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The Slippery Slope of Video Game Sales

Passage and The Castle Doctrine designer Jason Rohrer believes our newfound culture of video game sales is hurting players and developers at the same time.

(UPDATE: You can now listen to our whole interview on the Interview Dumptruck.)

Can you remember the last time there wasn't a video game sale going on? This only happened recently, but the culture of perpetual sales caught fire quickly, and it's only getting bigger. The upside of sales are clear: cheaper games. But Passage, Inside a Star-filled Sky, and and Diamond Trust of London developer Jason Rohrer has a new game, and isn't so sure sales always benefit for developers and players.

Rohrer has been independently making games for years. In 2013, he had a Kickstarter to produce a set of DS cartridges.
Rohrer has been independently making games for years. In 2013, he had a Kickstarter to produce a set of DS cartridges.

Rohrer recently published an essay on the website called "Why Rampant Sales are Bad for Players" for his next release, The Castle Doctrine. When the game is released later this month, the current price, $8, will have a temporary launch price of $12. After a week, however, the price will become $16--forever. There will be no sales for The Castle Doctrine. Period. Basically, Rohrer wants to reward early adopters, not punish them with having to pay more money.

The Castle Doctrine has already seen its fair share of controversies over its development, ranging from its very premise (a man, not a woman, protecting their family) to Rohrer's reaction to his life experiences that have informed the game's development (being attacked by dogs).

Rohrer's stance on the game's relationship with sales is the latest development, albeit one with somewhat less moral messiness alongside it. Nonetheless, broaching the topic resulted in the most web traffic Rohrer has seen on his website since the game was announced last year.

Clearly, Rohrer has touched a sensitive subject for all parties involved.

"There’s a rush among game developers," he told me. "All of my friends that I know that are multimillionaires, they made more than half of their money in these Steam sales. Over the past couple of years, I’ve just been hearing all these stories from people. 'Oh, yeah, the sales are where you’re going to make your money, man! I did a midweek madness, and that doubled my money right there!” [laughs] 'I was deal of the day a few weeks later--and again! I doubled!' And they just act like this is the way it is and this is amazing. If you stop and ask one of them, 'you realize that most of those people who bought it, when it was midweek madness or whatever, don’t actually play it?' And they just shrug. 'Who cares, as long as I get their money, right?'"

To be clear, Rohrer doesn't really begrudge his friends for cashing in on what seems to make sense. But he does wonder if there's unintended consequences to this movement, as is the case with any "rush." On the App Store, the rush resulted in a race to the bottom on price, as more games decided the best way to make money was to charge less, hoping to make up for the lack of initial investment with volume.

(If you'll remember, this is what Nintendo president Satoru Iwata famously criticized in his keynote at the Game Developers Conference in 2011. He felt it devalued the quality of games.)

And furthermore, it's not like Rohrer hasn't benefited from the very practice he's now questioning. His last game, Inside a Star-filled Sky, was the benefit of many Steam sales before Rohrer pulled the plug. Rohrer said he made a "substantial amount of money" from these Steam sales.

But he started to notice a pattern when Inside a Star-filled Sky wasn't on sale: no one bought it. Almost no one, anyway. Sales were flat in-between sales, and garnering a new level of interest on the next sale meant offering deeper and deeper discounts. As other developers offered bigger discounts, he felt compelled to do the same thing. In his essay, Rohrer offered this sales graph to illustrate the point:

No Caption Provided

There was a surprising counterpoint within Rohrer's own library of work, too. Another one of his games, Sleep Is Death, was simultaneously available on his website during the same period. During the times when Inside a Star-filled Sky wasn't on sale and Sleep Is Death was full price, Sleep Is Death was making more money. What Rohrer discovered was that our new culture of games sales, something he’d benefited from and supported himself, had conditioned people to avoid full price.

"A lot of people use the term 'trained.' [laughs]" he said. "[It's uncomfortable] having any of these kinds of discussions about marketing and 'should you price your game at $1 or $0.99? Or should it be $9.99 or $10?' All these psychological tricks that marketers have learned over the years. 'Have the price high, so you can discount it later!' All these kinds of things [are] because of psychology. I feel a little slimy dealing with it and thinking in these terms. I especially feel a little slimy about thinking about how we’ve 'trained' our customers. They’re just clapping their fins together and throwing money at us!"

"As a developer, being turned from a millionaire into a multi-millionaire, by effectively tricking a bunch of people into wasting money on something they’ll never use? I, personally, don’t feel good about that."

There's a reason Rohrer titled his essay "Why Rampant Sales are Bad for Players." The culture of sales seems to be eroding his ability to sell games over the longterm, and it impacts early adopters. Rohrer hypothesized the poor soul who purchased one of his games a few minutes before an unannounced sale kicks in. What does that person think? Do they feel okay having spent anywhere from 50-to-75% more than the next person?

