How Developers Are Gaming The Steam Sales [Updated]

It’s been happening for a while and people should have learned to expect it, but developers are still pulling the age-old trick of raising prices right before a sale, and it’s a bloody shameful practice.

Update: The story has been amended and some graphs have been removed or replaced in regards to correct inconsistencies in the original publication between data reflecting the US store with Australian prices.

In short: The price of Assassin’s Creed: Rogue and South Park: The Stick of Truth has remained consistent on the Australian and US stores, and the base price of Evolve has not changed on either the Australian or US store over the course of the year. XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s price has also remained unchanged on the Australian and US stores, and the original graphs and information relating to those games and 2K has been replaced. The information on Next Car Game is unchanged. Further notes are below.

When Steam sales began, it was much more difficult to keep a track of developers who would raise the price of their game, only to slap a seemingly huge discount on it afterwards. It’s something retailers have been doing for aeons, and therefore it shouldn’t be any surprise to see developers doing it in Steam’s current exploration sales.

Except there’s one problem. In Australia, the practice is considered misleading. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission says that businesses have to ensure they don’t deceive consumer when it comes to “the savings that may be achieved” on discounted items.

“Statements such as ‘Was $150/Now $100’ or ‘$150 Now $100’ are likely to be misleading if products have not been sold at the specified ‘before’ or ‘strike through’ prices in a reasonable period immediately before the sale commences,” the ACCC writes.

Take Next Car Game: Wreckfest, the spiritual successor to the FlatOut series. According to SteamSpy, it’s been selling for US$30 for ages. Today, it’s selling for US$20, which seems like a decent deal. But it’s supposedly 50% off.

How? It’s because the developer very stealthily raised the original price of the game to US$40 before the sale began. They certainly didn’t do it “in a reasonable period immediately before the sale commences”. SteamSpy tells us that the game was selling for US$30 on November 25, and the day after it’s “original price” magically went to US$40.

They’re not the only offenders though.

Entering stage right: Assassin’s Creed: Unity.

The game’s been going for US$40 for the better part of a month or so. Yesterday, the price of the game dropped to US$35 — while the original price soared so they could stick a big discount sign on it. But, incredibly, Unity’s not being discounted any more. At the time of writing it’s back up to US$49.95, with no discount at all.

Here’s recording the AC: Unity Steam Sale Rollercoaster, and the current pricing:

US$40 with no discount from October 13. Then the price of the game goes to US$34.99 with a 50% discount. Ahem. And now it’s back at it’s original price — because Unity’s been bundled in a two-game pack with Assassin’s Creed: Rogue.

Steamprices has another comparison highlighting it well. To maintain consistency with the above, this graph is showing the bump in US pricing, but you can follow through to the site and replace with the AU pricing to get the same result.

Here’s the bundle’s discount as of writing (from the US store, to maintain consistency with the above), showing Unity and Rogue at their original prices.

Sure, you are still getting a better deal at the end of the day — but it’s strange for a major publisher to be squeaking an extra few dollars in this fashion.

But it’s not just the big end of town that wants your money: little teams pull this stuff as well.

Auto Dearlership Tycoon isn’t a popular game. It’s got 94 reviews on Steam; most of them aren’t very good. Steam Charts says the game has only enjoyed a peak of 249 players at its highest, with an average amount of 20 players (rounded down) over the last 30 days.

It launched towards the end of October this year for US$4.99 on the Australian and US stores, but right now it’s selling for US$4.79 on both stores at a 20% discount — because the developer raised the base price of the game to US$5.99.

Here’s SteamSpy showing the US price for the business simulator since launch:

The Australian data from Steam Prices shows the increase flowed through to locals here, and SteamDB conveniently has overlaid the historical US pricing with the current price on Australian stores in one neat package (although in this instance, they are the one and the same).

Amendment: The original story said, at 2K’s behest, the base prices of Evolve and XCOM: Enemy Unknown had been changed upon the beginning of the current Steam sale and then discounted down, similar to the instances above. This has not been the case. Evolve’s price has remained consistent before and after sales periods on the Australian and US stores throughout the year, as correlated by SteamDB and Steam Prices (SteamSpy only tracks price data going back a month).

The original graphs for XCOM: Enemy Unknown also contained inconsistent data across the Australian and US stores, and those have also been pulled. Inconsistent data across website trackers was found in relation to XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s pricing earlier in the year, however nothing conclusive can be drawn. As a result, the original imputation against XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Evolve and 2K was incorrect, and the company and its representatives have my apologies.

Further updates are to follow.

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