Are too many sales hurting the games industry?

If you’re an economically conscious gamer you’ve likely noticed as of late that we seem to have fallen down a rabbit hole of continual discounts, bundles, and money saving subscription services to the point it’s becoming difficult to even keep track of them all.

“Well that’s great” I can hear you say. “I love games and I love saving money, how can this be anything but amazing?!”

That’s a question I’ve not seen being answered very often, and it’s not hard to see why. We as a society have grown into a horde of rabid consumers, and the only thing better than spending money is spending it on a bargain. Naturally video games in their proliferance have hit the point of there being quite frankly too many games for the amount of people buying them, so how do you differentiate yourself and get people to check out your game? Put it on sale, preferably for a price that seems like such an outrageously good deal even people with previously no interest in your game will buy it because hey, it’s cheap!

This is bad for a lot of reasons. It might seem like the deal of a lifetime, and having more things to play never hurt anyone, but let’s consider for a moment the side effects of this sort of behavior and the way the game market has shifted.

First, there’s the obvious effect of so many sales causing us to build mountainous backlogs full of games we forgot we bought and likely why we bought them in the first place. These are the games we got because we saw them on sale, or they came along in a bundle. The games that are left to vanquish under the nebulous notion that we will play them “some day”, though exactly when that is is never much of a concern.

The-humble-bundle-v
All this for less than $1 a game!

The problem I see with backlogs, is that it’s gotten to the point where we’re often less interested in games themselves, and more just the ability to play them in the future. There’s less excitement over buying new games because we already have dozens waiting to be played, but there’s also less direct interest in any of those games we’ve put off playing because they’re all just part of an impenetrable blob that seems to constantly grow larger until we’ve lost track entirely of what it contains.

It also means that we end up with lots of games we don’t actually want, which can make shifting through to find what does interest us more of a hassle than it should be. We spend time playing games we don’t like, or find it difficult to keep focus on any particular game because there are so many others vying for attention all at the same time. It becomes overwhelming, and yet we continue to add to it day in and day out, only perpetuating a problem that seems to have sprung up out of nowhere. We’ve developed a culture around buying games completely removed from actually playing them, like some bizarre metagame of hunting down the best deals.

And then there is the cost we don’t always consider as highly because it probably doesn’t directly relate to us, that being the livelihood of the developers making the games we love but aren’t willing to pay more than a dollar or two (if that) for. We’ve been train to view games as products, and then given a way to get tons of them for next to nothing. Eventually this leads to us expecting to get everything for that price. What we once might pay $15 for, we’ll wait until it’s on sale. Or those games that look cool but are maybe a little unpolished, we’ll get them in a bundle. Even the stuff that excites us the most, it almost feels wrong to pay anything near full price. It’s become so common for games to be put on sale quickly after release that it would be silly of us to pay more than we have to just to have it a little early, right?

But this isn’t sustainable. Though getting a half dozen games for a couple dollars is awesome, somebody had to make those games, and they can’t survive on change from a bundle that lasts a week or two. They aren’t putting their games on sale because they want to give you a good deal, they’re doing what’s become necessary to survive in the industry. But even if a developer runs constant sales, or puts their games in numerous bundles, or gives it away for free on PS+, that’s just a temporary bandaid to tide them over until they can make another game and hopefully have it become successful.

Monthly sales for ibb & obb. Spikes indicate major sales.
Monthly sales for the well received ibb & obb by Sparpweed . Spikes indicate major Steam sales.

The reality of this is that we’re losing talented developers in droves, even as dozens more take their place and are met with the cold reality that is attempting to sell your game in an oversaturated market. Some games will receive the praise and sale numbers they deserve, some will get inexplicably lucky, and many will be ignored or glossed over until they’ve been slashed to absurdly low prices and then likely never played at all.

The point of all this isn’t to say that we should have no sales, or that bundles are evil, or that if they went away every game would become profitable. Part of the problem is of course that there are too many games, both good and bad attempting to get noticed as more flood the ranks every day. But the fact remains that this behavior of putting value before everything else, to the point where we spend more time buying cheap games than actually playing them, is harmful for everyone involved. I don’t know how to change this, or in all likelihood it’s only going to get worst. All I can do is try to spend more on the games and developers I want to support, and not worry that it’s going to be on sale in the future.

I’m tired of watching developers close their doors because I didn’t think their game was worth paying for, and I hope I’m not the only one.

3 thoughts on “Are too many sales hurting the games industry?”

  1. Something to consider is that while I may personally wait out for that $5- $7.50 price point because we “know it will eventually happen” there are probably 100 people paying full price because they want the game now and don’t want to wait for the inevitable sale.

    This goes for anything, not just games. I did not buy my first HD TV until the prices reached what I was willing to personally pay. Same for the SSD I just bought.

    If everyone was waiting for the $5 price then all games companies would be bankrupt by now.

    I personally don’t think bundle sites are hurting much. If they where then these Indie devs would not be adding their games to these bundles. It’s almost like a form of advertising. The cost of this advertising to the dev is the loss in revenue for a few Steam keys. Which is probably a lot less than actual advertisements would cost or at least it’s a break even for the dev/pub. It also gets your game in peoples Steam libraries in hopes others will see it and buy it too.

    1. It seems like there has to be tons of people paying full price for a game, but ask a developer about their sale numbers and it’s obvious that’s not the case. Sure, there are breakout hits like Five Nights at Freddie’s or Besiege, but for every game that succeeds there are dozens that flounder with barely enough sales to keep the developer going long enough to put out another game (let alone make a profit). It feels like steam sales and bundles have started a downward spiral similar to what happened on mobile, which has gotten to a point where either your game is F2P or you’re stuck hoping to get on the top sellers list if you want anyone to try your games.

      I guess the problem comes down to oversaturation and issues with discoverability on Steam. Items on sale are given the most exposure, so for some people they probably haven’t even heard of a game before it was put up as a daily deal. Valve is doing a lot to keep up a culture of constant deals and it’s working for them as a business, but where does that leave the games not on sale who can’t afford a huge marketing budget?

  2. The real issue is the “I can make a game” syndrome

    With programs like Unity and RPG Maker making the game making process easier everyone seems to feel that they are game makers now.

    They should be happy they got what they did from those bundle sites as they would never had a chance anywhere else. Even on a Steam sale. The games are typically crap. I relate them to the old days of shareware. And just like back then mostly crap but every once in a while a gem.

    Most of the AAA companies started out with zero money and a zero budget, BUT they made good games and not shovelware. They MADE games. And good games. THAT is how they got on to store shelves. That is how they got revenue to make bigger better games.

    I don’t really think you need a huge marketing budget or a Steam sale to get your game noticed.

    If you make a good game and get it out there it will sell. Market it however you can. Free demos to gaming sites. Try getting into a gaming show like PAX. Put your game in a bundle. If your game is good word of mouth spreads it like wild fire. Soon gaming websites are talking. Youtube is filled with “WTF” and “Let’s Play” videos.

    I won’t disagree that the amount of stuff popping up on Steam nowadays is crazy, just like the iTunes and Play stores, but if a gem is in there it will make it to the top of lists. People will see it and buy it. Even without a sale.

    It’s a tough market out there, not every game is going to make it or be a hit. So you going to get a dozen failures for every hit game.

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