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Beyond The Bucket: Two Years On

Photo by David Wilbanks

As I mentioned just the other day, today marks two years since I have been rounding up all the best digital distribution discounts every weekend in the Bargain Bucket. A lot can happen in two years, and from where I'm sitting the market for downloadable PC games has radically changed even in just those 24 months. Come with me, on a journey through time and space, beyond the Bargain Bucket, as I look at just how different the market of today is to that of yesteryear, and perhaps provide some thoughts on where things might be heading.

But before we can discuss how things have changed between then and now, I think a bit of origin story is in order. People often ask me "Hey Lewie, how did you manage to trick RPS into letting you write a column for them?", to which I always reply "Get out of my house", then phone the police. The truth is not particularly exciting, the hivemind asked (via the twitter) if people were at all interested in a weekly round up of download discounts, and everyone said yes. I wasn't even on twitter at the time (2009 was a primitive time wasn't it?), but a friend of a friend was, and they told me that RPS were thinking of encroaching onto my turf. That wouldn't do, that wouldn't do at all.

Rather than moan about having some potential new competition in my field, I got in touch offering my services. Following rigorous background checks, a series of swab tests and a staring contest with Kieron, I was approved, and have been doing it ever since.

Photo by Tracy Hunter

Now in those early days, the process of finding 5 discounted games that were worth the attention of you fine folk was the hardest part. Take a look back at the inaugural bucket. I remember struggling to find 5 discounted games at all, and had it not been for that Pop Cap promotion, I'd probably have only had four up there. Compared to today, on any given weekend many major Digital Distribution outlets will have about 5 games on sale on their service alone. I've gradually felt the task shift from hunting something scarce towards curating a selection of something readily available. It's obviously highly subjective, but I think that in general the calibre of discounts is improving over time.

What market factors could cause this increased emphasis on temporary discounts? It's probably directly attributable to all those pieces of paper with pictures of the queen's face that businesses like to collect. High profile mega ultra discount initiatives like the humble indie bundle and the sort of pioneering World of Goo PWYW sale gave us some indication of how much game sales can go up, and the amount of money they got from a Steam sale was enough to turn around Introversion's fortunes.

If A is full price times number of copies you'd usually sell in a time period, and B is sale price times number of copies you sell when on sale, and if B is more than A, it's probably a good idea to put your game on sale at some point. Most publishers and developers tend to be secretive about their sales, but Mode7Games passed on this message to me: "on a day when we're featured in the Bargain Bucket, sales volume is about 1900% higher than a normal day!", and the biggest discount they've done to date is 30% off.

With practically zero overheads, far less people to give a slice of the pie, and the ability to instantly change prices with zero costs attached to it, Digital Distribution is far better suited to temporary price promotions than traditional retail will ever be. There's also plenty of evidence to suggest lots of people who spend money on games are increasingly wanting to buy their games as downloads. As this shift happens, the potential audience for temporary discounts grows.

Having a look at some of the analytics data from SavyGamer, the amount of people accessing the PC Digital Distribution section has more than tripled from 2009 to 2010, and that's adjusted for general traffic growth. In the same time period, people accessing the PC Retail section has actually dropped by 40%, and the Digital Distribution section is now more than 6 times more popular than the Physical section. It's not just my data that indicates this, EA are expecting to sell more PC games digitally than physically this year (although they don't seem to want to let people know how many games they sell via the EA Store), and 1C predicting an all digital PC games market by the end of the year.

Interestingly, by far the most frequent comments I see on the Bargain Bucket and on SavyGamer for PC games is some variation of this:

Does it register on Steam?

Not only does games having the ability to register on Steam make people more likely to buy it, some people are willing to rebuy games they already own just to have them on their Steam library. In fact, in a recent example, RPS reader Bennus decided to buy Hitman: Blood Money on Steam despite having bought it from Get Games the previous week for the exact same price. I'm not picking on him/her, that's actually fairly typical. Why this is the case is an interesting discussion in it's own right, but it's undeniable that for a lot of PC gamers having a game on Steam is a premium worth paying for above and beyond the price of the game itself.

In the UK, PC retail is in a strange position. Online, prices are generally falling. As the many retailers compete with each other, it seems that the vast majority of PC games are available for between £20 and £25 at release, compared to the £30 typical RRP for downloads at launch. As a general rule, Digital Distribution is always more expensive than retail unless the game in question is on sale, where they will often be far cheaper. I'm not sure how long the current situation will be viable. Either retailers are cutting into their own margins with these discounts, or the publishers are taking the hit.

One thing is for sure though, anyone talking about PC Gaming being dead, or even in decline, is pretty nuts. There's gold in them there hills, and clearly the people who best understand the intricacies of the market will continue to make money, and those that serve PC gamers poorly will be left behind. More than once I have posited that we're now in a golden age of PC gaming, and I stand by it. Big budget megagames (with a few exceptions) are cheaper on release than they've ever been in my game-buying lifetime, and they get discounted far quicker too, it is far easier to access classics from yesteryear, and the indies are getting better and better and beating big studios at their own game, never mind breaking ground no publishers would touch.

Photo by Rob Walker

Finally, some advice. I've spent the last two years telling people about digital games that are cheap, so I think I've learnt a fair bit about it.

People trying to sell games:
If you are able to make your game a Steamworks game, in today's marketplace it will probably help to sell more copies. Ideally, you could opt out of using the Steamworks DRM, so people who want DRM free copies won't be turned off, and in a hundred years time when Steam has exploded you can still sell your game, but everything I've seen indicates that lots more people will buy your game if it is a Steamworks game, and some of them will be willing to pay more.
Do something interesting. Don't just cut your price, a game dropping in price is nice, but it isn't an interesting story any more. I remember a time when a game going on sale would have been enough to justify a post on RPS in addition to a mention in the Bargain Bucket. That's not the case any more and every game goes on sale eventually. Even Pay What You Want isn't exciting any more. At the very least discounting your game in conjunction with updates is a good idea, but there is so much more you could be doing.
Tell me about your game being discounted. Hell, not just me, tell everyone, but in the two years I have been doing the bargain bucket, I could count the number of times a developer has directly emailed me to tell me about their game going on sale on one hand. What gives? I know I'll probably find out anyway, that's what my SavySenses are for, but I am far more likely to include it if you tell me personally. My email address is right there. Especially indies please, you know you're my favourites.

Patience is the real key to getting the best value out of your gaming budget. With a few exceptions, every single game is available for significantly less than at release eventually. If you do prefer having downloads to physical games, ideally buy the cheaper retail versions of games which activate downloads, and buy direct downloads only when they are on sale.
Friends don't let friends miss out on deals. You're probably not always at your PC, and some of the best deals are highly time sensitive. If you and yours have each others backs, you can avoid missing out on some bargains. Ideally, make friends with people from other regions so you can take advantage of international pricing bollocks.
Feel free to hassle me to look for a specific game whenever you want, even if there is no deal on it when you ask, it's useful for me to have an idea for what titles people might be waiting for discounts on.

That's your lot. All that's left to say is keep on bucketing, and thank you for your continued attention on both the Bargain Bucket and on SavyGamer. Also megathanks to the RPS overlords. Being paid to promote my web site to a large group of people who are exactly my core audience is a really cushy gig, and my professional and personal development has been massively boosted by the relationship I have with Rock Paper Shotgun. May you live long and may your children have curly hair.

All images used under Creative Commons Attribution license, thanks internet!

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Lewie Procter