Rohrer’s right – more developers should step out of Steam sale culture

Jason Rohrer

Jason Rohrer sparked debate this week by announcing that he’s not participating in Steam sales any more, and that his new game, The Castle Doctrine, will actually increase in price after launch.

Steam sales and game pricing’s race to the bottom could prove damaging longterm if it goes unchecked, says Jason Rohrer. He’s right. The Castle Doctrine creator’s persuasive blog post sharpened the debate around game pricing this week, and for me it also prompted another question: are developers now in danger of giving players too much, for too little in return?

Rohrer argues, in short, that “sales screw your fans”. They are encouraging players to forego buying fullprice games and wait for a Steam sale or bundle instead, making the purchase of games at launch an investment only the most dedicated followers are prepared to make. “It’s nice to have fans that love your work that much,” Rohrer says, “and these are the fans that you kick in the teeth when you put your game on sale.”

Rohrer’s robust point reflects part of a wider trend, one which increasingly encourages developers to sell the fruits of their hard work for much less than they’d like. This week, we’ve seen Nidhogg developer Mark Essen attracting fury from some gamers for daring to charge $11.99 for the game he’s spent five years of his life creating. It’s one small example of player expectation becoming distorted by ever lower pricing, especially on PC.

Scepticism around how developers make money from their creations has been around forever, and it’s often misguided. And yet we’ve all seen, and frowned upon, cynical free-to-play practices and lately, the addition of microtransactions in some full-price games hasn’t helped player perceptions of the games business. In our latest issue, we’re strongly critical of ‘paymium’, a term just as ugly as the concept it describes. It just fuels the belief in some quarters that developers and publishers are only interested in milking every last penny from their audiences. And neither does it help that some major console games are so expensive to download from PSN or Xbox Live compared to buying them at retail.

Steam sales offer developers a quick boost in revenue, but are they also damaging the perception of price and changing player habits for the worse?

And yet players have never had it so good. On mobile, free-to-play is pulling prices ever downwards, almost turning charging money for a game upfront into an act of daring rebellion. Only the brave ask for more than 69p, and those who do often find themselves tainted with one star reviews. Steam sales and bundles have made the PC market perhaps the most generous the industry has ever seen, and those heavy discounts and freebies are starting to filter through to console game services, too.

New PS4 owners signing up to PlayStation Plus have already received Resogun, Contrast and Don’t Starve – next month, Red Barrels’ Outlast will be added to their Instant Game Collection. On PS3, recent additions DmC Devil May Cry, Remember Me and XCOM: Enemy Unknown represent excellent freebies, and on Xbox 360, Microsoft’s Games with Gold program started slowly, but continues to pick up momentum. This month, Gold members can download Sleeping Dogs and Lara Croft and the Guardian Of Light, and the scheme is expected to extend out to Xbox One later this year.

That list of old game hardware prices adjusted for inflation that’s doing the rounds on social media and Reddit only adds to the feeling that we’re in the middle of a golden age for players, with a surfeit of cheap games making ‘piles of shame’ grow ever larger. It’s fantastic for players, of course, but let’s remember that developers need fair reward for their work.

The problem is, as Rohrer notes, that the more players come to expect heavy discounting and a stream of freebies, the less inclined they’ll be to pay developers a fair price. Hopefully Rohrer’s post will have made more developers think twice about the wider implications when they are asked to take part in sales and bundles, or feel pressured into selling their work for a pittance. It’s absolutely a good thing that developers have such choice over how and where they make money from their creations, but it seems there aren’t enough using that power to the best effect.

Hopefully, Rohrer will inspire more studios to snap out of sleepwalking into sales culture. Undervaluing games further will ultimately only serve to damage already stretched indie incomes.