Are Steam Sales bad for players?

4 min read

Don t take my money

This latest Steam Sale hit me pretty hard, I must admit. I couldn’t resist the siren call as almost every game in my wish list came up on sale at some point or another. Now, my Steam library is full of even more fantastic games, and I finally played some that I’d wanted for a while. However, one developer argues that Steam Sales might not actually be such a good thing.

Jason Rohrer, the developer of Inside a Star-filled Sky, is launching his new game, The Castle Doctrine. However, he has had a long, hard think about launch pricing and sales, coming to the conclusion that “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. Even in economic terms, the extra utility of playing the game early, at release, is not big enough to offset the extra cost for most people . 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. It’s nice to have fans that love your work that much. And these are the fans that you kick in the teeth when you put your game on sale.

Rohrer argues that rampant sales have led to a culture of waiting. Just look at the comments on this site on articles and reviews – most people who are interested in a game will add it to their wish list and wait for the next sale to pick that game up at a reduced rate. While revenue may last longer over the life of a game, Rohrer believes that it limits your initial player base and weakens the perceived value of a game. He does acknowledge that the system can be balanced out, though:

To balance this out, we would need a whole lot of people who will buy random games just because they are on sale—games that they had no intention of buying otherwise. Maybe there are enough of these people, and I’ve certainly met some of them: people who have a backlog of 50 unplayed games in their Steam library. Maybe they’ll never play them. But even if there are enough people doing this, it’s not a good thing. It’s just people being tricked into wasting money on stuff they don’t want or need. Better that they spent that money on one full-price game that they really want rather than four 75%-off impulse buys to add to their backlog.

I have mixed feelings about this. I have certainly bought games on impulse because they were so cheap I felt that I simply couldn’t pass them up. Sure, my backlog grew as a result, but it also means that I have some excellent games in my library, just waiting for me to have a holiday or time to play. Often, these are games I simply wouldn’t have bought otherwise, so I’m giving a developer some of my money that they only receive due to the massive sale.

There’s no doubt that sales are an important staple on Steam now. Just look at these stats coming out of dev days:


That’s a lot of traffic and tons of purchases. With that level of community engagement, people were able to talk about games coming up on sale and probably spend more money than they planned. I know that I personally chatted with a bunch of community members over the holidays to discuss if a game on sale was worthwhile, and to trade snow globes so I could craft that badge. Was this bad for developers? Maybe Rohrer is right – it certainly hurts sales during launch, but there is no denying that it boosts purchases over a much longer period of time. Have sales made PC gamers cheap and unwilling to purchase games at launch? Or has it made them savvy consumers?

Last Updated: January 16, 2014

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