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Full Steam Ahead Special Episode: The Steam Summer Sale

Every year, at the beginning of the Steam Summer Sale, at least one of my friends on facebook, or one of my blogs, is guaranteed to post the following video:

To me, the Steam Summer Sale is more akin to this:

There’s a lot going on in those two videos, so I’ll do my best to explicate them for you. The man featured in each video is Gabe Newell. Gabe, sometimes called Gaben, is the president of Valve. In addition to being the company which owns and operates Steam, Valve and Gabe Newell are also responsible for the some of the most popular and critically acclaimed games in the new millennium.

The first video features Gabe Newell in religious regalia, while the discount logos used during Steam Sales rain down from the heavens all around him. The meaning of this video is clear: Gabe Newell and the miraculous Steam Summer Sale are here to make your life better.

The second video is a little more complicated. It features a subtitled and edited version of a seminal moment in the anime series Attack on Titan. In the series, the last survivors of the human race are trapped behind walls, while mysterious, gigantic monsters, the titular titans, threaten to devour and destroy humanity. In the original scene, a character muses that in the time since the last major titan attack humanity has made great progress towards protecting itself from the monsters, only to be blindsided by the series’ largest titan. However, in this version, the colossal titan is none other than Gabe Newell, and the debris from the attack is discount logos.

Just as many shoppers have come to enjoy the potential savings of Boxing Day, or the annual human demolition derby that is Black Friday, so too has the Steam Summer Sale become something of an event on the calendars of PC gamers. During the one or two weeks of the sale, Steam becomes a veritable wonderland of vast savings. Considering that computer gaming isn’t exactly a cheap hobby, the appeal of having a consistent annual sale, especially one which features massive discounts, is greatly appreciated.

Steam sales are sort of like Black Friday, but with lower injury rates.

True, Steam usually has sales of some kind, be it for certain game series, or games by a certain developer, or themed sales such as anime, or sports. Steam also has a spring sale, as well as autumn and winter sales, and these sales are almost always decent value, but none have quite the scale or the surrounding fanfare that accompany the Steam Summer Sale.

Thousands of games on Steam are reduced in price. Some especially popular or interesting games are selected as daily deals, reducing their price by 50%, or 66% or 75%, or 90%, or more. This is the cause of the one character from “Attack on Gaben” berating one of his comrades for not ‘waiting “until it’s daily”, meaning they purchased the game at a mere 15% discount.

I’m no stranger to the Summer Sale. As my library and backlog of games on Steam may indicate, I’ve spent plenty of time scouring the pages of Steam looking for good deals on games I wanted. Sometimes, I would see a daily deal on a game recommended by friends or reviewers. Sometimes, I would see a game at such a ludicrously low price that I would buy it just out of curiosity. The Steam distribution platform makes buying games easier than ever, and with features like the Summer Sale, it makes it a great deal more affordable.

However, there is a certain unease I feel about this. The Summer Sale has always been a big deal, but I remember the year they introduced badges: small collectable pictures you could obtain through playing certain games – or by purchasing games during the Summer Sale. I remember the year that Steam was randomly split up into five teams, rewarding teams for completing certain tasks relating to the site, such as voting for games to get discounted, making game wishlists – or by purchasing games during the Summer Sale.

This year, or to be honest, the last several years, I’ve actively tried to avoid the Steam Summer Sale. I’ve made this decision for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, I want to save money. It seems a bit odd to say, but I’m fairly certain that the years I actively participated in the Summer Sale cost me more money than I would have spent without sales, merely because of the massive deals in play.

Buying games, as a game: customers are rewarded with badges.

Also, I find the metagame surrounding the sales to be… uncomfortable. I’m not any kind of economist, and I’m not sure it’s my place to be criticizing a business for making money, especially when said business provides a service I genuinely enjoy, and provides it for less cost than my local brick-and-mortar games store. However, past Steam Summer Sales have emphasized the game of collecting these badges, the game of competing against the other Summer Sale teams. Essentially, Steam and Valve found a way to turn the act of buying games into a game.I find the idea of buying games to earn points and badges which in turn let you buy more games to be the sort of dangerous cycle that if I saw it on the street, I’d call it a scam.

However, Steam has, at least partially, backed away from some of the more gamified aspects of the Summer Sale. It’s still massive, it’s still heavily advertised, and it’s still very tempting to drop less than I would for a fancy meal and own all the games on my wishlist, but it doesn’t feel as manipulative as it once did. At least now I feel like the only games I would be playing while doing so would the the games I purchased, and the race between my appetite and my next paycheque.

That’s hyperbolic, of course, but in case the two videos at the start of this post didn’t tip you off – one featuring Gabe Newell as the Messiah, the other featuring him as the gargantuan destroyer of humanity – the Steam Summer Sale is grandiose; why shouldn’t our affection, our criticism, and our commentary follow suit?

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