Democracy dev warns against game sales

"The endorphin rush is now from getting a bargain, not the fun of actually playing the game."

Positech Games' Cliff Harris has warned developers of the insidious dangers of normalising huge price reductions through frequent sales.

In a post on his personal blog, Harris claimed that gamers are, "being played... every time [they] see the word SALE." He never mentions any platform by name, but digital services like Steam have become well known for offering deep discounts, even for relatively recent titles.

"This is a big psychology trick that is being used to siphon money from gamers, and it's a bad thing," he said. "And if we can - and I think we probably can't - we should stop it."

Harris, who worked at Lionhead as a programmer before forming his one-man studio in 1997, listed numerous reasons for his stance, starting with the impact sales have on game launches. Many people will choose to wait for the inevitable discount, he argued, depriving the developer of revenue and - if it's a multiplayer title - the game of much-needed players.

He also expressed concerns over the way 75 per cent discounts "devalue" the games. When a product costs $5 or less the consumer is less invested in their decision, and will ultimately be less discerning in what they buy, and invest less time in trying to understand the product. The latter point is perhaps the most relevant to Harris, who makes the esoteric strategy series, Democracy.

"We don't 'invest' money in them, so we give up and discard them at the first time we lose, or when we get confused or stuck. Some games are complex, tricky, hard to master, take a while to get to the point at which it all makes sense.

"I understand that varied price points to suit different gamers is good, I understand the reasons for sales being economically efficient ways to maximize global utility. But this implies utility is derived from the product. We are no longer selling products, we are selling discounts. The endorphin rush is now from getting a bargain, not the fun of actually *playing* the game. This is bad."

Thanks PCGamesN.

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Latest comments (14)

Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 3 years ago
I posted a fairly long response on that post, but the internet ated it. :(

Something that I said - which is slightly tangential to his point - was this:
When a game is in a one-day 75% off sale, how much research do you do before buying? Did you watch a lets play? the trailer? did you read any reviews? how many? Admit it, you have bought a game based on the name, a logo and a screenshot because it was under $5 havenít you?
Pre-ordering is almost a requirement in this industry nowadays, and almost everything quoted above can (and should) be used as an argument against buying on Launch Day. Dark Souls 2 reviews were embargo'd til Midnight day of release. Aliens: Colonial Marines was sold based on the name/logo and screenshots that were nothing like the actual game. Even for those who are truly invested in finding out information, such things are difficult to find on a pre-order (look at the Dark Souls 2 Downgrade controversy, for instance).

Using "unwillingness to research" as an argument against buying in sales is therefore debatable. I would argue that some people are actually unphased by the lack of information, because it's essentially the norm in this industry. I would also argue that there's actually far more readily available information at point-of-puchase for deep-discounted games than new - metacritic scores and user reviews are far easier to come by, certainly.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 21st March 2014 9:43am

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Rolf Klischewski Founder & CEO, gameslocalization.com3 years ago
I don't see the problem at all, to be honest.

Some players are willing to fork out full price at the pre-order and/or early access stage, because, to them, paying a premium to get their hands on a game as soon as possible makes sense. And they usually don't care about reviews.

Then there are players who wait for reviews before committing to a full-price purchase.

Others may wait for the game's price to drop a bit before buying. They wouldn't pay the full price for any game, because they think it's too much for this sort of entertainment.

Others may never spend more than 5 quid on any game, no matter how much they might enjoy it.

Others may get all of their games from Humble Bundles.

To me, none of that is wrong, it's just normal consumers' behaviour, and it's quite pointless to rant about it, because, in the end, if you want to sell your product, you have to get it into the market - and go with its rules.

Maybe Mr Harris might want to sell his games exclusively via his own website and see how that works for him.
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Neil Young Programmer, Rebellion Developments3 years ago
Many people will choose to wait for the inevitable discount, he argued, depriving the developer of revenue and - if it's a multiplayer title - the game of much-needed players.
Has this ever been verified? I know "I'll pick it up when it goes on sale" is a real reaction, but is it actually coming from people who would otherwise have paid full price, as is assumed here, or rather from people who would have never bought the game at all?

It's not a new phenomenon anyway: it just used to be called "I'll pick it up second hand", or "I'll pick it up on budget".

Multiplayer has been argued as a solution to this, as well: no point waiting to buy a game cheap if you know your friends will be long finished with it by then.
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Show all comments (14)
Brian Smith Artist 3 years ago
I think steams kind of discount strategies go a long way to provide an ideal marketplace for games sellers. Games aren't purely valued on amount of content and quality. A racing game for example can be the best in it's class and race game fans will happily pick it up for £40. To marginal fans of the genre though the price may be a non starter. Sales like steams allow game sellers to exploit the market in a way that traditional retail would kill for. The ability to discount a product in order to promote it's DLC or an area of customer base that is not directly targeted is almost perfect to maximise return.

