Steam Sales Are Good For Everyone

Finally, Gamasutra published an article on a topic that I’ve been interested in for a long time: the economics of Steam sales. Valve’s infamous sales often drop games as much as 75% to 80% off their regular price, which has lead many to wonder whether selling their product for a few dollars hurts developers in the long run. EA has claimed it devalues IPs and makes consumers unwilling to pay anything except bottom dollar for games, while Valve has maintained otherwise. As a consumer, I am deeply appreciative of Steam sales, but as a supporter of the hard work developers put into their games, I always wondered how they could profit by selling their games at incomprehensibly low prices.

During the Humble Indie Bundle V AMA on Reddit, Tim Schafer answered a question about how viable deep discounts are for small studios. His answer was characteristically bizarre, but still revealing: sales are “magic,” and the more you give away, the more you take in. It makes sense, in a way; sure, you’ve lost some money from fans who would be willing to buy Psychonauts for $10, but you’ve gained tons of money from people who would never have bought the game or even thought about it if it wasn’t $5 off. I guess the balance swings in favour of profitability pretty much all the time.

Sure enough, the Gamasutra article seems to confirm this. Runic Games have claimed that, thanks to periodic Steam sales, Torchlight has enjoyed more or less evergreen sales since its launch, while Edmund McMillen has claimed that at 75% off the regular $4.99 price (making it $1.24), The Binding of Isaac‘s sales suddenly multiply by a factor of sixty.

Speaking of Edmund McMillen and Team Meat, I remember Tommy Refenes mentioning in Indie Game: The Movie that launch day is typically the best day for game sales, and things only go down from there. But with these deep discounts, games can far eclipse their launch day sales and generate record profits on days when they’ve marked down. Hell, Bastion‘s launch day was only its fifth best day of sales on Steam, thanks to all these sales (I picked it up for $5.00, but I’ve seen it go for as cheap as $3.74).

So far, it seems like Steam sales are a win-win-win situation for customers, developers, and Valve itself. There seem to be no drawbacks whatsoever; Valve’s statistics show no negative impact on sales after a promotion finishes, with a reversion to normal, pre-promotion sales figures being the worst that typically happens (in Torchlight‘s case, a doubling of purchases at the full $15 price for nearly two weeks after the sale is a best-case scenario). That being said, I’d like to read even one horror story about a developer being totally ruined by a Steam sale, just to see if things like that can actually happen, as EA intimates they might. The Gamasutra article makes that scenario seem impossible, but given how little I understand regarding the economics of digital distribution, they could be easily pulling the wool over my eyes.

The Fez Patch Saga

I decided to let the story of Fez‘s game-breaking patch-to-a-patch grow a bit before I commented on it, and I’m glad I did, since the story has undergone some dramatic developments in the past week. But now it’s time to reap the delicious, bountiful harvest.

The expectations for Fez have been outrageously high ever since its announcement in 2007, and it has remained in the public eye for the past five years thanks to its well-publicized development troubles and a number of abrasive comments from its creator, Phil Fish. We see shades of Fish’s personality in everything from his tweets, to official Polytron press releases, to media interviews, to his appearance in Indie Game: The Movie, and it’s all remarkably consistent. He’s a guy who wants desperately to succeed but takes it fairly hard when he fails, and despite the wads of cash he’s undoubtedly made since Fez was released, he’s hit a few minor post-release patch issues that have earned him a beating in the press.

The problem with making a successful or popular game is that people have increased expectations. Gamers are an incredibly entitled bunch, and in order to be a strong developer, the best way to deal with it is to suck it up and soldier on. Bioware tried responding to fan outrage with their Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut DLC, but popular opinion was still only mixed at best; it’s simply impossible to please the mob completely. Industry vets like Reggie Fils-Aime and Randy Pitchford are able to deal with the tons of expectations and criticisms hurled against their products on a daily basis by calmly sticking to their guns; hell, Pitchford had Duke Nukem Forever to apologize for, and he and Gearbox are still some of the most beloved developers around.

