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.

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About Ryan Saul

Hailing from Portland, OR I work by day and blog by night. I like to consider myself a video game connoisseur, playing as many new things as I can get my hands on. Its hard to hold me down to one game for very long before I move on to the next big thing. Luckily, that works pretty well in terms of video game blogging.

3 responses to “Steam sales and bundling will quickly become the bane of Indie developers”

  1. giantsbane says :

    Barometer…is that really the word you were looking for?

    If these sales are detrimental isn’t that problem really on the indie developers? I mean they are the ones allowing their titles to be bundles and sold cheaply.

    I don’t think sales are a bad thing. There’s a lot of indie games I wouldn’t pay 10 or 15$ to try out. But if I can get that at 80% off I might pick it up. Seems like reduced profit is better than no profit, and then theres the possibility that I’ll recommend the game to others. I imagine that this is one of the primary reasons these types of deals exist.

  2. Laetus Viator (@LaetusViator) says :

    Hmm… just read the Waves postmortem, but I don’t really see where Squid in a Box suggests the steam sales/bundles are the problem. Yes, the average selling point is lower than the $10 goal, but it doesn’t look like the game was getting much attention outside of sales.

    And generally, without hard numbers on indie bundles & sales, it is anyone’s guess whether it is good or bad for the developers, no? If they pick up the difference in price by selling far more units, why care about the low price? I know if I was a dev, I’d rather sell 10000 games at $1 than 100 games at $10… Gamers get more games, devs get more cash & more players.

    A lot of people won’t drop $10-$15 on a complete unknown, but 5 for ~$5 and suddenly it gets much closer to ‘impulse buy’ zone. Indie games also struggle with exposure… but bundle some lesser known title with a more popular one and it helps spread the word.

    Full disclosure, I love bundles enough to have made a tracker for them ( http://www.squidoo.com/top-indie-game-bundles )… so I’m certainly a fan of them! I know I’ve found a lot of indie games I would never have even known about if it hadn’t been for some bundle.

    • Ryan Saul says :

      Love the tracker, ultimately I don’t mind the sales and bundles, especially since it spreads the word so well, but inevitably there may be the reverse effect where all of the noise of constant sales and bundles gets drowned out. I don’t really think there’s much we can do about it and ultimately I like getting a good deal anyway, but its not a sustainable model in my opinion.

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