Game Design Games Marketing/Business

A Shameful Game Backlog, or a Glorious Library?

Last week, cliffski once again went on the offensive against the trend of selling games at deeply discounted prices. In We Need to Talk About Unplayed Games, he argued that the constant sales of games results in bad news for everyone.

People buy games based on almost nothing but a screenshot and a low price in an almost Pavlovian response to the announcement of a deep discount. They don’t even play the games, which sit on hard drives and rarely get considered. In fact, some people buy the games over and over again simply because they are in bundles with other games or they forgot that they already purchased them.

The results? Players Game buyers don’t value quality, the organizers of sales become gatekeepers, and the games themselves are devalued. If developers optimize for results, what role does game development have? Most players won’t see even a small percentage of the actual game, so why focus there? It’s similar to the concerns about narrative in games: if people don’t finish them and never see the story play out to completion, then why invest so much on game writing and elaborate plots in the first place?

It becomes less about the games themselves. People buy into the deep discount, no matter what is being offered, and for what? A backlog of games they ignore? That’s terrible!

Or is it? Ben Kuchera thinks otherwise in Your stack of shame is a lantern for your future, and a gift to the industry:

We respect people with large libraries of books, but we tend to look down on people with shelves and shelves of games.

Oof. When you put it that way, yeah. I suppose when I look at my shelves, I see books I haven’t read yet, as well as games that I obtained partially because they weren’t at full price. I have a copy of Civilization III still in shrink wrap when I found it at the store for only $15. Two incarnations of the series have since been released. I also have a number of Neal Stephenson books that are waiting for me to read them.

Kuchera’s argues that even if you don’t play the games now, what you are doing is sending a message to the developers and the industry about what kinds of games you want to support.

On the topic of sales, both cliffski and Kuchera agree. They work. To illustrate, I was at a party recently talking about these posts (I’m a pretty wild and crazy guy!), and a colleague told me that you don’t have to look further than JCPenny to see what happens when you buck the trend there.

In early 2012, JCPenny changed its pricing strategy. Instead of markups and sales, there would be “every day” prices.

Late last year, the company announced it was reversing the decision, citing dismal sales figures.

So, JCPenny discovers the hard way that despite the logic that a low price is a low price, there is some psychology to a sale price, to the idea of getting a bargain. Now we get to benefit from that information.

But Kuchera says the biggest benefit is that increasing your catalog of games is good for you.

Maybe you’re not ready for the pace of a game like Gone Home today, but you can never tell when the game will satisfy an itch you don’t know you had. Buying games on sale allows us to browse our own selections, be surprised at something we had forgotten we had bought, and find that finally, we’re ready for that game.

I can relate. When I was a child and had no way to earn money but a weekly allowance, I would save my money for months in order to go to Toys R Us and browse the game selection. One time, I picked up Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. I might have been 10 years old at the time. I had no idea what the game was, but the back of the box had illustrations of dragons, knights, and skeletons. COOL!

I tried to play it, but I couldn’t figure it out. I mean, I understood the mechanics of walking around the first-person maze, entering selections to fight, and casting spells. But I had no idea what I was doing. I would fight incredibly tough enemies and have a total party kill before I knew what happened. It was too much, and the game wasn’t what I expected at all.

It was a few years later when I pulled it out of my collection of games to try it out again, and my more mature self was able to grok it way better. Oh, I have to map out the maze I’m exploring! I need to make sure that I gain experience and skills and purchase good equipment before venturing too far into it. It all clicked. It all made sense. I wasn’t ready to play the game when I bought it, but I’m glad I did all those years ago because the Wizardry series became one of my favorites.

I appreciate what cliffski is concerned about. It would be nice if when a new piece of entertainment is released that everyone played it together. Around 10 years ago, I bought Total Annihilation and Homeworld: Cataclysm due to the recommendations of a friend, both times years after the games had come out. Cavedog’s Boneyards and Sierra’s were mostly empty before eventually being shutdown entirely, but I was told that they used to be filled with active gamers ready for your challenge. Had I bought the games on release, I might have experienced it, but as I was late to the party, I missed out.

It’s captured perfectly in this xkcd comic.

The alt-text: “I remember trying to log in to the original Command and Conquer servers a year or two back and feeling like I was knocking on the boarded-up gates of a ghost town.”

Similarly, the Steve Jobs biography that was all the rage a couple of years ago? The local library had a high double-digit long waiting list. I never ended up reading it, although I still want to. But when I do finally get to read it, it would have been years after the book was topical. Am I similarly missing out by reading it so much later than everyone else?

Or isn’t that the point of books, that they are there for me to read whenever I feel like it?

And so it is with games. For years, I’ve always wondered how people can be so comfortable selling their old games to get credit towards the purchase of new games. I, on the other hand, still have my Atari 2600. I still have my NES, SNES, N64, and original Game Boy. Despite being able to play any Gamecube games on the Wii, I still have my Gamecube.

But more important than my inclination to keep consoles beyond the point that might be reasonable, I still have the games I bought for those systems. I’m still unhappy with the discovery that my father gave away the Apple II c+ from my childhood to his coworker, which means I lost my copies of Troll’s Tale, Snooper Troops, Below the Root, Bill Budge’s Pinball Construction Set, and other games. Some of them were beyond my capabilities at the time, but I’d be ready for them today.

But being able to pull out my older consoles and play games from almost two decades ago is a capability I enjoy having.

