Steam Sales Selling The Dream

As I look at my Steam games list following their annual holiday sale I can't help but feel more than a little embarrassed by how many titles I bought because they were "deals" instead of games I'll ever put any real time into. Like a pot head who just stumbled into a supermarket, everything just looked so good with that $4.99 price tag on it. We’ll get to my list in a minute, but I’ll spoil the surprise and tell you that I’ll play half of them for about 30 minutes and never, ever touch them again.

These deals and insane publisher game packs have turned selective game buyers into sudden onset collectors. It’s not enough for Deus Ex to be snug in a jewel case and shoved into a basement closet somewhere; it needs to be on THE LIST. The ‘My Games’ tab on Steam isn’t just a launch pad for your game library -- it’s a gaping maw, a whisper in your head that there’s comfort to be found in THE LIST. The bigger THE LIST, the happier you’ll be. What if there’s a Star Wars Jedi Knight II emergency? Take comfort, it’s right there, ready for launch. But you’ll never click on it, will you? There’s always something new to play, but THE LIST doesn’t care. Its appetite is insatiable. Let’s have a look at what I’ve recent shoveled into the digital maw to keep it sated and see what Valve is really selling.

A Farewell to Dragons
Atari: 80 Classic Games in One
Ben There, Dan That!
Burnout Paradise: The Ultimate Box
Cogs
Defense Grid: The Awakening
Deus Ex: Game of The Year Edition
Lumines (With Advance Pack)
Sid Meier's Civilization IV
Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Beyond The Sword
Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Colonization
Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Warlords
Star Wars Jedi Knight Pack
World in Conflict: Soviet Assault
Time Gentlemen, Please!

Total money spent: $80.80

But wait! That’s a lot of game for a mere $80.80, isn’t it? It is, but if I’m being honest I would have spent $0 on a normal day. I blame the constant Steam sale thread updates and the resulting debates about whether this or that game was even worth the sale price. I was buying games just to prove to people wrong. I’ll never play Lumines. Atari Classics? Am I insane?!

The genius of this digital fire sale method is that they've converted old PC games no one cares about into commodities. "Buy low, sell high" doesn't really jive since you can't actually sell your Steam games, but the "buy low" principle is in full effect. Burnout Paradise currently sells for $29.99. It resides there as a good price for people who never got around to it on a console or finally got a PC that can handle the graphical demands. I played the 360 version so at that price it's just a game I've already experienced and not worth a second look. But for $7.49? THE LIST whispers that maybe I'll feel like racing on my PC some rainy day in the future. It's not a game anymore, it's an umbrella.

Steam and services like it have turned games into tube socks. It’s not enough to simply buy what I want to play; now I can buy games I’ll never play unless I lose my job or the apocalypse comes. That’s the dream Steam is selling – that I’ll ever have time to play what I buy. They count on THE LIST forever perching on my shoulder and telling me these games used to be $50 and now, only a year later, I can buy them for $5. What a deal! What riches available to me now. What a list!

I’ll see you at the next Friday sale with money clenched tightly in my fist. Buying the dream.

Comments

KOTOR with the widescreen/high-res patch is quite nice.

I started playing my Steam-purchased copy a couple of weeks ago, about halfway through now.

I am so glad my wife doesn't read this site.

I've used the sales primarily to take chances on games I might not otherwise buy or to buy a game I already own and have enjoyed without having to hunt for the disk, patches, yadda, yadda, yadda.

So far, the hit of the new virtual pile is Eufloria. I enjoy strategy games, but generally dislike the frantic nature of RTSs. Tom Chick's description of Eufloria as a mellow RTS was enough for me to drop $5 on the chance I might actually like it.

Hi, my name is Arclite, and I’m a Steam addict (in unison: “Welcome, Arclite”). It started with Left 4 Dead in 2008. I had to validate on Steam, so I installed the client. It was the beginning of the end.

