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Positech's Cliff Harris on sales: "We are no longer selling products, we are selling discounts."

Cliff Harris thinks sales are killing game launches and devaluing titles

You’re never too far away for a massive PC sale, whether it’s Steam or Green Man Gaming’s seasonal price slashing or GOG’s massive reductions across most of its library. Games you’ve been too broke to buy or you simply aren’t sure about become within your grasp or safer bets, and pretty quickly your digital libraries grows into a behemoth. 

But it’s not all rainbows and unicorn kisses. There are concerns that frequent sales devalue games and stop consumers from purchasing at launch, limiting the chances of developers, especially of the indie variety, from being able to make further games. 

Positech Games’ straight shooting Cliff Harris (Democracy 3, Gratuitous Space Battles) has weighed in on the subject in a blog post, and he makes no bones about his dislike of the trend. “[I]t’s a bad thing, and if we can (and I think we probably can’t) we should stop it,” he says. 

Cliff reckons that is causes games to be ignored until they are on sale for 50 or 75 percent off. “You don’t get that ‘water cooler moment’ where everyone talks about a game. That means some multiplayer games launch without the proper size of players, and the company isn’t making enough to retain support staff to patch and improve the game at launch.”

When a game costs only $5, it’s easy to just buy it without doing any research. I’ve done it myself. I bought a four-pack of Orion: Dino Horde the other week because it was dirt cheap. All I knew was that it was terrible at launch, had improved considerably and had dinosaurs. I was sold. I played for an hour and promptly uninstalled it. Not one single element was explained, I’d be controlling dinosaurs that couldn’t attack while trying to figure out what the objectives were before being shot and unable to defend myself. 

Maybe it’s a laugh when you know what you’re doing, but I didn’t get a chance to understand it before becoming incredibly bored and frustrated. I uninstalled it and won’t play again. It doesn’t matter, I thought to myself, because I only spent a few quid. As Cliff sees it, though, I just rewarded a game with a purchase purely because it was cheap. And that’s pretty much the truth. It promotes bargains over quality. 

We’re killing off the value of games in general, he says. “We expect games to be $5. 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.” Sounds familiar. “Some games are complex, tricky, hard to master, take a while to get to the point at which it all makes sense. We are increasingly likely to not bother with complex games, if we paid $5, we want something quick and disposable.”

While his stance is one that others share, even other devs, it’s not easy to change the way we buy PC games. Sales have become ubiquitous. There’s always something going cheap; just take a look at SavyGamer. “I’m not sure there is anything we can do about it,” Cliff says. “Discounts work. Sales work. There is some mileage in building a reputation for maintaining high prices for longer, I think I’ve built that up to some extent. D3 [Democracy 3] has never been lower than 50% since release back in October, with no immediate plans to re-do that 50% off or go lower. This is quite rare though. I got called a ‘fascist who hates gamers’ one month after release because the game was not on sale.”

I don’t see sales as entirely destructive. They can be a good way to promote a game that otherwise gets buried under larger releases, and I think that, despite what Cliff says, we can still have those “water cooler moments”, especially when games launch with 10 percent discounts to encourage launch day purchases. Then again, I talk and write about games for a living, so I’m always trying to engage with people about new titles. 

But I have made a more of an effort over the last year to pick up more titles before they go on sale. If a title piques my interest, I don’t want to wait for it to get cheap before I enjoy it. Sales aren’t going anywhere, but that doesn’t mean we always have to wait for them. 

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RavenHawk's picture
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I'm personally steering away from pre-ordering and buying games at release. Mostly because I've been burned the last couple of times I made the mistake of trusting a developer enough to deliver a finished product.

I know that developing games is becoming more and more complex. However, if you expect me to pay full price then you damn well better deliver what was promised and not some half baked turd that's being fixed for months with patches all the while trying to sell me dlc for it.

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avatar
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I don't think I've ever waited for a game I wanted to be on sale before buying it. Usually the games I buy on sale are games I'm curious about but wouldn't have bought at full price. Sales have definitely increased the number of games I buy, and I'd say the amount of money overall I spend on games. In fact, I really should stop. I've spent a lot of money on games that were on sale that I ended up not liking.

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putter's picture
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The fact is, the games industry, including PC, has become a bit of a joke when it comes to producing quality games that deliver at release. Compare the industry now to about the year 2000 (if like me you're that old) and you can see the difference pretty easily.

People have been burned too many times in recent years, and I for one am glad that people are more cautious and would prefer to wait a while after release or until there is a discount, rather than pre-order or buy straight at launch.

While I have some sympathy for someone like Cliff, maybe he should focus more on making a game like Democracy 3 include more than just two political parties, since that's how most democracies work after all.

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icheyne's picture
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Before the current sales culture existed, who would have bought Democracy 3 a year after launch at full price? The games business is built around hyping new games, so older games need to compete to get playtime.

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MrJinxed's picture
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Then again, who would have bought it at full price at launch, or even at all.

Let's look at: http://steamcharts.com/app/245470

Wasn't there a big sale in February? Lo and behold, a huge spike in an otherwise failing franchise.