Therein lies Fish’s problem; he’s an ordinary Canadian twentysomething with all the insecurities and anxieties typical of someone of that description. I saw them everywhere at university, and none of them were trying to ship a highly anticipated XBLA game on top of their usual daily stresses. He’s a normal, emotional human being thrust into a situation that’s extraordinary even among his game industry peers: people want to play his first game so badly that they get angry whenever another deadline passes without the product being in their hands. With Polytron being a tiny three-man operation, Fish probably doesn’t have any media training, which is why he sometimes says things people don’t like. He doesn’t have the benefit of Pitchford’s years of industry experience to know how to properly deal with fan entitlement, and he lacks the almost superhuman immunity to criticism typical of most high-profile players in this industry.

The $40,000 XBLA re-certification is prohibitively expensive for an indie developer (if it does cost that much; Fish strikes me as a bit of an exaggerator, and Microsoft refuses to reveal the price tag for re-certification), so Polytron was faced with a choice: re-upload an old patch that fixed the bugs for all but a few players, or pony up the cash and pray that, for $40,000, they can eliminate the few remaining issues with a new patch. Fish made the decision that I, as an impulsive adult in my twenties, would have made: he put the old patch back up, knowing that a few paying customers would be unable to play the game but saving his company $40,000. Offering refunds (is that even possible on XBLA?) should be an obvious next step. I don’t know what Polytron’s financial situation is like, but even with all the Fez profits, $40,000 is a serious hit to take, and I can see why Fish, as someone just becoming accustomed to real success, might balk at that number.

On the other hand, can Fish really afford to be an impulsive twentysomething when paying fans are concerned? This isn’t a case of fan satisfaction, as with the Bioware fiasco; this is a case of a glitch actually preventing people from playing the game to completion. Bioware wasn’t obligated to fix Mass Effect 3′s ending, but Fish might be obligated to fix Fez‘s stability issues. It’s one thing to make an unsatisfying yet fully functional game, but leaving a broken game unfixed is a whole other ballgame. The argument Polytron makes (and they seem to admit that even they’re not fully satisfied with this argument) is that Fez is mostly fixed without the new patch, with only a tiny fraction of players still running into game-save issues. So they’ve still managed to satisfy the vast majority of players without breaking the bank…but given the high standards of the industry, even among indies, should they have spent the money and tried to eliminate the issue 100%?

I think the hefty price tag for re-certification is less about gouging developers and more about discouraging them from having to patch their games in the first place. It forces developers to raise their QA standards to the point where they dare not push a game out the door unless it’s virtually bug-free, or else they pay the price down the road. It lets people make the argument that none of this would have been an issue if Fish had coded the game properly the first time, but the re-certification issue is still a bum deal for financially insecure indie developers, and combined with the near-total lack of advertising for indies on the Xbox Live Marketplace, it could be why we’ve seen nearly every good XBLA game ported to Steam in recent years.

Speaking of Steam, much of these issues stem from the time frame of Fez’s development cycle. In 2007, XBLA certainly looked like the place for indie games, with Castle Crashers tearing up the charts; The Behemoth proved there was a market there, and suddenly guys like Jonathan Blow and Phil Fish began prepping their own games for the platform. But a later year, Audiosurf would launch exclusively on Steam, proving that the PC was a viable alternative for indie devs; the years that followed would see an exponential growth in both Steam’s userbase as well as its indie catalogue. It attracted indie developers because it gave them front-page advertising, better sales figures, and an simple patching process. Meanwhile, Fish was still developing for XBLA, but a better market had developed elsewhere while he was taking his sweet time. Had Phil Fish begun development on Fez within the last two or three years, he would have undoubtedly been less eager to jump at Microsoft exclusivity and would’ve been more likely to focus on a Steam version. I just hope Fez‘s XBLA exclusivity runs out soon so I can actually play the damn thing on Steam.

The Exciting, Risky OUYA Kickstarter

I suppose I’m on a bit of a Kickstarter “kick” (har har) lately, but that’s mostly a good thing. After the extremely prominent (and successful) Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter earlier this year, crowdfunding has really blown up in a huge way, giving indies a solid platform for promotion and fundraising. It’s no surprise that pretty much everyone and their dog has attempted a Kickstarter after Double Fine made over three million dollars simply by asking for it, but at least the ideas are out there, even if not all of them are good.

