I think most of us have taken advantage of the digital sales pioneered by Valve with its Steam digital delivery service. Being able to get a game you'd like to play for less than you'd normally have to pay for it sounds like a great deal. These deals don't just help players get games for less money – developers have reported that they earn increased revenue from them too. This is true of promotions outside of Steam as well; the Humble Indie Bundle has brought in millions of dollars in revenues, split up between independent developers and gaming-related charities like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Child's Play. It sounds like a mythical “win-win” situation, but I've noticed something about my own behaviour lately that has me questioning that a little bit.
I don't think many people would disagree that these sales affect which games players play. I know I've personally given a shot to games that I otherwise might not have if it weren't for sizeable digital price cuts. The sales also seem to be contributing to a problem known as the “backlog” - players are buying games they don't actually have time to play believing that they may play them in the future, while the financial savings they'll make now justify buying the product ahead of time. Of course, who knows what games we might really have purchased a month or seven from now, so I'd argue the backlog effect has an impact on what games we play too.†
How Discounts Affect My Behaviour
I've noticed that I play games differently when I purchase them as digital downloads when they become heavily discounted, though. It used to be the case that when I bought a game, I felt compelled to really sink some time into it. If it wasn't fun right away, I'd stick with it, hoping that I'd find the fun in it as I played. If I couldn't make sense of a game, I'd keep plowing away at it, figuring that the mechanics and strategy would become clear enough over time as I unlocked the game's mysteries. More than anything, I felt like I absolutely had to complete a game. I felt that way partly as a badge of honour, partly because I'm a completionist (I hate leaving a book half-read too), and partly because I had a limited number of games available to me and I figured that I may as well get as much as I could get out of the ones I had.
I still largely feel that way about $60, AAA games. For example, I played all the way through Enslaved: Odyssey To The West, even though I knew a couple of hours in that I wasn't going to get much out of the experience. In fact, I'd say the same is true even of a full-priced indie game, like Limbo, a game I found to be almost uniquely bad (as detailed in a previous post here) but still felt compelled to complete. But I don't feel that way at all about games I buy at significant discounts. If I spend $60 on a game I want to get as much out of it as possible. But $5? $2? $1? I hardly care if I get much at all out of it. After all, just heading out for a coffee break at work might cost me more than that.
So I give up much more quickly and easily on games that I buy at substantial digital discounts like that. Can't figure out the controls? Guess I'll play something else then. First half hour or so of the game doesn't seem particularly engaging? I've got another 5 games just waiting to be played anyway.
One reason for this has more to do with digital delivery itself than with sale prices – it's easier to ignore a non-physical product, so you don't feel like you're losing anything by not using it. You don't see it filling up shelf space that something else could have taken up, and since you don't “own” anything in the traditional sense, there's no feeling that you aren't using something that you should be. But the price itself is definitely an important factor. I just don't really care if I get much out of a game that I didn't have to put much into in the first place, either from the perspective of money or time.†
How Is This Relevant To Developers?
While this may all be somewhat interesting from the standpoint of a player, you may be wondering whether there's really any reason that a developer should care about this. Well, I'm not sure that there is, but I think that there might be, so allow me to explain. If you're a AAA developer, this probably doesn't mean anything to you, because by the time your game has fallen in price enough that it reaches discounts of $5 or less, you've likely already made the bulk of the money that you're going to make from a title. But for an indie developer, whose game probably debuted at a price ranging from $5-$15, the amount of revenue that you gain from this kind of sale might actually make up the majority of your revenue, so people buying your game under the conditions I've described above might be a very significant chunk of your player base.
Why does this matter? Because as an indie developer, you're probably not going to get so rich from one title that you can just coast off those sales in the future. You're probably going to have to make and sell more games. And as an indie developer, you need people to: a) provide good word-of-mouth marketing and b) like your games enough to want to buy more of them in the future. So I think it matters to you very much whether people are actually playing and enjoying your game, rather than merely buying them and then ignoring them. Is it really a good long-term business model to create a product that lots of people buy once and then almost immediately forget about? I'm not sure that it is.
It's impossible to say how much of an effect the mindset that I've described has on sales in either the short or long-term. I don't even know if there are very many people other than me who have altered the way they play some games on account of these deep digital discounts. And if this is a bad thing, I'm not even sure to what degree it might be reversible; these sales have created such tremendous short-term revenue, I don't think anyone would really seriously consider stopping them on an industry-wide scale. If anything, I expect them to increase in frequency. So unfortunately I don't really have any deep insights into what this means in particular for your business plan. But I suspect the change in mindset has happenned to a lot of people other than me, and I think as a developer trying to figure out how to develop a business strategy that will let you keep making the games you want to make long into the future, it's something that at least ought to be considered.