Games may be too expensive.
That is the message Valve Software President Gabe Newell gave the assembled developers at the annual DICE Summit on Wednesday. While the topic of his keynote was the game industry's transition from retail industry to service industry, he revealed sales data from Steam that suggests games are too expensive.
The reason why few have arrived at this conclusion is because you cannot easily experiment with pricing at retail, says Newell. But you can with Steam, Valve's burgeoning digital distribution platform.
On the PC-only Steam service, a wide range of prices are attached to games, and attractive weekend deals throw more pricing variability into the mix. Although Valve was initially afraid that volatility or variability in pricing would confuse or anger its customers–or even cannibalize retail sales–Newell says that was not all the case.
In fact, it dramatically increased sales. Illustrating his point, Newell showed the results of a Left 4 Dead promotion Valve ran last weekend, which cut the price of the game in half to $25. The discount (and promise of new content for the game) rocketed sales of the game on Steam by 3,000 percent.
"We sold more in revenue this last weekend than we did when we launched the product," says Newell. "We were driving a huge uptick in revenue and attracting new customers." And while people believe that we're "screwing" retail, Newell showed that brick-and-mortar sales were unaffected by the online discount.
This phenomenon is not limited to Valve games. Over the holidays, Steam discounted third-party titles. Sales increased 300 percent and units-sold increased by 600 percent.
Still skeptical? Newell said that a weekend sale of one third-party title drove that game's sales up by 18,000 percent and units-sold increased 36,000 percent. It energized the user base, says Newell. When the sale ended, baseline sales were double what they were prior to the weekend discount.
Discounting games does not only increase unit sales–it increases actual revenues. During the 16-day sale window over the holidays, third-parties were given a choice as to how severely they would discount their games. Those that discounted their games by 10 percent saw a 35% uptick in sales–that's dollars, not units. A 25 percent discount meant a 245 percent increase in sales. Dropping the price by 50 percent meant a sales increase of 320 percent. And a 75 percent decrease in the price point generated a 1,470 percent increase in sales.
The conclusion: The games industry is not pricing its products correctly. It's only through the experimentation that such services as Steam allows will the industry be able to find the golden ratio of price and sales. As Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences President Joseph Olin concluded Wednesday night, this is going to generate a lot of controversy about pricing.