Best of 2014 – Flat Out Of Steam

First Published: Aug 19, 2014
Voted For By: Ric
Reason(s) For Vote:
“I can’t play all that many PC games anymore, thanks to ditching my tower for a budget laptop for increased mobility at university, but this piece still speaks to me. It’s impossible to look at Steam and not consider buying something on the cheap, but after all these sales it’s a struggle to see the point. A wonderful article that also provides the best use of Nigel Farage’s rear-end that I’ve seen all year.” – Ric

The curtain has recently been rung down on the latest Steam sale and, for the most part, for the next… oh, minute or so, PC gamers can breathe a sigh of relief. Embattled, exhausted, their wallets emptied, all they can do is shuffle through the debris of sad, ticker-tape receipts and survey the shed-load of bargains they never knew they wanted. Shock, awe, and that odd feeling of stillness all pervade. We’ve all been there, we’ve all done it and worn the metaphorical t-shirt to a ravelling. But can we keep on doing it?

For me, a long-time PC gamer and general curmudgeon, finally accepting Steam came late in the day, especially compared to others in my gaming circle who (unlike me) don’t still pour suspicion on anything more marginally advanced than a biro. Physical media was, and still is, king for me, but when I experienced a Steam sale for the first time it was overwhelming. And it continued in that vein for a few years. I’d charge up and down its digital aisles, hurling things into my basket with barely a glance, and my library swiftly ballooned. One more wafer-thin game and the internet would have exploded.

Never mind the cash, the sales added to my already obscene ‘to be played’ pile, which was fast approaching critical mass. And I wasn’t alone – others on my friends list had hundreds of games in their libraries, and every sale I’d see them add to their hoards. It boggled my mind, even as my own mountain of games grew. They’d never play them all; I knew I wouldn’t. That’s the psychology of sales, though. If the price is good enough, retailers could sell you a gilded sculpture of Nigel Farage’s backside. Human compulsion, time-limited sales, flash deals, panic buying, rewards, hype, levelling up, competition – Valve know what they’re doing and have long been ahead of the curve.

But, keep going and you’re going to hit a wall eventually and, for me, I’ve simply – pardon the pun – run out of steam. My usual levels of apathy aside, I found myself scrolling through the most recent sale with an oddly blank feeling. I realised, to my horror, that I didn’t want anything. How is that even possible? I was gazing around the halls of a vast digital retailer and couldn’t find anything. Was it me? The problem was several fold: I’d already bought everything of interest in previous sales, or during the course of the year. Or I already owned it on some other console and didn’t want to double dip. Or I simply knew that I didn’t want it enough. Was I maturing and finally being more careful with my pennies, or had I just burnt out?

It may be an illusion, but the sales seem to have come thick and fast – so much so that they almost blur into one now. Even without that in mind, it makes sense that there is pretty much the same stuff on offer. And this is the problem. When Steam discount so heavily (and in bursts throughout the year, outwith the sales) you soon reach saturation point. Newish releases aside, everyone will eventually have been coerced into buying everything they wanted, sort of wanted, and even that thing that they looked at one time when they were a bit drunk. So then what?

Admittedly, with the recent tsunami of releases, there are plenty of odds and sods to sift through – my eternal sympathy if, like me, the Adventure category is your first port of call – but pretty soon, the same saturation problem will rear its head. And continue to do so. The question that bothers me is where do Steam go from here? Being the chameleon that they are, they’re tapping into the competitive and hoarding sides of human nature to drive sales and sustain interest – the latest sale was interesting: teams, point stealing, crafting badges to display and show off, and time-sensitive activities, all feeding in to the Steam levelling community thing. The thing with the number (look, I’m someone who couldn’t give less of a damn if ‘Not Adrian Pasdar’ from Suits delivered them on a silver platter).

Throw in trading cards, levels, XP, badges – it’s smart. It’s bollocks, of course, but fucking hell it’s smart. Make buying games a game – make accessing them a game. Reward players for doing things they would do anyway, just throw up some smoke to take the sting out of it all, before many actually realise they’ve spent yet more on things they’ll leave on virtual shelves. And so Steam keeps rolling. I just wonder what they’ll do next, whether their well of innovation will eventually run dry. For now though, they’ve got it bang on.

Keep the gamers there, keep them interested, toss them a few virtual baubles to make them happy, even when they do things that aren’t buying games. But I’m jaded. And a touch grumpy. And far less motivated than a suitcase full of Pythonesque parrots and I couldn’t give a fig about… any of it. I can see through the smoke and the deceptive carnival games, and while I don’t begrudge any of it – far from it; I have nothing but admiration and respect for Valve’s clever innovation and Steam’s evolution – for me, the sale train has hit the buffers and Steam has simply lost its puff. I don’t doubt, however, Valve’s ability to yank me back in.

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