Played > Sold

I have a few dresses in my closet that I never wear. Every time I look at them, I feel guilty; they were not expensive dresses, and I bought them on sale, too. Yet I never wear them so those are money ill spent, wasted, and it infuriates me that I do this, when there’s people starving in the world, and when I am supposed to be wise and responsible with a resource I am working hard for. Those are money I could have used to buy… I dunno… games? 😀

According to an older report, there is a staggering amount of games that people own on Steam, but never even play once, and even more games that are played very little time.  I hope for a renewed report to see how these numbers changed when Steam added refunds, but my guess is there’s still a large number of games out there on Steam, bought but not played, and not even refunded. Kinda like my dresses – probably obtained during the sales or in bundles, a trivial expense, but still useless, a waste of money.

Now, gamedevs need to eat so success in the industry is measured in how many copies of your game were sold. It doesn’t really matter if the game was played, so I guess this statistic (of games bought and not even played) provokes optimism for many teams. But from my perspective, if you sell a game that’s not played, that’s a failure. You did not get to entertain that person who took the time and money to actually buy your game, your work was not experienced. That’s a pity.

I cannot help comparing my experience of buying games to that of buying books. I spend far more money on my Kindle books, by the way, because… All books that I buy have a sample, which is generally a few chapters, quite enough to get a good understanding if you like the writing style and the story. Because of this sample that I can try for free, I have confidence that the time I spend to search for good books is well rewarded. I guess this made me better at finding books I like on Amazon, than I am at finding games I like on Steam. I have never brought a book that I didn’t read at least half way, and in 95% or more of the cases, I finish reading the books I buy, and I enjoy them. If I like an author, I tend to buy more of his or her books, and in some cases I spend 20 dollars or more just to get their latest stuff (and I am not talking about RR Martin or the likes). I don’t have books in my library that make me feel guilty, like my dresses, or the games I have on Steam that I never played, or played very little time.

I nostalgically desire a similar relationship with my favourite developers as I have with my favourite authors. But game developers seem to be confused about the concept of target audience, rightfully so. You see, it’s a complicate endeavour to understand your potential clients, and I think it is a difference between reaching your niche audience, the kind that would pay a hefty sum for your next game, and reaching large numbers that would lift you up from sale slumber through the sheer number of copies sold, and never even take the time to read your name or the name of your game. And for some reason, lots of advice guide developers towards the latter strategy: pricing, sales, the x.99 policy, Metacritics, and the likes. This has pretty awful consequences, such as a big disaster when it comes to discoverability, prices far too low to sustain a dev team,  and a terribly unhealthy message towards the large mass of game players, who are now well trained to wait for discounts and cry if a game reaches out with a not low enough price.

But… there’s 2 kinds of gamers, I think. There’s those with lots of time but little money. Those are the young gamers, who react well to compulsive buying, all to willing to waste their saving on the summer sales or bundles and to later brag with a impressive Steam library from which they play a game or two. Their attention is hard to catch and almost impossible to retain. Then there’s the gamers with lots of money but little time, mostly the adults, the working class who plays only when back from work, and done with daily chores, and just gets a spare hour to relax a little. Those are the people who are probably set on one game at a time, a game they buy to really enjoy, because that play hour is important to them. I’d bet their Steam library is not so impressive, and they are probably slower to react on sales and bundles. I’d also dare say these people have less time digging through the impressive number of games released on Steam – cause, you know, when you have one hour to spare, you play, you don’t curate your Steam store page, or?

Both categories, very fuzzy otherwise, are then heavily refine-able through lots of other factors, including but definitely not limited to their country or genre preferences. Yet we’re stuck on targeting ethereal customers such as: hardcore, mid core, soft core, casual gamers.  And price segments: 9,99 or 14, 99 or x.99, ripe for waiting the 30%, 66%, 75% discounts. Who the frak are those people? As a gamer, I cannot identify with any of those terms and I think I made it clear what I think about buying stuff just because it’s cheap or discounted.

SteamSpy wrote a very good analysis on target audiences. He also wrote a very good piece on pricing. I think as an industry we are on a great deficit on data to hep us shape our target audience better, but alas, we have some now, and if you combine SteamSpy’s two analyses, it turns out you can sell a game for far more than you would have wished, if you know who to sell it to. Furthermore, I think spending more on a game is a sure incentive that the purchase is a deliberate, considerate act resulted from the desire to really experience what the game has to offer. You don’t spend 60 Euros on The Witcher just to have it in your library, and I dare say not even 40 Euros just to know you have Talos for whenever you have the time to try it, if ever.

My point is: I think the first and foremost drive as a game developer should be to get your game Played, not Sold. You shouldn’t want to be one of those games many people have in their library, but never experienced. I think that’s a failure, because your work, your passion, your artistry was not experienced. And that is why you make games, isn’t it? Yes, finding people really willing to give you their time and attention (and consequently, money) is hard – it is WORK, the kind never really prioritized in an indie team. But isn’t it a pity to sell something that won’t be experienced? To make something that will be drowned in obscurity moments after it was released?