Steam Sales may be the canniest thing Valve has ever done, and that's saying something. Poised cunningly at the beginning of the game industry's traditional summer release drought, Steam Sales take advantage of the months ahead with no major game launches and millions of gamers with ample free time on their hands. It's a formula for wealth, even discounting the furtive hoarding tendencies of our kind.
This year, the juxtaposition of the 2014 Steam Sale's aftermath (it ended Monday) with the announcement of July's free games for PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live Gold subscribers made for an interesting contrast. The steady stream of "free" (with a paid subscription) games on offer for the leading consoles doesn't begin to compare in scope to the buffet of cheap buys up for grabs on Steam. But the two gaming ecosystems represent very distinct approaches, and the contrast quite effectively encapsulates the difference between PC and console gaming.
On the Steam side, there's almost a hoarder mentality at work: With so many games to choose from, at such rock-bottom prices, you practically feel compelled to grab as many as possible just for the sake of owning them. Pundits and publishers alike have spilled quite a bit of ink on the deleterious effect of Valve's fire sale approach. By reducing games to bargain bin prices long before they bottom out at retail, critics argue, Steam Sales only serve to reinforce the mindset that software has little value — a counterproductive perspective in an era where the cost of creating games rivals or exceeds that of Hollywood blockbusters.
True or not, there's no denying that most online conversations to spring up in the aftermath of this year's Steam Sale seem demonstrate a sort of rueful regret, like someone confessing they ate too much the night before as they struggle to fasten their trousers over their protruding belly. Steam Sales encourage a consumerist gluttony, and I've easily lost count of how many confessions I've read that say essentially the same thing: "I don't know why I bought all these games, because I'm never going to play most of them."
By contrast, Sony and Microsoft's free(-ish) games represent a very different philosophy about games. They're treated as precious commodities, parceled out in measured doses — enough to create the perception that subscribers are getting a good value for the money they sink into their subscriptions while also maintaining the conviction that the games, too, have value.
In Sony's case, that balance lands at six games spread across multiple platforms: Two each for PlayStation Vita (Doki Doki Universe and Muramasa Rebirth), PlayStation 3 (Vessel and Dead Space 3), and PlayStation 4 (Strider and TowerFall Ascension). These six titles represent a remarkably broad range of genres, styles, and budgets, from the ultra-casual to the AAA blockbuster. For Microsoft, on the other hand, three seems to be the magic number: The freshly released Guacamelee Super Turbo Championship Edition for Xbox One, and Gotham City Imposters and BattleBlock Theatre for Xbox 360.
Yet this approach too has its drawbacks. Being subscriber-only offers, these games require a hefty annual outlay in order to be accessed, which throws their designation as "free" games into question. Any game a subscriber downloads during its time as a free release remains in their library to be played whenever, which leads to hoarding all the same as Steam Sales. But unlike Steam, if you let your subscription to Xbox Live Gold or PS Plus lapse, you immediately lose access to all your free games. Theoretically, renewing a lapsed subscription will restore access to that library, though you don't have to look hard on gaming forums to find frustrated complaints from subscribers for whom that didn't hold true. So not only does it perpetuate the perceived devaluation of the backlog mindset, it also offers none of the relative permanence of Steam.
Which approach, then, is the better one? Or are both intrinsically flawed? Personally, I find myself disappointed by both the mindset Steam engenders as well as the limitations of the console approach.
What frustrates me most, I think, is how little the games industry's sales models have really changed on a philosophical level over the past three decades. Even with the advent of digital distribution and other contemporary delivery mechanisms, the fundamental divide between the PC and console space isn't much different from the way things were in the '80s. Console makers continue to clutch their wares in an attempt to wring every droplet of profit from consumers — particularly Nintendo, a company only too happy to sell you the same game on multiple platforms and charge you full price each time —while the PC market continues to struggle against the human desire to get as much as possible for as little money as possible. One side greatly protects the corporate side of the equation at the expense of consumers, while the other offers a bounty of riches to consumers but potentially throws creators under the bus. After all this time, can we really not find a comfortable middle ground?