Jason Rohrer: “sales screw your fans” | PCGamesN

Jason Rohrer: “sales screw your fans”

The Castle Doctrine Jason Rohrer

“Your fans love your games and eagerly await your next release,” writes Jason Rohrer, creator of The Castle Doctrine. “They want to get your game as soon as it comes out, at full price. But they are foolish to do that, because a sale is right around the corner.

“Even in economic terms, the extra utility of playing the game early, at release, is not big enough to offset the extra cost for most people . It makes more sense to wait, unless they love you and your work so much that they're willing to throw economic reason out the window. It's nice to have fans that love your work that much. And these are the fans that you kick in the teeth when you put your game on sale.”

Rohrer’s been looking into sales data as he approaches the Steam release of his current game, The Castle Doctrine. From 29 January you’ll be able to buy his home invasion multiplayer game through Valve’s store but at full price. Throughout its beta the game has been 50% off. Rohrer says that he’s “been inspired by the way Minecraft pricing worked.” The closer Minecraft got to release the higher the game’s price became. It’s a model we're seeing a lot of Steam Early Access games adopting.

The Castle Doctrine Jason Rohrer

Rohrer’s no stranger to a Steam sale, mind: back when he released Inside a Star-filled Sky Rohrer “made 25% of my lifetime Steam revenue during my launch week, but I made an additional 10% during my first sale, which happened only a few weeks after my launch. After that initial taste of extra, no-effort money, I participated in sale after sale. I was hooked. In the long tail, my daily revenue dwindled down to almost nothing, except during the sales, when there would be another big spike. I mean, making $3K over a few days, and a full year after launch? Hard to resist.”

It’s not just Rohrer who’s hooked on sales. “In 2009, Steam had its first big sale,” he explains. “I'm guessing that they were blown away by how much money they made, because they followed that sale with three more sales the next year. These days, they have 5 gigantic sales each year, which means that a sale is pretty much always just around the corner. And even better, in between the sales, there are publisher sales and weekend sales and deals-of-the-day and so on. Something is always on sale.”

The problem, Rohrer claims, with “a culture of rampant sales” is that it “is a culture of waiting. ‘I'll buy it later, during a sale.’ Launch weeks become weak, and developers grow to depend on sales for financial survival. Even in my example from above, 25% is a pretty sad launch week. In my case, that represented something like $23K. I made more selling the game through my own website. Pathetic. Of course, sale after sale, later on, pumped my revenue up to way more than what I made on my website.

The Castle Doctrine Jason Rohrer

“This waiting game is likely decimating your player base and critical mass at launch by spreading new players out over time. And your fans, who are silly enough to buy the game at launch and waste money, get to participate in a weaker, smaller player community.”

There are a number of reasons that Rohrer’s opting for the Minecraft model for The Castle Doctrine. “For the fans, this is a great thing, because their die hard fanhood is rewarded with a lower price, almost like a secret deal for those who new about the game before anyone else,” he says. “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.”

The result of all this discussion is that The Castle Doctrine will be 50% off until 28 January. For one week following its launch it will be 25% off and then, for the rest of time, it will be full price at $16.

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Dog Pants avatarFraser Brown avatarsubedii avatar
Dog Pants Avatar
4 Years ago

I think his logic is flawed. Just because someone else bought the game cheaper doesn't mean it's less valuable to someone who paid full price. I don't know anyone who holds off buying a game they want in the hope it will go on sale, but I do know a lot of people who will take a punt on one which is on sale. Steam sales make people a lot of money and bring a lot of people to a game who might not have played otherwise. I don't see the problem.

Fraser Brown Avatar
4 Years ago

I only have anecdotal evidence, but whenever a new, interesting game launches, all I hear are people saying they'll wait for the inevitable sale. On the Steam forums, whenever anyone asks "should I buy this" the first comment is usually "wait for a sale".

While sales do often bring in a lot of money, they also create a massive gap between sales when people are simply waiting. I think this is likely more of a problem for indies, though, since big AAA launches are often able to leverage a brand.