I learned about buying games on Steam on sale on line. I started slowly: a little UT3 there, a little Far Cry 2 there. But soon I was buying games with increased frequency, and not only on Steam but on D2D too. However, it wasn’t until the D2D 5 Anniversary Sale hit that my really heavy usage started. All those great games at only $5 each. In five short weeks I had 2 dozen games I had not even downloaded yet, never mind not played. I set up alternate accounts to purchase extra copies just in case I ever wanted to invite my wife to play Titan Quest or L4D with me. Then Thanksgiving hit. Both Steam and D2D had great sales. Another 2 dozen games added. And then Christmas came and I hit bottom. Not only was I buying up games from Steam and D2D (24 days of Christmas) like crazy, but I even registered an Impulse account to buy Demigod on the cheap.

So, I’ve been cut off. 2010 is the year Thou Shalt Not Spend. Me on Steam games (and D2D, etc.), my wife on take out (so she doesn’t have to cook. I leave you to figure out which one of us was draining our checking account each month). So I stop visiting the sale threads and sites. When Steam loads, I always load the My games tab instead of Home tab. One day at a time, one day at a time.

I can’t complain though. I have literally dozens of unplayed games that will take me years to get through. But if I catch word that Dragon Age: Origins has dropped below $20, the cycle might start right back up again…

I'm also in the variety/ampling different games group. I don't mind having a lot of games that I haven't put much time into, so long as I feel like I got good value out of it - and I value novelty quite highly. Even if I only play a game for an hour or two, I'll still often think it was worth $5-10 so long as it offered something different or entertaining.

Its cool to see so many people getting into STALKER since the $1.99 sale. One of the best games ever made, imho.

This Christmas I did the same thing that worked last year; I bought a bunch of games at shamefully low prices, then had my kids do chores to earn "new games" over the next few months. Yeah, I'm that cheapskate dad. But hey, the kids (4 and 7) did plenty to earn them and they don't know how little I spent. Everybody's happy.

They don't know about my big honkin Steam list, because I made a little folder on the desktop for their game shortcuts.

Sometime this year they'll earn Mr Robot, Lumines, Burnout Paradise, Zombie Bowl-o-Rama (thats more of a punishment I suppose...), Obulis, Madballs, Luxor 3, and Trine. They've already been playing Cogs.

Painkiller: Black and STALKER: Clear Sky are all mine.

I only jumped onto the steam wagon for L4D, 1 year later I have 50~ games to plow through with 95% of these games purchased from either the early holiday sale or the 10 day Christmas sale. Somehow picking up the Telltale Everything Pack without much interest in point-and-click adventures in the past, I don't know if I'll get around to every game but 2 episodes into Sam and Max and it's brilliant - with that said I did buy into the dream but it was exciting every morning to see what was on sale.
These sales definitely open people to different genres with such a small buy-in price which can in the long run can only be good for the industry. Definitely would love to see the % of people who have played all their games in their steam catalog.

*Legion* wrote:

KOTOR with the widescreen/high-res patch is quite nice.

I started playing my Steam-purchased copy a couple of weeks ago, about halfway through now.

How did you get that working mate? As far as I read, there is no way to get this working with the steam version, other than dubious methods....

On topic:

I wouldnt have bought 90% of the games I bought if they werent on sale. And I've only seriously played one(Rome TW) which I own on disk....

MadGav wrote:
*Legion* wrote:

KOTOR with the widescreen/high-res patch is quite nice.

I started playing my Steam-purchased copy a couple of weeks ago, about halfway through now.

How did you get that working mate? As far as I read, there is no way to get this working with the steam version, other than dubious methods....

Here you go.

Sadly where I live we have ISP's capping bandwidth and charging exorbitant costs, so something I bought for $2-8 might cost me $20-40 to download, depending of course on its size :/

That cuts down quite harshly on buying anything online.

Lex Cayman wrote:

Also, this fear may be unfounded, but sometimes I worry that these amazing sales will create a race-to-the-bottom mentality that currently plagues the iTunes App store. I want digital distribution to be haven, not a slum.

