We’re Buying More PC Games Than We Can Play

We’re Buying More PC Games Than We Can Play

As another Steam Holiday Sale comes to a close, I have spent roughly $100 to purchase 22 games. In the past two months I have picked up three 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 1400 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 six consoles and three handhelds. Fifty 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 OK, I tell myself. When I buy Papo y Yo along with six 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 1400 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 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 publicised 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.

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 monetisation design consultant as FamousAspect.


    • That’s how “averages” tend to work… I have 6 for example (I don’t buy a lot of games, mainly opting to play free to play)

    • How is that even possible, I mean at some point you are literally pouring money down the drain. Doesn’t that bother you?

      My pile of shame right now consists of about 10 games, however of those games all are recent purchases that Im playing simultaneously. At most I have a 5 or so games that would actually constitute a back log.

      Though I should note that I don’t count games i’m never going to play yet still own. I currently have only 45 games on steam (It’s a high end machine but I mainly use it for mmo’s and pc only titles most of my gaming is console). However on that list I have only played 15 odd titles. Yet there is only 2 that I haven’t played that I’m wanting and willing to play and that is because the rest came free with XX or in bundles where buying the whole bundle for 1 game was cheaper than getting it separately (few humble bundles for less than a maccas coke too). So to me they don’t count as I have no intention of ever playing them.

      The last few years is also the ONLY time I’ve ever had a pile of “shame” too, the reason being not that i’ve bought more games or anything of the sort but because I’ve been chronically ill for 4 1/2 years now and don’t have the ability to play the vast majority of the time so I stock pile games for when i can. (i’d actually say i game and purchase alot less than previously and only get the best titles instead of anything i can get my hands on, probably the reason im more critical of games these days).

      But anyway i’m rambling, I suppose i’m asking why do you keep buying games that you would play if you had the time but know you never will? (outside of a charity or something which shouldn’t account for much). Not having a go or anything, just generally curious as to why, unless money isn’t a factor you even think about in which case i can understand.

      • Doesn’t that bother you?

        Nope. I buy games for 4 or 5 bucks here and there. I finish a game here and there if I have the time. I’ve never bothered finishing Just Cause 2, but I’ve had… jeez… on 360 and PC now over the years possibly HUNDREDS of hours of fun in the open world?

        I just like playing games, there’s certain games like RPG’s I will power through til the end, GTA games as well. Others, like FPS, I either will or won’t. Depending on the game itself. My son plays my Steam account too, he’s probably finished more of them than I have lol. But, in the end, I’ll get around to finishing most of them one day, I’ve also reached the point where I don’t want to buy too many more Steam games. This sale I bought… 4? Maybe? But didn’t end up spending more than 30 bucks all up. Not too shabby considering each was 75% off and I nabbed Space Engineers in there (a top little game!)

        • I think personally it’s wrong to classify games unfinished as in the pile of shame when games as you say like Just Cause 2, you kind of get the most out of in the first few hours and then maaaybe will finish the extremely meh story at some point when the game regains its fun factor for you.

          Pile of shame should be more like, games you haven’t played for at least a “few” hours.

          • Yeah, my pile of shame numbers in the literally hundreds, and I’m only counting ones I haven’t played at all.

      • It hurts less when I don’t think about it! j/k =P

        Actually My steam pile is rather manageable I’m not really into the whole steam sale bundle. The first and only bundle sale I grabbed the iD bundle a year or so back for the Doom/Hexen games which I loved back in the days (having all of Commander Keen was also awesome!) A majority of games I have already grabbed off steam ages ago and played a majority of all already w/ the exception of the odd indie platformer/rpg thats come out this year.

        My physical pile of shame however is a different story and encompasses games back till the PSX days =P Part of this is because I couldn’t acquire some of these older games back then on my HS days either through a lack of funds (HS and lack of income =P) or because it’s an overseas release only. The rest of my pile for recent games/ce’s is because I’m a “collector”. I’m personally none to fussed to be honest. Some people spend money building a music collection. Some spend it on their cars. My poison is video games =P

    • You’re not alone there, I’m coming up to 150 total games but my shame pile is already at about 120.

    • I dunno about that.. Centrelink goes a long way if you’re not wasting it on drugs or booze heh. Not much else to do in such circumstance but play games in between sending resume’s etc.

    • This is precisely why I do keep buying Steam games despite the massive backlog.

      I see it as doing my bit to keep PC gaming profitable because it would be a shame to see consoles be the only choice for most games. There are enough console-only franchises, exclusives and complete (e.g. NBA2K missing half the features on PC) versions these days as it is.

      There’s also some comfort in having the game there for when you feel like playing it. some of my favourite gaming experiences have been in finally playing a long-lost game for the first time.