Dog Pants Avatar
4 Years ago

You could argue that if people were waiting for a sale then they probably weren't that bothered about the game in the first place. My wish list is full of games I'm waiting to buy on sale, but only because I don't have any immediate inclination to play them. I can see a scenario though where games are virtually guaranteed to appear in a sale within a few months which would affect initial sales. I'd be interested to see the average time between release and sale for indies.

Ultimately though, as you've inferred, it's all speculation. For reference though, I bought Castle Doctrine when I heard about it probably six months ago. I recently had a (mass) email from Jason asking all 4800 customers to go back and play the latest build. That's not a huge playerbase so I can see why he's anxious. Right or wrong though, I hope his strategy works for him.

subedii Avatar
4 Years ago

I'm going to concur with Dog Pants here: The ones that wait for a sale are the ones that weren't too interested in the first place.

I keep hearing this refrain of how lower prices doomed PC gaming. But this completely flies against everything I've seen the past 10 years. When I say I keep hearing it, I mean constantly. Everyone was so _adamant_ that NOBODY buys games at release prices anymore.

Crikey, I remember reading so much schadenfreude and just plain hysteria over Skyrim and how Bethesda just can't expect it to sell in "today's environment" where nobody buys games. Come release day it broke Steam sales records, and I was hard pressed to find anyone on my friends list NOT playing it.

Speaking personally I'm spending way more on games now than I ever did in the past. And the reason for that is quite simple. The vast majority of games are NOT worth the £30-£40 that people are asking of me. And £15-£20 is still iffy for indie games simply because there are thousands out there. I might have had interest, but it simply wasn't worth the risk of paying that much cash on a guess. Back before the kinds of sales I see today, those games would just remain unsold to me. They wouldn't have made any money off of me at all. That goes doubly so for indie games because there are hundreds of them and the devs have less of a reputation for me to look at.

Today, it's worth me spending a few quid on a quirky game like Orcs Must Die or an esoteric one like Bastion. I never would have bought them at launch regardless, but my friends said they were good so when I see a good deal I'm willing to give it a try. If I don't like it I don't feel like I've lost out.

And trust me, I've felt scammed. A LOT. When I've taken chances on games I wasn't certain on in the past at full price, and they just didn't live up to hype.

I could go on. Games and series that were previously console-exclusive doing so well on (years late) PC launches that future incarnations are now guaranteed to sim-ship with the PC version. Kickstarter has me (and evidently a lot of other people) for the promise of the types of games I really like and that nobody else is willing to make today (and on occassion, in _excess_ of what the actual launch price will be).

It's funny in a way, in light of the fact that he specifically namechecks Minecraft. But that was because it was an unfinished title and people were buying the promise of a good one later. It's what he's doing with Castle Doctrine, and that's fine, I can understand that. But it's different to comparing a title that HAS been completed and released, and from then on is just going to age as development has stopped, and people move on and get excited about other things.

Even then, there are other devs that are in pre-release, selling their game for _greater_ than launch price (Prison Architect, Planetary Annihilation) either because they want to ensure a very dedicated playerbase that understands they're paying a premium for early access to an incomplete title, or simply because that's what their kickstarter campaign was asking for.

In all he says that this system scams your fans. To be blunt, I feel as if the way things worked previously scammed me. I paid higher prices for fewer titles, and there was no way I'd take a chance on anything, and the funny thing is that I was spending less money overall. I wouldn't get the chance to BECOME a fan in the first place, except for the very few, extremely well marketed blockbuster titles on the market that I was cast-iron certain I'd love.

Today? I still buy the titles on launch that I would have anyway, but I'm deeply interested in seeing the next title from Supergiant Games (Bastion) or High Moon Studios (Transformers: Fall of Cybertron). And that's simply because I had the chance to try them, to the extent that I'm pretty well certain to buy them on launch.

Heck, Arkham City, Defense Grid 2, Shadow Warrior, these are all titles that I bought as soon as they became available. All on the strength of previous games in the series (or from the same developer) that I had gotten on sale.

Anecdotal and all, as said before. But if he's speaking for how bad things are, I can only say that for me, the past was way, WAY worse. Not just for me, but for the devs as well.