This would be my only concern as well: that it might be creating the type of atmosphere that might not be very beneficial to traditional PC games, as some people are already starting to have the mindset of a new release not being worth paying for unless it's at least 50% off the usual retail price. It is, after all, a phenomonen that has happened elsewhere in the market, where constantly discounting your product or service results in a new psychological expectation from consumers despite real-world costs.

Of course, the flip side to this is, as other people mentioned, a game suddenly getting tons of revenue from people who might not have ever bought it otherwise, and a huge portion may never even get around to downloading or playing even once.

I'll be interesting to see how this all pans out.

Besides the obvious observation that having sales lets people choose what they thing something is worth to them, and if you value getting it sooner you pay more, I wonder what amount of data valve is gathering from all this.

If cut-price sales were rare, I would take having a wider range of prices for games as a good second choice, instead of every game being a 'standard' price of £30 (or whatever) on release. If valve could advise a publisher of the best price point for their game to maximise sales or revenue it would be a step forward.

One other thing that sounds obvious is that mixed in with the holiday sale were a lot of games I imagine were not 'hot' sellers, had sequels coming out soon or past their prime, so it was a good opportunity to get a fresh batch of sales.

kuddles wrote:

This would be my only concern as well: that it might be creating the type of atmosphere that might not be very beneficial to traditional PC games, as some people are already starting to have the mindset of a new release not being worth paying for unless it's at least 50% off the usual retail price. It is, after all, a phenomonen that has happened elsewhere in the market, where constantly discounting your product or service results in a new psychological expectation from consumers despite real-world costs.

You mean like how I don't buy a lot of groceries until they get put on sale by a certain amount?

mrtomaytohead wrote:

You mean like how I don't buy a lot of groceries until they get put on sale by a certain amount?

I don't believe its like that, unless you think of your Steam list as a bunker full of canned food. Due to the long list of games yet to be tried, many of us can easily play the waiting game til prices drop to our comfort zone. Its unfortunate for the publisher, but for now its reality. If I hadn't been expecting such huge discounts on many recently released games, I'd have been more likely to buy them the first week. When the price of games falls this low, finding the time to play them becomes the presiding factor.

I have to say that although I spent $51.13 during the sale, I never felt I was a victim to 'THE LIST' syndrome. Perhaps it is denial, but 75% of the games I bought I had already been eying since their original release.

STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl - Always wanted to play
Trine - Liked demo but wasn't worth the full game cost (but $4.99 was a good value/interest ratio)
Mass Effect - My favorite purchase so far, always wanted to play and currently 11 hours in.
Multiwinia + Darwinia - Random purchase
Osmos - Random purchase
Max Payne - Classic I loved but never finished
Max Payne 2 - Never played but wanted to after I finish 1
Company of Heroes: Tales of Valor - already own the main game and previous expansion
Rome: Total War Gold - Always wanted to get into and at $2.49 almost 0 risk.
Zombie Driver - Random purchase
Lumines Base + Advance Pack - Wanted to play but never had PSP.. no brainer at $2.99
Grand Theft Auto IV - Played all previous games but never got around to.. can't wait to start.
Defense Grid: The Awakening - Currently on the last level, my second favorite purchase (14 hours in)

When you consider out of that list I've gotten already 25 hours of fun and it is only Jan 7th. I'd say that's a big win when most of AAA games that came out last year not named Dragon Age are sub 15 hour experiences that are still well worth the $60+ you might spend on them.

Additionally I set a 'must be at least 75% off or I won't buy it' limit that helped curb any unnecessary impulse buying. I was really tempted to get Dragon Age but I held strong.

Running Man wrote:

Due to the long list of games yet to be tried, many of us can easily play the waiting game til prices drop to our comfort zone. Its unfortunate for the publisher, but for now its reality. If I hadn't been expecting such huge discounts on many recently released games, I'd have been more likely to buy them the first week.

Of course, the loss in profit due to that will balanced somewhat by the increase in sales to people who wouldn't have bought it at all - make their money in volume rather than profit per unit (which online distribution is almost uniquely well suited for).