  • Well if I wasn’t buying an incredible amount of games I wasn’t playing then I’d probably be pirating a bunch of games I wasn’t playing so… better I suppose.

  • My purchasing habits tend to revolve around a combination of price and curiosity. When a game is something that looks mildly interesting but probably won’t be something I’ll dig, I’ll likely get it when its under $10 then if I play it once and think it was nothing special it’s not a great loss but if it turns out to be a gem in the rough then it’s a pleasant surprise.

    I occasionally pre-buy things for the same reason, a game that looks okay but not fantastic I’d not buy for $50-60 but when GMG have a preorder discount and coupon and I can get it for $37.50, I’m way more likely to give it a shot. Day Z is another example, it’s something I’ve been moderately curious about for a while, not sure if it’ll be my thing but it comes out for $30 and it’ll only get more expensive as it nears release so I thought I might as well grab it now.

    With GOG stuff, I mostly get games I missed when they were new, a fair chunk of my library there is games where my review is “Damn glad I didn’t pay full price for this piece of shit” but for $6-10, its all good.

  • “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.”

    This is me exactly, which is one of the many reasons I can’t get into console gaming.
    I just hit over 500 games on Steam… Can’t imagine how much I would have spent if it was console games 😛

  • I also have the problem of people gifting me games that I’m not going to play, either because they have extra copies or because they’re trying to get me to play them. You can tell which games I intend to play and which I don’t because the ones I am actually going to play are in my Favorites section; everything else isn’t. Of the games I have, maybe 40-50% I intend to play; the rest I’ve either already played and they had no replay value (e.g. From Dust, Limbo), I got stuck and couldn’t finish it (Osmos, Braid), I got bored with it or hated it (Torchlight, Mount & Blade) or I just have zero intention of ever playing it (The Ship, Jamestown).

    But a lot of the time, either I haven’t played it because I’m playing something else (one at a time thing) or in the case of a lot of the games in alpha I have, I haven’t played them because I’m waiting for more content.

  • On Steam alone I own 441 games. Due to internet cap, I have only downloaded 299 of those games. Due to time, I’ve played only about 150 of those games. And of those 150 games, I may have actually beaten 20.

    • Any full completions (100% achievements)? I’ve got about 500 games myself, but only one full completion.

      • I’ve got just over 500 myself, only 1 Perfect Game.
        Would be 2 if I could be bothered to get the final few achievements I have left for borderlands 1 😛

      • I don’t agree that 100% completion merits anything really. Though its a great sign you 100%’d that one game – that has more to do with that game probably than general gaming. Most games just throw in so much stupid accomplishment just because they think people expect a game to last a certain amount of time – thus in many cases, becoming a variable form of padding, depending on how bland the actual game is.

        • I don’t think I have ever completed all achievements on any game, and I’m sort of proud of that. It means I’m playing the game rather than letting the game play me.

          I do have an absurdly large pile of shame and fit pretty firmly into the “compulsive collector” category. However, as far as I’m concerned a game is only on my “pile of shame” if I haven’t played it, or stopped playing it before it stopped being engaging / fun. There’s nothing shameful in refusing to spend your leisure time on a game that is not interesting to play.

          If I had been stupid enough to buy Aliens: Colonial Marines, for example, I would probably mark it off as soon as the opening credits rolled (by all accounts).

  • I had 8 titles in my cart, then the Steam site got crappy. By the time it came back on line, I had another look and decided I really didn’t want the games, they just seemed like such a great deal, 8 good games for $50.
    I decided to empty the cart and spend the $50 on something I would actually use instead.

    • Good deal. This is a very common strategy for deciding if you really want something or not, and something that LH have covered many times – it’s usually best to wait at least 24 hours, and if you still want it, to buy it. Great way to avoid buyers remorse.

  • Last weekend before going back to work. I’m on the verge of finishing *one* game I’ve been playing for the past few weeks I’ve probably picked up about twenty in the same time from steam sales.

    I didn’t need to see these numbers! :p

  • I just proved this theory with Farcry 3, bought it for $9. I love so much of it but the save game is so appalling I can bare to log in after an hour in the game. Cant save in mission, when you die it throws you back to some camp but cant restarted that save and try it again. So much stupidity.

    Bad save game mechanic=death of enjoyment. If a game as huge and complex as Skyrim lets you save where and when you want, why cant this?

  • For me it’s also about being curious and keeping an open-mind about games I haven’t played. I will sometimes discover entire genres I probably wouldn’t have taken notice of if I had to pay full price.
    I can never really tell if I am going to like a game after reading reviews and a lot of the time I have the most fun with games I didn’t expect to like so the Steam sales are a great opportunity to try new games and add variety to my collection, even if i don’t end up liking/playing all of them.
    Either way, I think it’s infinetly better than playing the same boring old games like Call of Duty or Halo for thousands of hours, Yuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck!

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