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.