I'm also in the only 2-game club. - Mass Effect for a fiver and then I splurged and spent 10 bucks on King's Bounty: Armored Princess (a nice find since it's only been out a couple of months).

I very thankful for all of you ADD-types that buy and play everything. Your excellent, insightful comments/reviews make it so that I'm almost never disappointed with a game purchase.

I play the hell out of my games. I raced through Mass Effect playing the fighter and not doing many side quests because the story was really good. I can see myself playing this game several times doing different side quests each time and exploring the different classes and genders. If it's exactly the same experience, I'll be a little disappointed and probably drop it, but the first time through was well worth the fin.

I played King's Bounty:The Legend through 4 times (once on a lower difficulty and 3 times on impossible with the 3 different classes). With the random set ups and different class strengths I needed 4 different strategic approaches to win each time. I'm hopeful Armored Princess will have similar depth, but I haven't done much with it yet.

These two cheap holiday purchases plus my old friend CIV and Internet Up Front will likely keep me occupied until the next holiday season when I expect to pick up Dragon Age: Origins for less then $10. : )

I was really tempted by Zombie Driver when it was $2.50 or whatever, but didn't bite. I did buy the Eidos pack because I wanted Batman AA, Hitman Blood Money and the two Tomb Raider games. Also bought the Freedom Force pack and a Stalker when it was 1.99 for the convenience factor. Also the Crysis pack for $13.59 because I didn't own that yet and wanted to see what the fuss was about.

But I definitely know about the "buying games I don't have time to play" syndrome. It sucks.

kuddles wrote:

This would be my only concern as well: that it might be creating the type of atmosphere that might not be very beneficial to traditional PC games, as some people are already starting to have the mindset of a new release not being worth paying for unless it's at least 50% off the usual retail price.

There was an interview a few months ago with someone at Steam discussing how the sales actually increased the sales of the full price product after the price went back up. It created buzz (essentially free advertising) and the people that missed the sale bought it anyway at full price. But this was short term sales, a day or a weekend. I'm not sure how the longer sales of the holidays fits into this strategy (although Steam did have daily sales as well). Perhaps they wanted to increase the visibility of Steam overall? I couldn't find the exact article (Steam is too common a word, and I don't remember the article title), but here's an example of how the discounts increase sales.

I agree overall. When I first got on Steam and things first went on sale, I would snap them up (UT for $15, FC2 for $20, L4D $15) but now I know if I wait, I can expect things to go even lower. So now, I have a fairly low threshold. Zenoclash was on sale for $10 in Nov, but I waited and a few weeks later it was on sale for $5. Also, by filling my Q with so many games, I don't feel the need to pick up DA:O until it drops to $20 or so. I'll just play something else instead.

mrtomaytohead wrote:

You mean like how I don't buy a lot of groceries until they get put on sale by a certain amount?

I think that's a fairly good analogy. I have certain foods I check on a regular basis. When they go on sale, I stock up. Same with games for sale on Steam. I pay attention to the industry. I read reviews and know what games are good and what games aren't. When they go on sale, I pick them up.

Heh, unlike a lot of you, I only bought games I knew I'd be playing. Batman, Defense Grid, GTA4, Braid, C&C:RA3, Dead Space, Mirror's Edge, Torchlight, Trine. Games that have been generally well received or that fit my particular tastes.

It's not a game anymore, it's an umbrella.

This is insightful, clever, and sig-worthy. I have a very short Steam Games list, but I know a good half of it is umbrellas.

Atari: 80 Classics - Yeah, I got suckered too. I tell myself it's so I can show my kid what games were like back during the "caveman days" as he calls anything prior to, I assume, his birth. Total umbrella.

Assassin's Creed - I thought I wanted it, but I got bored/frustrated during the training. So much offal.

Audiosurf - the quintessential rainy-day, five-minute, water-treading umbrella. Especially now that I have it on my Zune, I'd more likely fire up Peggle than this. Sad really, it's a brilliant game.