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Dog Pants's picture
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Cliff beats this drum a lot, but he seems to be very much in the minority. Look at the sales chart for any game on Steam and you'll see massive spikes in the sales, and the devs are delighted with that because it bags them lots of money. His point about taking the edge off the initial release needs some data to back it up, because the overwhelming feedback I see from players is that they will buy something they want on release day, or even pre-order. The problem (for publishers) as I see it is that people are just less eager to buy a game on hype and PR because of regular shoddy releases and an abundance of cheap alternatives. Incidentally, I bought LUFTRAUSERS and Warlock 2 this week, both as soon as they became available.

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8bitsandwich's picture
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IMO, the concern is overblown. I'll speak from my own experience - I've been a very broke college student since I first started buying games on Steam. I am totally unable to buy most games at full price. Period. If they weren't discounted so sharply, I would just never buy any of them to begin with (nor would I pirate them either. I'd just find a new hobby). Not because I don't value them as worthy of my money, but because it simply isn't possible for me from a financial perspective. I wish that wasn't the case (and in the future it won't be), but that's how things have been for me for the past several years.

I know I'm not the only one in this type of situation, either. In other words, people buying at a discount do not automatically equate to "lost sales at full-price". Many people would never have bought your game at full price, ever, simply because they couldn't afford to. It was that discount that brought the game to a range that fits in their very tight budget.

I'm sure there ARE people out there that just wait for a discount despite that they are fully able to pay. But I think they're a minority. Judging from experience, most gamers are very impatient and eager to get their hands on a game that interests them. It's an important hobby to them and IF they have that ability to pay, they're more than willing to spend that cash if they have it, because money is not an obstacle to their fun.

Gaming is an expensive hobby, no doubt. All Steam sales do is lower that entry point for people who wouldn't have otherwise been able to participate in the hobby. That's money that would never have come to you at all, if the price had never been lowered.

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Shriven's picture
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Too many shoddy products caused me to stop preordering. I very, very rarely buy a game on release. Market saturation is a rather large issue too. I have a large backlog of games ive already bought in sales and never touched.

I think that the PC Gaming Alliance certification of quality could have a major role to play in the future. If it comes with that stamp and its stamp is issued at a high level of quality, id reconsider my none preorder/launch policy.

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Leon Trotsky's picture
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I certainly buy things at launch more rarely - it's frustrating to pay $60 for a game, and then see it go on sale 50% off three-six months later. This is especially galling when release titles are so often broken and need patching over several months in order to make them playable.

Devs can complain about the sales, but it's partially their fault. I have lost trust in most release titles (South Park Stick of Truth was an exception, and it was great at launch, so I actually bought it.) Waiting a few months is a no-brainer win-win. I get a discount and the game is more polished if I wait.

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avatar
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The possibility of cheaper prices was always the thing that was brought out way back when during attempts to convince people that digital distribution was the way to go. I didn't move away from not actually having physical products because it'd earn more money for developers, I went to digital distribution because it'd be cheaper for me.

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MrJinxed's picture
262

Sounds like a lot of whining from a developer.

Sales are good. Games are too expensive, and getting more and more expensive each year it seems. 60 dollars for a new game is just too much. Not to mention, sales gives a huge revenue boost to the seller, that they wouldn't have seen otherwise.

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unwanted's picture
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There are lots of reasons people wait for sales.

One, as you mentioned is because you don't know what you're going to get. I paid 50 dollars for Two Worlds. Yep. Imagine how many times you want something like that to happen.

Another is you hardly get the "full game". Why would someone pay $60 for a game then another $30-$60 for the rest?

Also, there are so many freaking games! All people talk about is backlogs. We can't buy everything.

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Brown Sauce's picture
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I think maybe devs/publishers should consider just how much they're trying charge at full price before they blame sales. £40 is a hefty chunk of money and quite honestly there aren't many games that I think are worth that much. Also games at the moment are often full of bugs and issues so at launch youre actually paying more for a worse experience.

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Gwathdring's picture
106

I buy games at the price I'm willing to pay for them. If I like them enough afterward, I'll buy them for friends or buy them again if I feel I underpaid during a sale or what-not.

If I want to pay full price, now for a game? I'll do it. If I don't feel comfortable, I'll wait. If it hits a price-point I'm comfortable with ... I don't wait until the price drops even lower. I buy it. I bought Enemy Within for 19.99 or something even though I knew that if I waiting a few more months I could have gotten it for 9.99 or 7.99 (turned out it was only two weeks or so till I saw it at that price). I bought it at the time because playing it was worth that much money to me.

Of course, if a game that's worth 19.99 to me is on sale for 7.99 as soon as I decide to buy it, I'll most likely take the deal--but that happenstance affects my future purchasing habits. It makes me more likely to spend more than I'd normally be comfortable spending on DLC, sequels, or games by the same designer/team in the future.

I don't think I necessarily represent the norm, but best I can tell people like me aren't uncommon either.

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somebody336's picture
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I don't buy day one because plenty of games release in a barely playable glitch filled mess and have the nerve to have day one dlc...

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