I never thought I’d see any Kickstarter shatter the records set by Double Fine, but with almost $4.5 million in pledges with 26 days to go, the OUYA Kickstarter is truly something else. If anything, it shows that the current long console generation has people desperate for a new console, despite the fact that the OUYA is far from a traditional video game box. At a suggested retail price of $99, the thing is incredibly affordable, being less expensive than the freaking cell phone I just bought. Their console and controller prototypes are damn sexy, with the console itself taking cues from the Wii’s sleek, compact design, while the controller itself is a typical, 360-like gamepad. The latter will reportedly have an additional touch-screen interface that should make porting Android mobile games a breeze, something that the OUYA developers are banking on in terms of attracting developer support. Finally, the console is meant to be 100% digital download (yep, no disc tray) and fully hackable. The former is a good move in this day and age, and in that respect, the console could succeed where the PSP Go failed; the latter, however, is a huge risk.

To be honest, most of the stuff surrounding the console seems risky. While I’m excited by the prospect of a new, niche console and may even buy one if the team delivers on their promises, I do have a number of concerns. First and foremost is that, as Kotaku pointed out, you can’t throw a stone in hell without hitting the corpse of a dead console. Because my interest in the video game industry only really took off at the turn of the century, I’m most familiar with the Nokia N-Gage (felled by a lackluster mobile gaming scene at the time, and sidetalkin’, of course), the Gizmondo (felled by corporate scandal), and the Phantom (felled by financial mismanagement). But given the kind of high-profile media attention the OUYA has been receiving this past week, I think marketing won’t be the issue here that it was for the Gizmondo and the Phantom, both of which mostly languished in obscurity from the moment they were announced.

I understand that the notion of an “open console” will be of particular interest to homebrew aficionados, but let’s be perfectly honest: it’s gonna attract the pirates more than anything. Up until now, pirating games has been way tougher on a console than on a PC, which could be part of the reason why the PC market was left for dead from 1999 to roughly 2007. For a studio that can’t take absorb the revenue lost from PC pirating, a console release is an undoubtedly safer path. How many developers take the risk of designing a game from the ground-up for an unproven console with such potential for rampant piracy? My guess is not many, which is why most of the developer opinions we’ve seen so far are supportive, but noncommital from a business standpoint.

Of course, the ultimate question is whether there will be any games worth playing on the OUYA. Being an Android console, it’s highly likely that we’ll see tons of mobile game ports, of which the Android Market has very few that approach AAA quality. It’s being marketed as a console for indie developers, but to truly be that console, it has to give indie developers a better platform than Steam, which is…unlikely. For all the flak Xbox Live Indie Games has been receiving lately about being a terrible platform for indies, Steam has been collecting accolades left, right, and centre, and the upcoming Steam Greenlight feature looks to only improve the marketing experience for the indie developer. The system’s kind-of-underpowered Tegra 3 chip ensures that we’ll never see graphics-intensive blockbusters like Mass Effect or Skyrim on the console, but it’s certainly powerful enough to run stuff like Braid or Minecraft. The OUYA has the potential to be a great console for indies, but it’s going to have to draw developers away from Steam first. As a consumer, they’ll have to draw me away from Steam too, which will be no small feat given how much I love the service. Their promise of “all games will be free-to-play in some form” is misleading, since apparently having a demo satisfies this requirement. The mobile model of having an ad-supported “free” version and a fully paid, non-ad-supported version might be a tougher sell to the console crowd; ditto for the PC-centric free-to-play with microtransactions model. Although, as we’ve seen from the Kickstarter, consumer demand may not be that much of an issue.

I’m interested to see where this whole thing goes. Now that some of the initial fervor has subsided, some are critical of the OUYA, like the Penny Arcade Report’s Ben Kuchera (read his scathing report here). I remain intrigued by this strange upstart console, and if this thing actually ends up carving out a comfortable niche for itself (I highly doubt it will compete directly with the Big Three), I might buy one. But I’ve got to see some great Android games for it first. Playing Angry Birds ports on my TV ain’t gonna cut it; they’ve got to be new games on the level of Super Meat Boy, Limbo, or Bastion, and they’ve got to be Android exclusive. There can’t be a reason for me to play them on Steam or my iPhone, because I will invariably play them there instead (Steam if I want to get them cheap and play them in HD, iPhone if it demands a touch-screen interface, like Angry Birds or Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery). So I’ll remain slightly skeptical for now, if optimistic, because I’d love to see the OUYA succeed.