On deep discounts I also see big positives in there. In my own case as a customer I find many titles I've already bought on console on PC as well. For these, while I have no interest in paying the same again in order to have the same title on another platform, although when the discounts are high, I'll happily pick up titles that I quite probably would never have bought in other circumstances.

This articles problem for me is that it centres entirely on the potential negatives without giving any positives a look in. You only have to look at how stale the PC market was prior to this approach to vindicate it.
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Justin Biddle Software Developer 3 years ago
I buy games that I really want at full price on release day. Other stuff I buy when on sale. And if it's not on sale I don't bother buying it. I wouldn't be surprised if this is true for the great majority
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Richard Westmoreland Senior Game Designer, Codemasters Birmingham3 years ago
A game is only worth what the players are willing to pay for it. You can keep your game at a high price and expect it to continue to sell at that, eventually all players who are willing to pay that much will dry out.

I, and many other players will read reviews and opinions before deciding to wait for it to be a certain amount in sale. The game simply isn't worth (to us) what you are asking. The trick, and this is hard, is to reduce at just the right time to keep the sales momentum going. It doesn't devalue your game at all. 100 players willing to pay £10 for your game is better than 10 willing to pay £40. If you want your game to sell more at a higher price, then you need the game to offer that much value to a big enough demographic. If it doesn't, you'll just have to ride that wave.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Richard Westmoreland on 21st March 2014 2:49pm

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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 3 years ago
Pre-ordering is basically investing yourself in the game before you even have it so if I were to pre-order Colonial Marines, which I didn't, even though it wasn't a great game I am more likely to spend time with it on principal.
But time is precious, especially after a certain age. I don't play that many games nowadays, because by the time I get back from work, fix supper, watch something on TV with my girlfriend/housemates, I'm pretty-damn tired. I'm certainly not going to spend time with a game I don't like on principal (the new Thief is proof of that. :p ).
Surely a pre-order in itself means you have invested time in looking into what the game is, whether you want it or not and are ready to pay the premium price for it.
Indeed, but often the point of "quality" is missing. Many games now are sold on the back of a classic franchise or a developer name. Dark Souls 2, for instance, I've pre-ordered on PC. But I have no clue whether it's going to have console-level graphics (which are downgraded compared to the PR material). I have no clue if the controls are going to be any good. I have no clue if the frame-rate is any good. Because Namco-Bandai and FROM are controlling every piece of information, I have to take a leap-of-faith that the game I'm really interested in is going to be "quality". For all my reading Gaf and Twitter and spoiler-free reviews, I could not tell you if my decision to pre-order it is a good one. Which, btw, is why I've pre-ordered it from a Brazilian store, for the equivalent of £20 (half the price of Steam).
[sales are] a step away from selling based on quality.
We stepped away from selling based purely on quality, when exclusive pre-order items became a "thing". Now, if I think I'll like a game and want to save money in the long-run, I either have to pre-order to get those items (because they'll be paid-for DLC after release), or wait for a discount. Publishers kind of only have themselves to blame in this respect.

(Hope this makes my point a little clearer. It's maybe a bit ranty. :p ).
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 3 years ago
@ Barrie
I don't do Steam sales but I do have Humble Bundle offered games on Steam that I have never played purely because it cost me next to nothing for the games
Indeed. In my post on his blog (still annoyed it's lost), I commented that I would agree with many of his points if he were talking about bundles. Since the THQ bundle of last year, there's been so many AA/AAA games in bundles that I honestly think that there won't be a race-to-the-bottom on Steam, but that there is already a race-to-the-bottom with Bundles. There's been more-and-more games that have seen a Steam release and not 6 weeks later has been bundled (even before it's been discounted on Steam). Given the pennies-on-the-dollar that devs get from bundles, I really think they need to show some restraint when it comes to them, otherwise consumers will just wait-out for a bundle with the games they want.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 21st March 2014 4:41pm

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Rolf Klischewski Founder & CEO, gameslocalization.com3 years ago
There's been more-and-more games that have seen a Steam release and not 6 weeks later has been bundled (even before it's been discounted on Steam). Given the pennies-on-the-dollar that devs get from bundles, I really think they need to show some restraint when it comes to them, otherwise consumers will just wait-out for a bundle with the games they want.
As far as I know, nobody forces devs to take part in bundles or sales. And as already said, some consumers won't pay the full price ever and some will. If you don't lower your price at a certain stage, you'll lose the business of customers who've set themselves a limit of, say, 5 quid per game. If your game stays full price, they won't buy it.

