As I write this article, Steam’s autumn sale is coming to a close. Five days of gaming discounts will wrap up in about an hours time, with untold numbers of happy purchasers looking at an expanded list of titles in their library. It’s Valve’s policy not to release sales figures from Steam, so it’s impossible to be absolutely sure just how many games they shift during these periods. But given the regularity with which on sale titles appear in Steam’s internal Top 10 list and the sheer number of sales events the digital platform has, it’s pretty safe to say they’re a success.
Unless something very strange occurs (like, oh I don’t know, a total apocalyptic shutdown of the internet), Valve will unveil a brand new sale for the Christmas and New Year period. Like the autumn sale, this will doubtless be a terrific opportunity to get hold of that title you’ve been meaning to play forever at a knock-down price, or a chance to pick up a new-ish blockbuster at a cheaper rate than normal. Other digital outlets will be doing the same, offering Yuletide discounts galore on a range of titles, mainstream and indie alike.
PC gamers open to the idea of purchasing and owning games digitally have never had it so good in terms of access to cheap titles. Getting hold of, say, 17 games with Tom Clancy’s name as a prefix for just north of 35 GBP (as was possible during the latest Steam giveaway) would’ve been unthinkable half a decade ago. Digital sales and the appearance of pay-what-you-fancy deals like the Humble Bundles and Indie Royale have been terrific for players, allowing them to get hold of more games than ever with whatever disposable income they’ve dedicated to that particular budgetary pot.
Likewise, most titles tend to benefit from a greater number of players, who can provide a boost to a flagging multiplayer community or give a previously overlooked game a brief spike of popularity. If any developers are unhappy about their games being included in mass digital sales, they seem to keep fairly quiet about it. On the face of it, everybody wins and everybody is happy.
But … do you ever get the feeling that you’ve overindulged a little?
Let’s back up to that Tom Clancy deal I mentioned above. 17 games for about 35 quid is incredible value, but are you actually going to play 17 Tom Clancy titles? That’s an easy one to answer: no, you aren’t. If you’re disagreeing at this point, you are a filthy liar. What’s really happening here is that you probably like the idea of owning a few of those early Splinter Cell games you played on various consoles once upon a time, but won’t actually play them again. You might fancy giving one or two of the newer games a try, HAWX 2 maybe, but the rest will just languish in Steam list oblivion. Of course they will. How long would it take you to play through all 17 games? Months, probably; and Steam will have another sale well underway by then, ready to reel you in with more bargains.
None of this is Steam’s fault (or the fault of whichever digital outlet you snag a deal from), because the sales really do represent incredible value for money. Even if someone were to buy the Clancy set and only play through five or six of the games, it would still be a decent haul. This is exactly why it’s so common for people who frequent digital marketplaces have such gigantic backlogs of titles; because it’s easy to justify the short-term benefits of the purchase (“It’s great value! I love most of these games!”) without considering the long-term reality that you will never, ever play them.
It’s kind of like going to the supermarket and finding a superb deal on cans of chili sauce. You like chili, you eat it fairly regularly, so why not get 12 cans at once? They can sit in the cupboard and before too long you’ll have used them up. But then you return home to find that you already have 24 cans of chili in the cupboard from a previous deal, and it dawns on you that the supermarket puts chili on sale pretty much every month. It remains great value, but if you keep buying chili at this rate you will have to eat it every single day until you die. Playing a videogame every day might not be a problem, but having to dedicate 12 hours or more to make a dent in your backlog probably would be.
The non-physicality of digital goods seems to make them easier to over-indulge in, too. Unless you exhibit the kind of obsessive-compulsive behaviour that leads to the hoarding of useless items, it’s easy to see when you have too much physical stuff laying around. At that point you probably donate some things, throw others away and clear your living space (or, if you’re mentally ill, allow it to pile up into a huge mouse-palace that you have to squeeze around to get up the stairs). Digital games don’t take a toll on your environment in the same way, so their number is only limited by the space of your hard drive.
In Steam’s case, the only visual indicator of wastefulness is that archive-sized list of games that may be lurking in your library. In fact, I want you to bring up your Steam library now, set it to ‘all games’ and drink in the madness. How many of those games do you actually play? How many will you ever play? If, like me, you get anxious at the prospect of unfinished videogames (it irks me that I still haven’t finished Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and that I have an untouched copy of Thief: Deadly Shadows), the stark reality of this list should be quite alarming.
As a games writer, my position is all-too-often embroiled in the grimy business of hyping and promoting titles, so I admit there’s a rebellious part of me that’s delighting in telling people not to buy things for a change. You may feel perfectly calm about having so many unplayed games, but at the very least you’ve thrown away a sizeable amount of money to purchase them (ironic, given that the deals you opted for were probably great); and if you ever re-bought a title just so you didn’t have to bother looking for the CD or DVD, then you may well be beyond help. All I ask is that instead of holding back on the turkey this Christmas, maybe it’d be more helpful to lay off the digital sales.
Have a look at Tim McDonald’s rebuttal: “Confessions of a Digital Shopaholic”.