The Unnecessary Penny Arcade Kickstarter

I’m a big fan of Penny Arcade. I like pretty much everything they do, from the comics and their various spinoffs, to Jerry Holkins’ blog posts, to PAX, to Child’s Play, to the video games. I may not think everything they do is superb (for example, I don’t share their enthusiasm for Lookouts, and I usually pass over their various video offerings), but I still blindly support them because I’m a fanboy.

Still, there’s something about this whole Kickstarter business that I can’t quite get behind. I imagine their ironic description of the Kickstarter as essentially begging for money for money that they don’t need is supposed to be an attempt at transparency, but it’s as almost as if there’s a smug grin behind that explanation, and slowly you think, yes, they actually are just looking for extra cash for free. I guess that’s my problem with it: they don’t need the money and they know it, and if the “project” gets funded (which, at $215,000 in pledges with 33 days to go, it most certainly will be), the “experience” that they’re selling will only be a marginal, almost negligible improvement over the current one.

Yes, the rewards tiers are meaningless, but they’re meant to be funny, I guess. It’s somehow less funny when I see that twenty-five people paid $500 of real, honest-to-God cash to have Tycho retweet them. It wouldn’t be that bad of a waste if that $500 actually went toward something worthwhile, but at the end of the day, it’s still just being used to remove an amazingly small number of ads on the site. Anyone who has Adblocker has probably never even realized there were ads on Penny Arcade. Of those who do see the ads on a daily basis, I imagine very of them have complained about the ads, since there are only two banners on the homepage, and they’re generally for things that Penny Arcade’s audience enjoys (tabletop games, video games etc).

Which brings me to my next point: Holkins once said, I believe in a blog post about League of Legends, that Penny Arcade never displays banners for games they don’t like. While some of these games (like League of Legends) don’t need the exposure, smaller games, like the indie title Splice, need all the help they can get. Getting rid of advertising space on a site with heavy daily traffic like Penny Arcade could cripple a lot of these smaller projects. But of course, that’s hardly Penny Arcade’s problem. Their kind-of-acidic suggestion that “we will send out nice cards come Christmas time” to advertisers burned by the loss of their ad space says it all.

They’ve attempted to justify this Kickstarter as more than just an ad removal fund by saying that some of the money will go into funding additional Penny Arcade side projects (which is probably where all of the money should’ve gone, but hey). The day the Kickstarter was announced, they took a bit of a licking on Twitter and other places, so even though they will undoubtedly make a ton of cash from this thing, they’ve begun to roll out some of those additional projects as stretch goals, presumably to satisfy the haters. New series of Lookouts (bleh) and Automata (score!) that run alongside the uninterrupted thrice-weekly Penny Arcade strip seem like very promising prospects, until you realize that they’re each merely six pages long, and it somehow costs an extra $100,000 to $200,000 to make them. At $825,000 in pledges, they revive a defunct podcast. The money required unlock these stretch goals does not seem proportional to the effort required to create them, especially since they claim they can cover most of the site’s operating expenses with the $250,000 minimum.

The Penny Arcade Kickstarter is the very definition of a frivolous Kickstarter, but hey, I don’t really have a problem with other people throwing money away on it; I just won’t be supporting it myself (and miraculously, I’ll still be the recipient of the ultimate end product: the ad-free site and additional miniseries content). And they plan to run it every year. I just hope it doesn’t establish a precedent of thriving companies petitioning the Kickstarter community for free money.

Super Smash Bros.: Fanservice Over Balance, Please

At this point, we know practically nothing about the next Smash Bros. game for Wii U and 3DS, other than the fact that Namco’s making it in collaboration with series creator Masahiro Sakurai. The years leading up to the 2008 release of Super Smash Bros. Brawl were a study in speculation, with much of the discussion centering around which characters would appear in the game’s star-studded roster. So it’s unsurprising that overzealous fans would take a Sakurai quote about how the size of the Smash Bros. roster has “already probably reached the limits of what’s feasible” and immediately conclude that no new characters will be added in the series’ next iteration. Adding no new characters to a series that is the living embodiment of Nintendo fanservice? I very much doubt this is the case. All he’s saying is that Brawl‘s roster of thirty-five characters is a good size; there’s plenty of room in there to cut some characters and replace them with new ones. Making the new roster be the exact same as the Brawl roster would be monumentally disappointing, and whether Sakurai intends to replace existing characters while capping the roster size at thirty-five or whether he intends to expand beyond thirty-five, you can bet that we’ll see a few new faces.

