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Rohrer Isn't Wrong About Sales, But He Also Isn't Right

Are Rampant Sales Hurting Players?

Featured post I've been wanting to use this image in a post since pretty much forever

OK, first things first: Castle Doctrine, Passage, and Sleep is Death creator Jason Rohrer is a giant. I am automatically more inclined to believe anything very tall people say. They’ve seen so much more than the rest of us from their monolithic neck perches, their giraffe-like forms stretching up into stratospheres I’ve only dared imagine. Also, it’s instinct: big person beat me up, ergo ideologically correct. So even though I don’t agree with everything he said in a lengthy missive about why rampant sales are hurting gamers (or just the things he says in general), I am obligated to think he’s 100 percent right.

Yes, of course I’m being silly. There’s tons to discuss here, as Rohrer’s criticisms are both important and flawed. Let’s dissect why big sales – for instance, those frequently bazooka-launched at us by the likes of Steam and Humble Bundle – are both harmful and crucial to PC gaming.

The crux of Rohrer’s argument? That game pricing should rise over time – not fall. Sounds like madness, right? But he did make some very good points about how counter-productive to player enjoyment the current system is. In short, he noted that even diehard fans have a hard time justifying a day-one purchase when they know a big sale is probably just around the corner. So many of them wait. Then they buy the game at a deep discount – often along with others – and games inevitably slip through the cracks, purchased but never played.

Those who miss sales, meanwhile, wait until the next sale or forget about some games altogether. And announcing sales well in advance is problematic because you could cannibalize, say, a week of full-price sales in the process. “The worst case here is pretty awful,” he wrote. “The sorry person who buys the game one minute before the surprise sale price kicks in. You’re going to get an email from that person.”

And he’s not incorrect. Believe me: I’ve been there. I imagine you have too. Multiple times, in all likelihood.

But what would a solution that’s beneficial to both players and developers look like? Well, using games like Minecraft and Garry’s Mod (both of which have increased their prices over time and been massively successful) as models, Rohrer proposed the following:

“What if, instead of inevitable sales as a game ages, the price rises over time instead? For the fans, this is a great thing, because their diehard fanhood is rewarded with a lower price, almost like a secret deal for those who new about the game before anyone else. When the price goes up later, they feel smart. Most importantly, they don’t feel torn between supporting their favorite developer at launch and saving money. They can do both.”

“For people who find out about the game a later, after the price has gone up a bit, they may regret not buying the game before the increase (a lesson learned for next time), but they can still feel smart buying the game now, before it goes up again. For the people who buy the game the latest, after the final, permanent price has been reached, they had the chance to wait to hear more about the game before buying. They had less to lose at that point, because the game has been vetted and the community established.”

So it wouldn’t be a ceiling-less, sky-high price ascent, but rather a tiered setup that would eventually result in a full-priced game. Just not at first. Sales as we know them now, meanwhile, would be more or less out of the equation. He further argued that while traditional sales are unpredictable by design, this method would allow developers to lay out a map of when prices will increase so fans will have plenty of time to prepare appropriately.

This, he continued, would be especially fitting with Early Access becoming such a prominent means of delivery, and he used his own game, Castle Doctrine, as an example. While in alpha, the game sold for $8. During launch week (which now officially begins on January 29th, for those interested), it’ll be bumped up to $12. And finally, after that it’ll grow into its Big Boy Price Tag: $16. It remains to be seen how it’ll all shake out, but so far, so good in Rohrer’s book. It’s another very legitimate point too, given that we’ve witnessed many other developers approach Early Access in the opposite direction (hello, Planetary Annihilation). I don’t think dropping a piggy-bank shattering price wall on a community helps anybody, whether we’re talking developers who hope to gather as much feedback as possible or diehard fans who want to offer early support.

The idea sounds pretty reasonable when put on Rohrer’s terms, but it falls apart elsewhere. Foremost, he fails to consider many ancillary benefits of sales. Big sales are events. They put older games back in the public eye. They encourage an “Aw, what the hell?” approach to purchasing. They can be buoyed up by various themes (see: most indie bundles) or carried by more popular games, with a trickle down effect for the smaller ones rounding out the package. The list goes on.

Moreover, while he’s correct that Minecraft and Garry’s Mod have seen tremendous success over the course of many years despite rising prices, he ignores the fact that they’re both hyper-ubiquitous phenomena – not to mention frequently updated creation engines. Both of those factors have added huge segments to their earth-encircling long tails. Minecraft, especially, gets constant press every time a player recreates, er, pretty much anything in-game. These hits were, in other words, born of very specific circumstances and genres, and they found equally specific niches that allowed for their continued promotion. It’s a domino effect, a chain reaction, a snowball bigger than your house. They got big, and then they kept getting bigger.

I’m not saying Rohrer’s proposed plan is impossible on a large scale, and I really do like many aspects of it. But it’ll need to adapt other elements of sales – promotional ones, especially – to be truly viable. Personally, I’m not really sure how you go about doing that. There are few things more primally enticing than artificial scarcity, random rewards, and all the other psychological hooks sales dangle in front of our slavering wallets. Those are the sorts of things that bring people out in droves, even if they wouldn’t otherwise be interested.

Steam Sales rival Christmas for some people in terms of excitement and significance, in large part because they actually share elements like surprise and a sudden avalanche of new, cool toys. Rohrer’s proposed replacement gives pre-existing fans a better experience – which is, again, awesome – but it doesn’t really account for the creation of new ones.

That’s just my two cents, though, and I’m no economist. Also, I’ve mainly been discussing this from a player perspective. Developers may (and probably do) see all of this in a very different light. What does everybody else think? Gather, friends, beneath the Discussion Dome. There are complimentary Thinking Caps at the door.

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Nathan Grayson

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