I currently have two large six-shelf bookcases in my office filled with books. I have a computer rack with a few shelves taken up by CD cases for computer games. In the living room are the console games. In another room is a set of shelves filled with boardgames and card games.

I used to fantasize about having an entire room of a house dedicated to being a library, with books and games stored from floor to ceiling.

Video games these days end up being in the cloud. I have 30 games across 7 virtual shelves on, quite a few Humble Bundle bundles, and a few games in Steam. If not you then people you know have much larger catalogs of games stored as bits on a server.

It’s not as tactile, but we still enjoy having those collections to pick up and play whenever we allow ourselves to do so.

What I am not sure we’re seeing is a change in the game design efforts of developers, which is I think cliffski’s biggest concern. While some developers put out buggy and shoddy games, I don’t think they last long. Even if most games don’t get played, I don’t think a pretty screenshot and a sale is enough to get people to reward the developer. Reputation still matters.

How do you feel about your backlog? What impact, if any, do you believe the constant sales and discounts has on game design and the efforts of a developer?

7 replies on “A Shameful Game Backlog, or a Glorious Library?”

I have given a fair amount of thought to this problem. I am not a major gamer by any means, but I have discovered that there will be certain games that will “catch me on fire” and I will have an intense and lasting experience playing through to the end.

The thing is, with a limited budget in mind, I approach purchasing games the same way I approach buying DVDs and books: borrow most everything, buy only the best. That’s why I have only 30 DVDs, when many of my friends have DVD collections big enough to rival Netflix.

Games I’m especially picky about. Looking back over my (now long) history of playing video games, I can name the games that had the most impact on me on one hand–“Legend of Zelda”, “Sword of Vermilion”, “Grand Turismo”, “Goldeneye 007”, and “Civilization II”.

The thing is, there are many, many games I have liked, and several that I have owned, but found I had no interest to play all the way through. (And I did have an extensive collection of NES games back in the golden age of Nintendo.) In those cases, I think it would have been better to rent them, have some fun, then put them away forever. Buying them on the cheap didn’t make them any more worthwhile to me, but at least I’m glad I didn’t pay full price.

The biggest challenge for me: compatibility.I loved, say, the X-Wing series. I played them all as a kid. I’d like to revisit then.

Do I have a computer that is even capable of loading it? The first half of the series was for DOS! The other two required the new Windows 95. I could never get them to play on my Windows 2000 box, too say nothing of an actual modern system. I don’t even own a Windows computer anymore. I have the games, but they’re still lost to me.

I has a sad…

This is going to be another long comment. I can feel it.

“People buy games based on almost nothing but a screenshot and a low price in an almost Pavlovian response to the announcement of a deep discount. They don’t even play the games, which sit on hard drives and rarely get considered. In fact, some people buy the games over and over again simply because they are in bundles with other games or they forgot that they already purchased them.”

Yup. It’s the scarcity principle at work. Because we often interpret sales as transitory, our brains tell us to pounce on the deal. After all, it won’t happen again, right? (Wrong. Usually.)

So, we have lots of people buying games. Which is good. But we also have people not playing all those games. Which is bad. Sort of.

“Kuchera’s argues that even if you don’t play the games now, what you are doing is sending a message to the developers and the industry about what kinds of games you want to support.”

I disagree with Kuchera.

The underlining assumption here is that “the industry” is tied into something like Steam’s metrics. Many indie games aren’t. Sure, a larger number of them are, but for those that aren’t, those numbers are not getting counted. And I’m pretty sure GOG and Steam are not sharing sales figures with each other, either.

Plus, if we go with the idea of people buying games as parts of bundles or collections, that’s not signaling that all of those games are important the user. Possibly, as has been the case for me many times, I want some subset of those. Not all of them. At best, then, it’s a correlation or weak tie between the two ideas of buying a set and wanting all the games in that set.

“Had I bought the games on release, I might have experienced it, but as I was late to the party, I missed out.”

That sentence is the perfect encapsulation of the central problem with most of this. The fear of missing out and the (self-induced) shame of thinking you are not within the greater conversation.

I have written so much about this. So much. It’s at the very root of why consoles come out in cycles and how the larger tech industry influences the video game industry hard.

Here it is in six words: New is better, shiny is best.

When the games go on sale, we think this will be the key to belonging to the larger community. It is the new “new” for us and now, finally, we can be part an understanding. Like in that XKCD comic, we can show up the party of knowing what “The cake is a lie” means.

I have this “problem”. I can certainly see both sides of the argument. I know from a personal/circumstantial point of view that in my own case the games I purchase on special tend to only be games that I have heard reviewed very positively. Many of them games that I considered getting a couple years ago but held off because of price.

Granted sometimes they come in bundles with other games I don’t know, but in that case I view those games just as bonus and not really what I’m actually purchasing.

Then there are the few times I’ve purchased a game bundle because I like the methodology. Such as the humble bundles. Often I don’t know the games included there, but I like that they’re indie, that they’re cross-platform, and that the developers are giving part of the proceeds to charities (often ones I do know and approve of).

So while I used to look upon my (so far) unused game library negatively before, once I thought it through I started seeing it in a positive sense. Regardless if I’m playing the games right now, I’m speaking with my dollars.

And I hadn’t thought of it this way, but I do really like the idea of seeing them the same as people would unread books on a bookshelf. 🙂

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