We're Buying More PC Games Than We Can PlayS

As another Steam Holiday Sale comes to a close, I have spent roughly $100 to purchase 22 games. In the past 2 months I have picked up 3 Humble Bundles. Not a month ago I spent around $50 on 11 games in the Steam Fall Sale. By the time the next Steam Holiday Sale rolls into town I will be lucky if I have played half of these games. I have a problem. I am a Compulsive Collector. And after 1,400 gamers took my recent survey on their game-buying habits, I know that I am not alone.

We're Buying More PC Games Than We Can Play

My Pile of Shame is daunting. Nearly 200 unplayed games on Steam. Over 50 boxed games across 6 consoles and 3 handhelds. 50 classics on Good Old Games. A constantly growing library of digital games thanks to PS+. In my fantasy world, I intend on playing all of these games in the mythical "some day."

It's okay I tell myself. When I buy Papo y Yo along with 6 other indie games for under $5 each, it is because "I want to show my support," fully knowing I will not have time to play these games for months. With each newly acquired Humble Bundle I remind myself that I am not doing this "just for the games but to support charity at the same time as the developer." As I impulse buy another AAA game that has just dropped to the $5 mark I intone "the price is too good to pass up."

These quotes, which echo my personal justifications, come from comments left by some of the 1,400 gamers who took the survey. "I love buying games at a discount! Building a collection has overtaken playing as my hobby."

Let's look at some results.

The Average Gamer

  • The average gamer surveyed owns unplayed 18 games in their Pile of Shame.
  • They play games for 15 hours a week and spend 10 hours engaging with gaming media including news sites, videos and forums.
  • They bought 11-25 games in the past 12 months: 60% on sale and just 20% new at full price.
  • They have not played 40% of the games purchased in the past 12 months.

The Compulsive Collector

  • 30% of the gamers surveyed are Compulsive Collectors with a Pile of Shame at least 50 high.
  • The average Collector has roughly 100 games in their backlog.
  • They play games for 20 hours a week and spend 10 hours engaging with gaming media.
  • They bought 26-50 games in the past 12 months: 80% on sale and just 10% new at full price.
  • They have not played 60% of the games purchased in the past 12 months.

We game in the age of the Perpetual Sale. "I never buy games at full price as they'll get extremely cheap within just a few months… I rarely spend over $10 for a single game."

The Slaves of Wall Street

As a gamer I clearly love the Perpetual Sale. Like 79% of gamers surveyed, I enjoy the feeling of getting a deal when buying games. I take pride in my game collection and feel good about the frequent opportunities to support a variety of game developers, big and small, creating games in every conceivable genre.

As a professional game developer my feelings are mixed. Amongst developers it is common to devote two years or longer to a single game. It is disheartening to learn that when the average gamer buys my game, there is a 40% chance they will not play it and a 20% chance they will play for less than 1 hour. Game developers on the whole are driven by a passion to make games that will bring joy to gamers' hearts. The thought that we may invest two years of blood, sweat and tears to a game only for it to sit in a virtual pile of uninstalled titles is not why we work countless late nights and weekends.

The Perpetual Sale affects different types of game studios in different ways. When it comes to game sales, I think it is important to split developers into public and private companies. Corporations like EA, Activision and Square Enix are slaves to analyst projections and quarterly earnings reports. Take a game like Sleeping Dogs (which I bought in last year's Steam Sale for $16.99 but did not install and play for nearly a year). The game was initially reported as a commercial failure despite selling over 1.75 million units. After Square Enix reported lower than expected sales on AAA titles Sleeping Dogs, Tomb Raider and Hitman: Absolution the company made job cuts at a number of studios worldwide.

A year after the game's release, Square Enix's Head of Studios Darrell Gallagher reported that Sleeping Dogs had become profitable and continues to see 500,000 unique players a month. Great news for Sleeping Dogs but not for those developers who have already lost their jobs. Public companies under pressure to show ever growing profits depend on full price, new game sales to satiate Wall Street. Yet according to the survey, the average gamer purchases just 20% of games during this critical time.

Working class developers ride the long tail

For working class developers the Perpetual Sale is the engine driving the growing indie development scene. PixelJunk developer Q-Games reported that the lifetime revenue for PixelJunk Eden doubled as a result of an 8-hour, 90% off promotion during the recent Steam Holiday Sale. Indie developers like Level Up Labs generous enough to publicly share sales and revenue figures regularly report that for games like Defender's Quest "the majority of revenue from GOG and Steam [comes] during sales periods."

In the survey comments, gamers echoed the sentiment that "indie bundles give me insight into smaller games that I may never have purchased or known about otherwise" and even go as far as saying that the "Humble Bundle is better than drugs." In a world of public companies constrained to a small number of familiar genres and tropes, we gamers have the Perpetual Sale to thank for the incredible range of innovative games we currently enjoy.

Mining for insight

I mined the data, looking for answers that help explain why Compulsive Collectors like me continue to buy new games despite owning literally hundreds of unplayed games. I found some moderate to strong correlations in the data (abs(r) >=.3 and <= .7) but they lead to fairly obvious conclusions. If you buy games at full price you are more likely to play games to completion. If you buy lots of games on sale you are more likely to buy bundles and wait for games to go on sale. If you buy a lot of games you are more likely to have a larger backlog and not to have played more of the games you purchase.

I did not find anything earth shattering hidden in the data. There was no measurable impact on the amount of time a gamer spends engaged with games and the number of games purchased or size of the backlog. There was no correlation between the enjoyment of buying games on sale and number of games purchased or size of the backlog.

Mostly I'm left with questions and regrets about the way I structured certain questions. Thanks to the 1,000 written comments from the gamers who took the survey I have a plenty of leads on what motivates their buying behavior. So many that I have written a new, more in depth survey to help me dive deeper into the mindset created by the Perpetual Sale. For now I will have to be comforted by the knowledge that I am not the only one who checked Steam every 8 hours over the past week despite owning a lifetime's worth of unplayed games.

A note on research methodology. The survey was conducted online using Typeform and publicized largely through Twitter and Reddit. No demographic or console preference data was collected, but the dataset likely skews towards PC gamers in North America and other English speaking countries. All averages reported in the article and infographic are median values and not mathematical averages; a small number of outliers with massive gaming backlogs would otherwise skew the data in non-representative ways. r values alluded to are Pearson's correlation coefficients calculated in Excel.

This article originally appeared on January 3 2014.

Ethan Levy is a 11-year veteran as a game designer and producer. He has contributed to over 35 shipped games across every platform at developers including BioWare San Francisco and Pandemic Studios. He currently works a monetization design consultant as FamousAspect.