We have become quite adept at selling videogames to people who probably don’t really want to play those videogames.
It’s something I’ve mulled over for a while now but it’s really come to the fore in the wake of this past week’s refund-o-geddon talk. We’re now starting to really see how the past few years dive into regular deep discounts and bundling is shaking out and well, I worry just how sustainable it is to carry on like this.
To a large degree, I suspect Valve worry about this too and that’s why they generally discourage bundling on Steam except for the most special of occasions and also part of why a refund policy was deemed a necessity, doubly so as they move towards a more open storefront for developers to play in.
The theory behind bundling videogames is sound and one as old as home computing. It used to be that we’d bang together five or six games every now and then, throw them on a few tapes and sell them. Now? Limited time offers to get some videogames cheap. The idea, of course, is that you buy the bundle for one or more of the games in it and try the rest when you get chance.
Which is to say, it’s an idea that works best when bundles are limited. The perceived quality of the bundles remains high, the chances of finding a good game remains high, the chances of having time to duck in and play that game remains high.
Unfortunately, we started to bundle on an industrial scale. Bundling is now a treadmill of games to the point that even I, as a serial buyer of videogames, can’t feasibly keep up or know what half of the things in the bundles are. The idea that you go into a bundle now to get some promotion, outside of Humbles which for now are able to sustain themselves, is hilariously laughable and you have my permission to laugh in the face of anyone who asks you to be in a bundle for the promotion. Tell ’em Rob sent you, I’m cool with this.
Deep discounts work in a similar way. You have a time limited chance to lay your grubby mits on a videogame for cheap. And again, this works when we’re able to make an event of this. The Steam sales skirt this a bit these days as they’re now a regular feature and they still sort of work. But they sort of don’t either because sales are now the normal. Every day I can pick up a huge selection of videogames for cheap. They’re not special anymore because discounts aren’t special anymore.
And that’s fine. I’m not really moaning about that. I’m not here to announce we’re heading for certain doom or woe is us. Besides, I like cheap games.
But one of the things that has happened as a result of regular deep discounts and as a result of industrial scale bundling is that we’re now selling games to people who don’t want them really. Or maybe they do vaguely want them but they’ll never have the time to play. A portion of the people who buy our work aren’t, really, our customers. They pay us but they don’t play our work.
Cards on table, I was clearing out my Desura library over the weekend which is made up entirely of games bought in bundles. There’s 500 games in there, give or take a few. I bought the bundles for maybe less than a hundred of those games. The rest? I don’t know what they are, I don’t think I’ll ever have time to find out either. Sure, some of this is down to every single store having terrible library management tools but also because I’m going to die someday and I’ve got other things I want to be doing before I shuffle off this mortal coil and only so much time in a day to do them. I don’t actually care what these games are. For my own sanity as much as anything else.
I’m not alone in this. And it’s the same for sales. We’re seeing people acquire large libraries of games and nobs to it, bought because it was 20p and maybe I’ll play it someday and before you know it, they’ve bought 100 games at 20p a piece and oh, man. Having a large library has never bothered me but we’ve all seen people stress over their own backlogs, yeah?
Again, this isn’t a new phenomena in games. Towards the end of the eighties, large chunks of the game charts were taken up with compilations, magazines came loaded with cover tapes although there was a bit of a nod and wink that nothing too recent would crop up on them “for the good of the industry” or what have you. The nineties saw shareware and coverdisks, from 16 bit on, with increasing amounts of games. By the time we hit the early two thousands we can buy magazines with hundreds of games selotaped to the front each month. It’s why I don’t think this is a doomsday prophecy as much as it is a thing we keep doing and have to course correct for pretty often.
And I guess I sorta think that we’re heading to one of those points where we need to course correct again because right now, we’re letting our work be sold more than played and whilst that’s great for a few quid in the back pocket right now, it’s not much cop for building an audience for future works or, y’know, not stressing people out over the size of their backlogs. And let’s face it, the amount of quids is down greatly now too. When people are selling thousands but getting hundreds, that’s broken.
I’m not really worried about us running pricing into the ground, I’m more worried that our work isn’t reaching the people who might give a single care about it as often as it could and instead we’re opting to sell more to people who may never care for it. Right now, that’s easier and there’s always people on hand to boost your revenue but y’know, what use is that in the long run to most of us? The money is soon spent and when the next game comes out, who is there ready to give a toss about the new thing from the off? I’m worried that the focus on “get money now” distracts us. I also acknowledge that times are hard and money now is food in the fridge. I get it’s complex.
Maybe it’s time to start shifting the focus away from backlog building and onto games we care about? Even just a little bit. It’ll look a bit more grim on the balance sheets for a bit but maybe it might turn out OK? I dunno but I do think we need to change some stuff around soon before things get any messier.