This situation wasn't a hypothetical when it came to a Sleep Is Death customer, though. For a period, Sleep Is Death adopted a pay-what-you-want pricing model. The game had been $12, but pay-what-you-want means you pay the developer whatever you think the game is worth. Not long after the change, he received an email from a player purchased the game just prior to the pay-what-you-want change, and he was upset.

"This person’s argument was [that] 'I only have $12 in my bank account, and I just spent it on your game and I won’t be able to buy another game.'" he said. "Some of these people are kids. They get allowance or have a birthday present [where] they get $20 from their grandma or something. 'It’s a game we’re all playing with money' is not true for a lot of people. A lot of people really have to think very hard about what game they spend their money on."

Rohrer asked the player what he wanted to pay. The player's response? $3. So Rohrer refunded him $9.

It's not entirely about the money, either. It's also about how he design games. Rohrer said The Castle Doctrine is not a game that takes five minutes to "click." He suspects it will take players a week before the systems really make sense. That's quite a bit of time, but Rohrer doesn't have a way of making the big payoff in the opening moments--it's not that type of game. He needs players willing to invest.

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When Inside Star-filled Sky went on sale, Rohrer searched through the comments and reviews from players. Steam profiles list the time someone has spent playing a game, and Rohrer noticed a crucial detail with players who didn't like Inside a Star-filled Sky: they weren't spending much time with it.

"Every single person who’s giving it a negative review played it for less than an hour, which means they didn’t even get through the tutorial, the part where the cool stuff is explained," he said. "The people who paid full price for it, whatever the full price was at the time that they bought it, gave it a chance. Some of them played it for hundreds of hours. I really think that if you want to make a more subtle game, one that’s not necessarily going to beat you over the head with what’s cool about it right from the first screen. [If] you want to make a game that takes longer and lingers more and is more about the long term experience, then, yeah, pricing the game higher really will help you have almost all the players who come in be willing to get to that point."

Rohrer's suggestion that the larger investment we have in something, the more we're willing to give it a chance, doesn't sound too crazy, if a bit counterintuitive. Look at it a different way. When you were a kid, did your parents ever buy you a totally crappy game? I remember getting some awful licensed games as a kid, and while I would have preferred Chrono Trigger, I didn't have a choice, so I sucked it up and played through what was in front of me and tried to find enjoyment in that. If I spent $20 on a game, I want to know what it's about. If I spend $2 on a game, I might be inclined to turn it off after my initial reaction.

As he researched his essay, Rohrer came across the idea of a "shame list." Players were posting all of the games picked up in a Steam sale, games they knew they would never have time to play. But when a potentially interesting game is available for $2, why not buy it? Isn't it a win-win? The developer is being rewarded with money and the player suddenly has cheap access to a game.

The days and weeks leading up to a season Steam sale often pushes players into a fever pitch of anticipation.
The days and weeks leading up to a season Steam sale often pushes players into a fever pitch of anticipation.

"When a player comes along and does a shame list," he said, "where they have 300 games in the library, of which they’ve only played 30--that’s bad for players! They wasted their money. And people say 'they don’t need to be babysat, they’re adults or people who can make their own choices, we don’t need to hold their hands as developers and make sure they don’t make bad choice.' But at the same time, me, as a developer, being turned from a millionaire into a multimillionaire, by effectively tricking a bunch of people into wasting money on something they’ll never use? I, personally, don’t feel good about that. I don’t think that’s good for those people. I don’t necessarily think it’s McDonalds’ job to make sure we all eat healthy, but at the same time, I wouldn’t want to be running a fast food restaurant myself."

Right now, the plan is for The Castle Doctrine to never have a sale. Rohrer believes it make sense right now, but it's hard to anticipate the future, and nothing applies to every developer's situation. But it's started an interesting conversation.

When asked, he didn't have a good answer as to why The Castle Doctrine will be priced at $16. He just sort of settled on it. It's certainly more expensive than games his friends have made, though.

"It was kind of scary saying 'The Castle Doctrine will be $16 dollars,'" he said. " [...] Should it only be $6 and then go up to $12? Should it be $5 and go up to $10? You don’t know what effect this is going to have. It’s scary to make your price higher than everybody else. The Castle Doctrine will be more than Fez. [laughs] The Castle Doctrine will be more than Braid ever was. The Castle Doctrine will be more than Super Meat Boy. Yeah, I don’t know. It seems scary, but on the other hand, it very well may be the right thing to do, and maybe even got it set too low."

Patrick Klepek on Google+