Steam sales and bundling will quickly become the bane of Indie developers
I’m sure you’ve thought about it a few times now. This great-looking, new indie game is out and it looks good enough to play, but I think I’ll wait a little while. After all, I don’t need it and it’ll just be on one of those Steam sales or Humble Bundle things in a month where I can get it for a buck or two.
That’s the challenge indie developers are currently facing and it may become more and more pronounced as 2012 wanes on. Indie games are a big deal now and with the industry looking to them to be the real innovators, their success is going to be a barometer for the industry as a whole. While high-profile indie titles (to think there’s such a thing now is crazy) like Fez are sure to be hits because of their heavy press coverage, awards, backing from services like XBLA and just overall street cred, the vast majority of indie developers are still out there struggling to be successful.
Eventually the devaluation of indie games as a whole is where there are going to be the biggest losses. About a month after its release, The Binding of Isaac was put on a Humble Bundle and made many customers a little more than peeved that they just paid nearly 10 times what bundle shoppers were paying for the same title (plus other games). There are certainly times I’ve given Humble Bundle or any of the other bundles out there more than what they’re asking for (essentially nothing). But let’s say you put the exact same product, side-by-side in a store and told me, this one on the right is $1.00, this one on the left is $20.00, which would you choose? I would choose the right one every time. Do that a few more times and then take away the $1.00 offer, only the $20.00 remains. All I have to say is: “well you offered it for $1.00 every time before and I’ll give you that, but there’s no way I’m paying you $20, that’s outrageous!” That’s the problem we’re facing now with indie bundles.
It doesn’t stop with bundles either. Steam sales have become one of the most popular and talked-about things on the Valve-run service that they now host a new one every day (and an extra one every weekend and another extra one in the middle of the week). There’s always something on sale on the service and I’ve become accustomed to browsing the store page each day to check it out what’s there, despite the fact that I have many unplayed titles already piling up in my library (many of them indie titles).
Squid in a Box’s recent Postmortem for Waves is an eye-opening account of the limited amount of funding and time that true, one-man indie developers faced with and the giant amount of devaluation that goes on because of so many sales. It stands to reason that Waves may have been more successful with some dedicated PR, but I can understand the plight of being a 1-man team and not having the know-how or time to get those gears moving. Indie devs put a lot of trust in Steam to get them the return on investment, but they’re also subject to Steam’s frequent sales which don’t really give huge payouts per unit (although the volume usually makes up for it). Eventually it gets to the point where people refuse to pay the full $10 for indie titles on Steam knowing full-well they’re be on sale some time in the future.
As GOG.com’s managing director Guillaume Rambourg told Rock, Paper Shotgun this week, Steam sales ultimately devalue the overall product that games offer. $10 to $15 seemed to be about the sweet-spot for many smaller games, but when it comes to PC, that amount is quickly dropping.
“Selling games at too high a discount – one often sees discounts above 80% off here and there -sends a message to gamers: this game, simply put, isn’t worth very much. Of course you make thousands and thousands of sales of a game when it’s that cheap, but you’re damaging the long-term value of your brand because people will just wait for the next insane sale.”
-Guillaume Rambourg, GOG.com Managing Director
The App Store is another contributing factor here, where $1 games rule king. But those games aren’t viewed with an eye for quality, they’re viewed as quick time-wasters, Angry Birds knock-offs. Can we really say that many of the indie games we cherish are on the same level as these ones?
My real worry is what sort of bubble this is causing for the indie community. Right now people are paying a lot of attention to it and indie gaming has become the next big buzz-word after “mainstream”, but eventually people will get tired of all the bundles and sales. “I don’t need anymore of these indie games, I haven’t even played the last ones I bought!” This is what I hear from many of my co-workers, who I’ve encouraged to buy bundles in the past. Eventually this bubble will burst and all interest will be lost in indie titles, and that’s what we want to prevent. What to do in the meantime? Set the minimal purchase price higher on bundles and don’t discount things on steam for more than 50% off of the regular asking price. 80% to 90% discounts are for K-Mart and going-out-of-business sales, not for a thriving gaming industry.