The Basic Psychology Behind The Steam Summer Sale, Explained

It seems you can't discuss the Steam Summer Sale without doing one of the following: Personifying your wallet and mourning some injury done to it; bemoaning all the unplayed games you have before piling another on it; commanding friends to buy a game, more for the price than the game and, of course, buying games.

It's all a bit cliché, but give the devils their due, Steam has made the summer sale into more than an event or a quasi-holiday. It has become almost a gamer's duty. And getting to that kind of blind followership takes more than just tossing out a bunch of games at impulse-buy prices.

The Psychology of Video Games examines five psychological hooks to separate you from your dough and, perhaps more importantly, keep you visiting and revisiting the Steam store to see what else is coming down the chute. The tactics: artificial scarcity; psychological reactance; "a bias towards completion"; commitmment and consistency and random reward schedules.

If you haven't taken, say, a 200-level psychology course yet, you should head on over to the article and read through it, so you're a little more informed about what impulses the sale is activating in you. Of these, the "bias toward completion" seems to me to be the most insidious.

That's related to the Summer Getaway Card collecting program, where you get one — a virtual card — for every $US10 spent, roughly. Steam then shows you the progress bar which, author Jamie Madigan notes, plays to human nature of not wanting to leave something undone. Again, these are virtual card sets. And to complete one, you'll have to spend about $US100.

Valve has a lot of goodwill, and the Steam Sale is one part of it. A bunch of games sold at discount beats the alternative, a bunch of games sold at full price, after all. There still is some manipulation going on here because, frankly, that's what marketing and putting on a sale is all about. So read up on it, and if you still want Dishonored for $US10.19 — great (and damn, that is a fine price). But you'll be making a more affirmative choice for the purchase, instead of an excuse to do so.

The Psychology Behind Steam's Summer Sale [The Psychology of Video Games]


    The other side is that a fair few gamers save up money specifically hold off on buying games throughout the year and wait for it to go down in price, much like some people do in the shops at January sales. This means that really you buy far too many games in a short period of time and you don't get the excitement of 'oooo I have a new game, I'm devoting all of my immediate time on it', instead after a Steam sale it's more like 'I have all these new games, not enough time to play them all, what should I play? Oh I know, I'll continue playing what I was playing before the sale even started'. The sales, as great as they are, take away the fun factor of buying a new game by, as you say, making it seem like you need to buy these games now just because they're on sale. I know I've been stuck in that trap through ever sale so far including this one and there's plenty of games I haven't (yet) played, but I have played some games I would never have even looked at twice before because they were on sale such as Bastion.

    Basically though I'm going to get more excitement from buying Rome 2 or GTA V at full price on day one than from the handful of games I've so far picked up in the Steam sale. I think I started off trying to make a point and gone off on a tangent. That takes me back to my uni dissertation

      You're dead right. I'm still far more excited for GTA V collectors (which I've already put the $170 down at EB) than I am for any of the games I picked up on steam this week which I hear are some pretty good games (Witcher 2 Enhanced edition, Deus Ex: HR, Hotline Miami and the missus got Sims: Medieval which she loves).

      I actually do impulse buy a lot of things on release. Dishonored is a fine example. Because dammit, it looked fantastic.

      Didn't bother with the DLC though. Now is an excellent time to pick up all those DLC packs which seemed just a tad too high to justify reinstalling their base game.

    Few articles about this popping up around the place. I recommend this one as a good, and more detailed, follow-up, by resident Kotaku reader and TAYbie @redartifice

    Can someone explain the point behind these cards other than to look pretty and fill up my inventory?

      You can craft "badges," which get you custom emoticons and backgrounds. You can also sell them on the market for Steam Credit. Which you can use to buy more games, and earn more badges, and make more cards, to craft more badges and....

        Last I heard cards were going for 30c a pop. *sigh*

          Depends on the "rarity." Still, if you're playing the game anyway, might be worth a crack. A guy over at Potaku has been fiddling with the system for a couple weeks, his writeup is well worth a look

          you can leave multiple games 'running' at the same time on their main menu and still get card drops. For me the only benefit will be selling them on the market. You won't get a great amount from each card but enough from 30-40 cards to grab a game on sale or some DLC.

            You can only run one game at a time on Steam, but yeah you can still idle them individually to get card drops.

          Yeah that's right. If you have a look in the market, they are running about $0.15. So rather then people spending $100+ trying to get the ones you need (being you can get multiple of the same card), they could just spend $1.80+ in the market.

    I couldn't care less about the cards. I don't even know what they do or how to use them. They're just a side effect of me buying games I've wanted for a very reasonable price. They have nothing to do with my decision to buy something.

    At the end of the day, all it comes down to is $$$

    For me last night it was:
    Step 1) finish monthly personal budget
    Step 2) check steam website just out of curiousity
    Step 3) see game I've been eyeing out for ages was on the community vote for a sale
    Step 4) Voted
    Step 5) Bought.

    Arguably, I was a gonner by step 2.

    Although j3st3r already covered it up there, I think this still needs addressing.
    "Again, these are virtual card sets. And to complete one, you’ll have to spend about $US100."
    If you vote every 8 hours and get lucky, you'll have the whole set (and two spare).
    If you vote every 8 hours and aren't lucky, you'll have 12 cards, some portion of which are doubles, triples and if you're particularly unlucky, quadruples.
    If you can only vote twice a day throughout the sale, you're still looking at 8 cards.
    The going price for cards last time I looked was a mere $0.21. Now (for the Summer cards I have at least) it's only $0.17-0.19.

    So even if you missed the whole sale or have something against voting but you wanted to be a gross nerd and actually pay for the cards, it would still only cost you less than $2.

    steam sale hasn't really done it for me this year, i probably bought to much stuff in the last sale and pretty much every humble bundle
    lot of the flash sales don't seem that great or a repeats from daily sale
    maybe it the different layout and presence of cards which do nothing for me
    also miss the developer packs
    basically waiting for skyrim to be 50-75% off

      Yeah haven't been that impressed. I think the Christmas sale was better. Some of the recent humble bundles I've been more impressed with.

    I know how I'm being manipulated. It doesn't bother me though because I get the games I want at a great price and strong encouragement to try new things I wouldn't normally because the full price isn't worth the risk. I just wish the card system was more compelling. If they made it a TCG instead, I would probably go broke in an hour and spend all my time playing games to earn cards.

    I've only bought Surgeon Simulator for a few dollars, no other deals are really that good to be honest..

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