How to Navigate Steam Sales as an Indie Dev

We’ve reached a point in the digital distribution of video games now where there is always a sale of some kind, somewhere online. These never-ending discounts have reshaped the PC market and dictate how a large majority of customers now engage with and purchase games. With this change, we’ve seen tools such as Wishlists become ever more important. Interested players might prefer to follow the titles they’re interested in and await their inevitable discount in the next sale, instead of buying them full price day one. It’s particularly important indie devs understand this digital landscape and how it functions to better take advantage of it in a period of stiff competition for visibility and success.

This article will primarily cover Steam but the sale mentality doesn’t end there. Game distribution sites such as Humble Bundle, Green Man Gaming and the variety of ‘key’ provider sites also offer games well below full price. Getting your head around these avenues to market and how to take advantage of them should be crucial to any PR plan laid out for your game. Approaching sales with the right attitude and planning could significantly increase chances of success in a market often described as oversaturated.

Sales Fatigue

The first thing you’re probably going to ask yourself is, ‘should I put my game on sale?’. It’s a good question, you wouldn’t want to potentially undercut what people are willing to pay for your game. There isn’t a lot of hard data out there to definitively answer this, but there is a lot of anecdotal evidence put forward by developers through post-mortems. These suggest that sales can be a significant booster to a game’s lifetime revenue and increase visibility long after your initial release window. Sales aren’t just for the latter stages of your game’s lifespan though. It’s quite common for developers to offer discounts on launch during the first few days to help bolster sales and help you reach that all-important trending list.

Although, that might not be as easy for indies anymore with Steam’s reported algorithm changes. Still, thinking about sales from the get-go is important in today’s digital landscape, especially so if you’re launching exclusively on PC. Price your game wrong, or don’t take sales into account when you’re launching and it could have a significant impact on launch sales. So, it’s something to have a long think about. And, don’t forget, you don’t have to put your game on sale or include it in a bundle. If you feel the pricing is exactly right then stick to it, it’s never a good look to greatly undervalue your work and there have been plenty of successful games that have never been on sale.

The Rules

If you think your game could potentially benefit from taking part in the deluge of sales now part and parcel of the industry then it’s important you understand the rules, particularly on Steam as they’re quite rigid. Here is a bullet point breakdown of everything you’ll need to know.

  • If you run a discount on launch you can’t run any other discounts for two months.

That means if you’re looking to launch in the Summer it might not be worth doing a launch discount and instead opt to participate in the Steam Summer Sale, which tends to get a lot of attention from press and players alike.

  • Discounts cannot be run within two months of each other unless they are Valve organised Steam events.

For instance, you could participate in the Winter Sale and then the Lunar (New Year) Sale but you couldn’t run your own discount in December and then participate in the Lunar Sale without waiting two months.

  • You can’t discount your game for 30 days following a price increase.

This is particularly important for games leaving Early Access, as you can’t increase the price at Early Access launch and also run a launch discount.

  • You can’t discount a game by 100% and you can’t change your price once a promotion is live.

And, remember you can’t take part in a seasonal sales event within 30 days of releasing your game, so plan accordingly if that’s what you want to do.

  • Launch discounts kick in as soon as you release your game and only last for seven days. There’s also a 40% off cap on this discount, but between 10% – 15% would be considered the norm.

There’s plenty of other sales too, such as midweek madness and weekend deals, but Steam directly contact you for involvement in these. This is a general overview of the basic rules, and only for Steam. Although, you can imagine most online marketplaces that sell games have similar restrictions.

The Important Sales

Across the year there are a number of high-profile sales periods you should be aware of if you intend to take advantage of strategically discounting your game. This will focus on Steam’s sale schedule in particularly because, as the largest platform, they tend to set the trends that other providers follow. Here’s a breakdown of what to expect throughout any given year.

To start us off we have Steam’s Lunar New Year Sale. This runs from early February for around two weeks thereafter. Next on the sales schedule tend to come the Easter discount offerings, which take place around April time, although Steam doesn’t have an official promotion for this. Following this, we have the first of the two biggest sale periods, the Summer Sale. The Summer Sale has grown over the years to become one of the most well-known Steam promotions with many other online retailers now offering similar discounts at that time. This is definitely one to consider if your release window is sitting around this time.

Roughly at the end of October, we see the Halloween sales kick in with Steam offering their own official version of this. Of course, the focus tends to be horror games, so games such as Unicorn Rainbow Adventure might not perform as well unless the title is extremely misleading that is. Next, we have the Autumn Sale which always lands around Thanksgiving time. This tends to be one of the smaller sales with many people holding out for the highly-anticipated end of year discounts. Which brings us to the final sale of the year, the Winter Sale, also known as the Christmas Sale, which runs from late December until early January. Alongside the Summer Sale, this has also grown to be one the biggest sales of the year often representing many Game of the Year contenders as well as Steam Awards winners.

On top of this, you can usually expect a Black Friday or Cyber Monday sale as well, as many online distributors take advantage of this notorious discount week. This takes place at the end of November but Steam doesn’t usually promote this as it would one of its larger official sales.

It’s safe to assume that the majority of other big platforms follow Steam’s now established sales calendar with the Summer and Winter Sales serving as the two main discount periods.

As you can see, sales have become an integral part of the PC market which has filtered across to the console and mobile platforms over the last few years. It’s important from a marketing perspective to understand and adjust to this landscape even if you don’t intend to put your game on sale. This is especially important for indies, as you can imagine the disadvantages of releasing your game at a time when some of Steam’s most popular games are heavily discounted. This should be factored into your PR and marketing plans from the start with the view to examine the advantages, and disadvantages of the yearly sales schedule that the industry now operates on.