Digital hoarding and the Steam sale menace

Friday, 21 December 2012 09:26 GMT By Dave Cook

Does buying content digitally give us a skewed perspective of worth? VG247’s Dave Cook takes a look at the dangers of flash sales, in-app purchases and more.

“Here in gaming land our closest equivalent to ASDA’s cheap deals is something like the Steam sale, which is a time where many of us load up on titles we wouldn’t normally take a punt on, just because they’re selling for pennies on the pound.”

I’m sitting here in my flat looking at the mammoth stack of DVDs lining my living room wall, troubled. This tall, proud amalgamation of cardboard and plastic has followed me to several flats over the years, and has even travelled the distance of the UK – from Scotland to where I now reside on the South coast of England.

I’ve watched this well-travelled collection grow up from the first DVD I ever bought – Die Hard, get in! – to something I just sort of put up with. It’s a pain in the arse to pack away whenever I’ve upped sticks and moved, it takes up far too much space, and I probably watch about 10% of it in any given year. I’d get rid of it all tomorrow if I could, but what if I wanted to watch one of the films at the bottom one day?

I have a Netflix account but that one film I want to watch at some point, some day from now might not be on there. It absolutely could happen, so I begrudgingly decide – time and time again – that the DVD wall must stay.

But what worries me more is that this collection is still growing, thanks to the frankly terrifying entertainment aisle of my local ASDA, which dares to sell high-quality films for as little as three British pounds. How can I pass up on a copy of The Matrix for less than the cost of a Big Mac? We’re not even afforded a fighting chance.

Here in gaming land our closest equivalent to ASDA’s cheap deals is something like the Steam sale, which is a time where many of us load up on titles we wouldn’t normally take a punt on, just because they’re selling for pennies on the pound.

Some of us will never play the games we’ve bought because we’ve either bought too many games at once and don’t have time to play them all, or we literally only took a chance on them because they were cheap, and nothing more. I’ve done it many times, and quite often I’ve blamed it on the simple thrill of getting a good deal.

Those of us that do this end up with a collection that – if it were made up of actual, physical boxes and discs – would be following each of us around, never being enjoyed and taking up a lot of valuable space. This isn’t just some strange phenomenon that has infiltrated society overnight, it’s been happening for a while.

The nature of impulse buying is something that the games industry’s governing bodies are tapping into in a big way right now, and you can see it all around you today – and I’m not just referring to the piercing, siren’s call of Steam flash sales here.

Take last week’s iOS release of Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy for example: the game was launched for free, so it was obvious that the game would be bulked out by in-app purchases. It seems to be par for the course that the word ‘free’ bears very little meaning in actuality these days, but this game – at first glance – seems to take the utter piss out of the word’s definition.

The game is given away with two tracks. Granted, they are rather brilliant ‘One-Winged Angel’ from FFVII and the ‘Zanarkand’ theme from FFX, but obtaining the rest of the game’s content – every song and character – you will have to fork over £103.83.

Now, I own the 3DS version of the game – I paid £39.99 for it at launch – but I have to admit that I still bought a selection of songs from the game’s library. I bought all my favourite tracks at either £0.69 a pop, or paid £1.99 for the game soundtracks I knew I liked. Why would a person knowingly buy the same content twice while fragmenting the experience across two seperate formats?

It’s simple really: convenience. I don’t have to carry my 3DS around with me to play those songs now, because I know I’ll always have my iPhone with me. They’re not physical products that I have to ferry around with me everywhere I go. It’s yet another collection sure, but this time it’s condensed into a simple, digital format that takes up minimal space..

I was also given the freedom to pick and choose the songs I wanted, which means I’m also trimming the fat and not wasting money on content I’ll never use. I actively chose not to pay for the songs of FFII because I didn’t want them, and in the end I got everything I wanted for less than a tenner, all in one place, and I’ve since played everything I’ve bought.

The game has – in a weird way – given me a really good deal, but I still deliberate over the fact that I already own the content on the 3DS version. I know it’s wrong but I’m a big fan of keeping all of my digital wares in one place, and having just recently got Netflix for our home I’m starting to feel better about giving my DVD wall the boot in time, but I know I won’t.

Another example is when I bought the Sega Mega Drive Collection on Xbox 360. It had Streets of Rage 2 on it – a game I have shamefully bought on seven different formats at last count – but I then bought and still prefer to play the XBLA version installed on my console instead of popping the disc in, again because it’s more convenient.

Convenient sure, but is THIS even necessary? I think I have a genuine problem here.

I did this for the same reason that people are re-buying paper books they already own on Kindle. Firstly, carrying a Kindle beats lugging a bag of heavy books around on holiday, and secondly because it’s a collection of potentially hundreds of novels in the palm of your hand, all being sold for less than their physical counterparts.

Does this mean that people are willing to pay more for convenience? I don’t think you’d pay more no, but I do think that many of us out there would pay for content a second time at the same or less value. Then again some people prefer to read from a proper, paper book. It’s a feeling of worth that comes with being able to see and hold what you’ve purchased. We’re all different in this regard.

I don’t begrudge paying for Streets of Rage 2 so many times – having spent close to £30 in the process because now, no matter where I am or what device I’m playing on, I can enjoy my favourite game in a matter of seconds. Does that justify the spend? Personally I think it does, and I’m sure other people have done this before too.

That said, I guarantee that the examples and questions I’ve raised are on the minds of the game industry’s top brass right now. You can see the signs now: Sony bought GaiKai and could now be planning to condense its entire back catalogue down into a single streaming format. Xbox Live has an extensive ‘Games on Demand’ Library and Nintendo has also gone big on its digital collection.

These formats are all putting up fences to try and stop the fragmentation of content by giving you everything in one box – each of the ‘big three’ consoles has either movie, browsing or music services – meaning that you don’t have to leave their brand to gain access to specific content. Want to look up a cheat for an Xbox 360 game on your iPad? – sure, go ahead, but use SmartGlass while you’re at it yeah?

Collections are something you can look at or leaf through and genuinely be proud of if you give them the time of day, but as the cost of digital content lowers there could be more of us out there with neglected purchases, while others try to resist the move from physical to digital. It’s a confusing, volatile time for the industry players at large, but now let’s hear what you think.

Are you a hoarder of digital games? Do you often spend recklessly during Steam or GOG sales? Have you been suckered in my the allure of in-app purchases, or do you prefer physical products any day of the week? Let us know what you think below.

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