was a good choice and a sign that Steam’s recommendations are doing their job.

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Review – Steam’s Update

If only it stopped me from overspending on sales too.

If you’ve dropped by Steam lately, you’ve no doubt noticed a rather significant change. In addition to the lovely light blue streak across the background (it brings such light and warmth!), Steam has totally revamped how it curates the presentation of the games it sells.  From the first sales window to the recommendations, Steam has taken a page from other digital relators and used user preferences to guide what it does and does not sell you.  Which is good, because, damn, did Steam need it.

Somewhere in the past couple of years, publishers figured out Steam’s game. In an effort to combat endless waves of dreck, Valve established the Greenlight Games feature which allowed users to vote on games that looked interesting to them and therefore, they would like to see in their Steam store.  Publishers, on the other hand, could put forward whatever games they liked.  While this system prevented the tiny developers from flooding the market with their digitized hopes and dreams, it did nothing to stopped publishers from buying up terrible games and releasing them to realize whatever profit could be found.  Perhaps more frustrating was that Steam could not handle the glut of games it inspired.  The advent of the digital store front allowed for a renaissance of PC game development as developers no longer had to fight for physical storage space.  When the number of these games was relatively small, they were given top status and granted a larger audience.  As more and more piled on, they crowded each other out.  Steam, being unable to prioritize games well, slapped them on the front page with little regard for whose front page it was.  Advertising Call of Duty to someone like myself made no sense, yet I was made aware of all of its new content and updates thanks to good old Steam.

The new system appears to be an improvement on that. Steam has shifted its underlying philosophy from an undecipherable mess to sourcing user opinions to inform what should and should not be shown.  The first change is finally using all the information that users provided about themselves.  Steam logs both the games people buy and the time they spend with them.  This alone is enough to give the service some idea about what kind of games people want to play.  Why show me the latest basketball title when I haven’t played a single sports game across thousands of hours and well over 100 games purchased?  The games I’m seeing match my tastes far more closely than what I saw before based on that principle alone.  With new customization options that allow me tailor my viewing even more, Steam finally looks like it’s looking at me as an individual rather than as a giant, amorphous game buying blob.

In addition to evaluating individual user data, Valve has boosted Steam’s capacity to analyze and use the broader community’s information. A summation of user reviews is now at the top of the page.  Users can become curators and offer lists of recommended games that others may follow.  Trust a particular user or game site?  Follow their list and get their recommendations while you shop.  Steam is kicking the review process back to the users, and the results are clearly an improvement.

At least, they look that way. Over the next few weeks, I intend to test this by reviewing the games under the “Recommended for you” section.  I’ll reload the page twice and pick from the six games on offer.  I won’t replay anything either.  While I can’t commit to finishing them (a week isn’t a lot of review time when you have a full time job), I’ll put in at least 10 hours.  Let’s see where this goes.

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Opinion – Sales are good. Fo serious.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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