Fallout 3 - Like AC, I thought I wanted it. What I really wanted was to see post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. I could have just gone to YouTube. Curse you, Rabbit.

Stalker, Monkey Island Remastered, Mass Effect, Half-life(part of Orange Box, though) - all "some-day" games.

8 of the 19 games on my Steam list that aren't actually my wife's games are umbrellas. WTF does that say about me? On the upside, I only spent about $20 on the Holiday Sale, and only 1 of the 3 are umbrellas.

And I have a new mnemonic to defend against those purchases in the future - "I don't need another umbrella. I have several, thank you."

Steam and services like it have turned games into tube socks.

From my most recent blog post, partly inspired by your article but also bouncing around in my head for the last few weeks before I committed it to my (usual) verbose treatment:

What may end up happening is that consumers lose trust that Steam is getting a reasonable profit margin on its regularly-priced offerings. If Steam can afford to sell software at 10% of its usual cost, without the brick-and-mortar need to move old product out of inventory and make room for new product..., people will begin to wonder how much it truly costs Valve to sell something digitally, and therefore whether the margin Steam makes on a full-price sale is a fair one.

If you care to, check out the full blog at:
The Keep of Imbarkus

Thanks for a good read, but as you may see, I'm a bit more concerned about the shift in perception of these Steam sales than you are.

My understanding was that the 'high' prices of steam (with the apparently ridiculous profit margins) were imposed by the publishers, who were in turn pressured by the brick and mortar stores. In that case, there's not a lot that Valve can do. I don't have any link to back that up, though.

Sonicator wrote:

My understanding was that the 'high' prices of steam (with the apparently ridiculous profit margins) were imposed by the publishers, who were in turn pressured by the brick and mortar stores. In that case, there's not a lot that Valve can do. I don't have any link to back that up, though.

Possibly. I wouldn't doubt that a price comparable to boxed copies at retail is locked in stone at least for a while, otherwise Steam would introduce some of these amazing discounts at the time of a game's release, like Wal-Mart in Canada did with amazing success upon the release of Batman: Arkham Asylum.

But at some point, that agreement must be null and void in order for some of these crazy sales to occur.

That said, you bring up a good point about negotiated and contracted price points, as I see certain products on Steam eligible for much higher discounts than others. FOr example, PopCap's stuff goes on sale very rarely, and if so for a modest discount. Meanwhile, I picked up S.T.A.L.K.E.R. for the unbelievable discount of 90% off.

But more to the point of my article, what happens to the level of trust and confidence to the guy out there who bought S.T.A.L.K.E.R. the day before the sale? Is his trust in the fair pricing of digital distribution greatly shaken?

Mine would be...

It's about finding the right price for the buyer, getting more people to give you their money at a variety of price points. Some people will pay the full price to get a game ASAP. It's like anything else that if you mess people around they will feel hard done by. I don't think it would be too bad for them to introduce a X days price guarantee that refunds the difference of any price change in that period.

I'd take your point if stalker SoC was released within the last year, but it's over 2 years old. It's normal sales now must be minimal so getting a boost from an insane deal must be good for GSC/THQ, and should help getting interest for their soon to be released sequel.

Imbarkus wrote:

But more to the point of my article, what happens to the level of trust and confidence to the guy out there who bought S.T.A.L.K.E.R. the day before the sale? Is his trust in the fair pricing of digital distribution greatly shaken?

At the risk of sounding cynical, I suspect they can get away with it because number of people who'll think about it that much detail are fairly low. For every person that thinks "how can they make it this much cheaper all of a sudden?" I'll bet there's ten who just think "ooh, cheap!".

I'm also not sure why digital distribution should be held to a different standard than other retail practices. Sure, it's annoying if you buy something the day before it goes on sale, but isn't that just as true of t-shirts, furniture, bacon, and so on? I think Scratched has the right of it.