To me, the problem is rather that there are just so many games out there, many of them being quite similar.
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Frankly, not the first time I've seen articles of said nature, won't be the last, some people seem to think sales are taking money from their businesses, from personal experience sales tended to be the only reason I ever paid anything to most, even the stubborn one's dont make extra cash from me, I can wait a couple of years till they finally give in, ultimately there are plenty of other games to play if someone refuses to budge their price down to one i'm willing to pay, only games which I'm absolutely sure about will get my cash for pre-order prices (few games without pre-order price cuts even if it tends to be about 10% do) and precious few of those about, and not even all of them, depending on pricing and how many come out within a given time period.

Ultimately products are worth what an individual is willing to pay for it, not what the developer wants to charge for it, this is the very core nature of business, the illusion that business's get to set the price's fails to recognize the reality of the situation, in any market with sufficient competition this is simply not the case, without sales given recent price hikes to RRP's especially the ridiculous digital copy price hikes, the number of games I buy in a given year would truly be a fraction of one it is now, additionally without sales I would never be tempted to buy games at any other time then release.

Given I would not be tempted to ever spend more money in a given month then I had necessarily planned due to a sale of a game I been waiting for a discount on, the total amount I actually spent in a given year would go down, the number of titles that got that smaller pot would be few, most of the indie games sitting in my collection I would never have purchased nor would I purchase any further ones from companies who's titles I had not already enjoyed if sales disappeared tomorrow, as for time spent, when I do play a game it doesn't matter how much money I spent on it, frankly I've likely long since forgotten the price by the time I start playing it in earnest, (given Christmas sales leads to great games indulgences that will take most of the year to work my way through), I play them on a case by case basis, the amount of effort i'm willing to invest is directly proportional to how fun the game is.

Its tempting to see all those sales as lost revenue, the oh if only all these people who bought our game paid full price we'd be rolling in it syndrome, but the reality is sales encourage people to try out titles they otherwise wouldn't, most indie developers would have made very little without them, if they made a profit at all, they also encourage people to pay more in a given year then they otherwise might and at different times, and to spread around their pot of money a little, rather then invest them in a handful of top publisher's studios, they also provide a nice tail to your products release, where rather than making all your profits on release day, people will be buying them in a sale many years later, removing sales(not that this can happen by this point, only takes one company to do them to show up the rest of them, the sales box is open, you can't close it now) in my opinion therefore would both harm the industry, harm indie development, harm the variety of my games collection, but the less money I spend on games would have to go somewhere else, so I might end up with a snazzier watch, comfier shoes, and the like, so it wouldn't be all bad from a personal prospective.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 3 years ago
As a consumer I don't think theres anything wrong with software or hardware sales. Specifically because I can't possibly purchase everything I want at full price. If you just take fps games(one of my favorite genres) this year alone I have Titanfall, a new Halo, a new Call of Duty and who knows what else. What I do is pay full price for one or two and pick up the rest on discount when they go on sale. If none of them ever went on sale then I would never buy more than two new ones a year.

As these articles seem to pop up more and more often I think it's more a case of the person mentioned(in this example Mr. Harris) lamenting game sales due to the fact that they don't want to sell their game for super cheap and want people to pick it up at whatever full retail price it starts at instead of waiting for it to go on sale. While I can understand that I don't see why the sales of other games should affect that. As already mentioned, some people will never pay full retail for certain games and until you have a sale you will never sell to those people.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Jace on 22nd March 2014 1:00am

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Eyal Teler Programmer 3 years ago
I think that more research should be done on this subject. My own feeling is that how much I pay doesn't determine how much I play, but that sales do affect the value I assign to games in general and how much time I spend on any particular game.

The main problem for me is noise. When I can get a hundred games for $0, or even for $10, it gets me to spend more time collecting games than playing them. When games cost even $5, I spent a little time checking them out, but when I buy five games for a dollar, even if I do it thinking that some of them may be interesting to play, they just go to the backlog while my mind is already looking for the next Groupees or Humble Bundle sale, Amazon free app, Comixology sale, Bundle of Holding sale (for P&P RPG's I'll never play), etc.

So it's not the particular price point, it's the overwhelming number of games which makes the current gaming market what it is.
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Mariusz Szlanta Producer, SEGA Europe3 years ago
Well, let's try another approach.

Sell me core gameplay loop cheaply or even better, give it away for free. Have good plan how to extract money out of me once you've got me hooked up. Cheap casino tricks are not going to work, because I'm a gamer and I need a real video game. So, try good quality, excellent community support, open communication and tell me often about future so that I will feel safe investing.

Turns out I don't pay and leave? Maybe product is not good enough but maybe, just maybe I was never a target and I would never buy in full price. My contribution was still valuable. I add to sense of "busy-iness" in game enviroment, I interacted with other players, I was part of game world. I helped to convert others.

Times of walled gardens are gone and there are so many other products to try.
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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises3 years ago
It seems Microsoft started doing steam-like sales too. Over the weekend I downloaded Max Payne 3 for $4.99, and Bully for $3.79.
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