That being said, I’d prefer to see the new roster include as much of Brawl‘s roster as possible, while expanding in excess of forty characters. Would this bring some balance issues? Most likely, which is probably why Sakurai hired an actual fighting game studio (the internal Namco team responsible for the Tekken series) to make it. However, it’s not like the Smash Bros. series hasn’t had a few balance issues in the past.

In the same interview, Sakurai notes that while some fighting games with large, fifty-character rosters can be fun, it’s difficult to make all the characters both balanced and unique. We’ve seen this happen already with Melee, which was criticized for introducing many clones but was praised for having relatively well-balanced upper tiers, thus birthing a strong competitive scene. By contrast, Brawl gained praise for cutting some of the clones and differentiating the remaining ones from their original counterparts somewhat, but it drew criticism for adding new clones and generally being an unbalanced mess with regard to high-level competitive play. Nearly every new gameplay tweak, from the removal of the wavedashing exploit to the introduction of the tripping mechanism, moved Brawl further away from being a competitive game and closer to its original, unbalanced, party-game status. Whether this was Sakurai’s intention or just a corollary of the development process, we’ll never know.

But now he’s worried about balance issues? While the debate continues over whether Smash Bros. is a true fighting game or a party game, the game is, at its core, fanservice to the highest degree. Some of the worst characters (Mewtwo in Melee, Captain Falcon in Brawl) are an absolute blast to play, and the roster is strengthened by their inclusion. Make that roster the priority; let the balancing come after. If the Wii U has the robust online capabilities that Nintendo claims, it should allow for post-release patches, which could do wonders for Smash Bros.’ balance issues. Because there will be balance issues at launch, just like any other fighting game, and it’s reasonable to devote time and energy into fixing them; but for a game like Smash Bros., with its unique crossover appeal, intuitive gameplay style, and relatively tenuous position in the world of competitive fighting games, I don’t think it should take precedence over stacking that roster with plenty of new characters.

All Right Chums, Let’s Do This

Hello all, and welcome to Pixel Bubble, a blog about the video game industry. I started this blog because I often find reading articles on Kotaku, Gamasutra, Polygon, or whatnot provokes some kind of response from me, and I felt it was time to transcribe those mental responses into written form. I find it helps me organize my thoughts a little better.

The beauty of it is this: bloggers are generally opinionated people, and the drama of the video game industry provides plenty of opportunity for people to form their own (often divided) opinions. By posting these editorials, I’m very much welcoming comments about how I’m wrong, or how I missed an important point. That’s good; I’m looking for some stimulating conversation about an industry that I love to study. I won’t be so presumptuous as to say that I’ll “challenge your views” or “expand your horizons” or stuff like that; I’m just a regular guy, sharing my opinions about a topic that interests me. I’m not here to troll anyone or post flamebait; these are my honest opinions distilled into blog form. And hey, you may even agree with me once in a while.

Because I want to focus primarily on editorial content rather than straight-up news, I probably won’t simply be reposting external articles or performing long-form game reviews. I will certainly talk about games that I’m playing or looking forward to (and even games that I’m not) and link to discussion-worthy articles, but this blog is meant to be more loose exploration than formal examination or regurgitation.

So, bottom line: expect editorials about the video game industry. Expect heavy spoilers for some posts (don’t worry, I’ll clearly indicate spoiler-rific articles at the top of each article). Expect updates whenever I feel inspired to write a post (this blog, for all the thought I’m putting into it, is still just a hobby for me).

I’m also looking for blogs with similar themes to my own (ie. video game industry editorials). So if you want to up your page views pretty easily, drop me a line in the comments, and I’ll definitely check out your blog. Again, just looking for some good discussions.