Imbarkus wrote:

That said, you bring up a good point about negotiated and contracted price points, as I see certain products on Steam eligible for much higher discounts than others. FOr example, PopCap's stuff goes on sale very rarely, and if so for a modest discount. Meanwhile, I picked up S.T.A.L.K.E.R. for the unbelievable discount of 90% off.

I think it depends on the "legs" of the game. Once sales start to drop off, Valve (or D2D) can go and say "We can guarantee x number of sales at y price point. Let's do a weekend sale, and you'll make z # of dollars". Since sales had fallen so low the publisher agrees. The difference is how long that drop off in sales takes to occur. COD4 stayed at MSRP for 2 years b/c of its popularity. Popcap games also have long legs (and start cheap to begin with). On the other hand, Drakensang came out in Feb 2009 and I picked it up in October for $5. I assume that it wasn't selling at all or they would never have agreed to that price. And it's especially good for older games that are completely off the radar. They've basically written the game off, but you discount it heavily and suddenly it produces a bunch more revenue for you. And the effect lasts according to a valve article I read. After the sale ends, more people buy at full price than they did before b/c of the buzz the sale created.

Imbarkus wrote:

But more to the point of my article, what happens to the level of trust and confidence to the guy out there who bought S.T.A.L.K.E.R. the day before the sale? Is his trust in the fair pricing of digital distribution greatly shaken?

I don't think his trust is shaken, but I think you're training people to wait until stuff goes on sale. But lots of people don't want to wait. I think it will be a year before we see Borderlands or Dragon Age less than $25. So eventually they will come down, but you'll have to wait a while. Or play now at asking price. It doesn't take long to learn the "system" and people accept that once they figure it out. Digital sales are growing, and if people had an issue with "fairness" they'd be repelled. Instead, they are attracted.

Arclite wrote:

I don't think his trust is shaken, but I think you're training people to wait until stuff goes on sale.

This might be an issue, however, if digital distribution wants to replace retail as a default destination for purchases after the release window, yet before the desperation discount window. Steam is still in the position of trying to gather confidence in using the service, at ALL TIMES, not just right after a game comes out, or when it is one sale, right?

Not to mention that, with supply removed from the equation, having pricing based solely on demand just... feels a little greasy in general, right? Like the Gamestops that still wants $46 for a pre-owned copy of Modern Warfare 1. After a while, the naked avarice of the pricing is disquieting in general, and reduces consumer confidence overall, that they are being charged a fair price.

Arclite wrote:

It doesn't take long to learn the "system" and people accept that once they figure it out. Digital sales are growing, and if people had an issue with "fairness" they'd be repelled. Instead, they are attracted.

Mark my words, there will be a shift when the attraction and the repellation (waiting for the amazing sale) even out.

Sonicator wrote:
Imbarkus wrote:

But more to the point of my article, what happens to the level of trust and confidence to the guy out there who bought S.T.A.L.K.E.R. the day before the sale? Is his trust in the fair pricing of digital distribution greatly shaken?

At the risk of sounding cynical, I suspect they can get away with it because number of people who'll think about it that much detail are fairly low. For every person that thinks "how can they make it this much cheaper all of a sudden?" I'll bet there's ten who just think "ooh, cheap!".

I'm also not sure why digital distribution should be held to a different standard than other retail practices. Sure, it's annoying if you buy something the day before it goes on sale, but isn't that just as true of t-shirts, furniture, bacon, and so on? I think Scratched has the right of it.

So true. There were complaints when Torchlight went from $10 to $5. But it is such a common practice in retail that it is really unfair to get one's knickers in a knot when one company out of thousands of retail outlets does it.

I bought Torchlight at $10 and it went to $5 the next day. I was miffed, but it hasn't affected my goodwill to Steam.

I've bought pants before and found them on sale a week later, it didn't affect my goodwill to the store. It is a business owner's obligation to boost sales.

For all the bluster DD of replacing retail, it hasn't happened yet and doesn't look like happening for a good few years yet. What has happened is that it has established itself as an alternate to retail, with different rules to be successful.