Monday, January 13, 2014

Digital Backlogs: Don't Be Ashamed

Recently, Polygon and Kotaku posted articles about a problem that a lot of people ruminate on... that of the digital backlog people who use Steam and other digital services develop as they use them.

Whenever this kind of topic gets brought up, especially when it comes to digital libraries, the question that a lot of commenters tend to ask is: why do you buy all these games that you don't play?

From someone who has quite a collection of digital games, I have a few answers for those people.

But the first thing we have to discuss is how people get large libraries in the first place. There are three real factors in terms of library inflation that people who aren't part of the community wouldn't really understand, because they haven't really experienced it.

Indie Game Bundles

This is a huge culprit in library inflation. So many times, even with "beat the average" pricing, paying for a full bundle just to get 1 or 2 titles ends up being cheaper than getting those titles individually, even when they are on sale. And in buying the bundle, you end up with a group of games you never really wanted in the first place, but which are now part of your library. You never wanted it, you didn't put your money into the bundle to have it, but now you own it, and I am sure there are other people who have huge libraries would tell you the same story about a sizable amount of their collection. It is like you are buying dinner at a restaurant, and you just want a burger at a reasonable price, but with the meal you end up with a huge platter of fries as well, most of which you will never eat, and you'll just bring it home, stick it in your fridge and never think about them again. Well, not until you look at your fridge and wonder how it got so full so fast.

Digital Store Game Bundles

At Steam this sort of thing used to be more common but in recent years, the number of bundles that they offer has been greatly reduced. However, they still tend to offer franchise bundles, which can end up being very tempting. For example, during the most recent Steam Winter Sale, the most recent Tomb Raider game had a few days when it was 80% off, making it 10 dollars. There was also a package that was the reboot plus every other Tomb Raider game on Steam for 4 dollars more, so if you had any interest in playing the older titles, well, paying a little more to have them all seems to make sense. Even off of Steam this happens. Recently I bought a D&D bundle from Good Old Games, which was 10 games, 7 of which I wanted. When I tried to remove one of the games I did not want, the price of the remaining games skyrocketed, so it was in my financial interest to buy them all. So in this scenario, you are buying a number of games to get most or all of them for future play. There was another short-time sale during the most recent Steam sale where there was a game (Toki Tori 2) which was more expensive by itself than the bundle it was also included in by a decent margin. Would you pay 4 dollars for a game or 2 something in a package that has 3 other games in it when confronted with a choice like that? I have a feeling nearly everyone would pick the latter.

One Game, Multiple Listings

Then there are times when you buy a game, and you end up with multiple game listings for it in your library, each of which count as a different title. Sometimes it is a game and its expansion, sometimes it is the game and then its beta version, but each time that happens, it inflates the size of the library, making it look like there are more games than there actually are. The most egregious example of this kind of thing in my own library was the Arma X Anniversary Edition which I bought in December. It is basically 2 games... but every expansion that came with it ends up with its own listing in my library, ballooning it to 8 games. Telltale Games' Back To The Future game has individual listings for each of the chapters of the game. These are just two common examples, and because a not statistically insignificant number of games do this, the number of games most people have in their library is smaller than what Steam counts them as.


When you take these factors into account, I think it is likely that for the average Steam user, if they were to eliminate titles that fit into these three categories and merely counted games that they willingly bought, their library size would shrink by at least 40% if not more.

Now, I am not going to say how many games I have on Steam, but I will say that it is a substantial number. Even when you filter for the factors I've discussed above, I still have a sizable library of games that I've purchased willingly and that I have not yet played.

My own rationale for having so many games is really a matter of choice. I like having options, if I am looking for something to scratch a particular itch and only a new experience will do it. So if I am looking for a hard platformer, I have a few just waiting to be played. If I want a RPG with choices and morality, I have a few of those. If I want racing, grand strategy, management, fighting, open world... I have games on hand that I can just install and play any time I am in the mood.

If a game is sitting in my library unplayed, it also means that I bought it on sale, likely at 75% off. I've done the rough math on this and it turns out it isn't that bad. If I bought all the games that I've played so far at full price and compared that price to the amount I've spent on amassing my library, I've spent about 20% more to have these options. I think that is a more than fair trade-off really.

As I was writing this piece, it occurred to me that many of the same people who ask their fellow players why they buy so many games that they don't play likely use a service which gives them access to vast amounts of content that there is absolutely no expectation they are going to get through in its entirety.

I'm of course talking about Netflix and Hulu Plus (amongst other services). And what about people with DVR's full of shows they haven't watched? They are paying a fee every month for those services Why are using those services socially acceptable and encouraged, but somehow having the same kind of freedom in terms of a video game library, especially in the digital realm, is not?

In essence, we are both paying for entertainment, but somehow the person with a digital game library with unplayed titles is looked at with a little bit of derision, like somehow we are all doing something silly at best and completely idiotic at worst. I think that is a profound disconnect.

Even the language we use to describe having a gaming backlog works to perpetuate that same disconnect, because think about how often the word shame is used. You don't just have a backlog, you have a pile/stack of shame or shameful backlog. If you have a lot of unwatched movies, TV shows or unread books, one very rarely refers to that as something you should actively be ashamed of. If you put "pile of shame" into Google, you get almost 1.4 million results, with all the top results being about games. Movies and books pop up once in a while, but it is usually about games.

To me, a pile of shame sounds like the phrase you would use to tell someone who had, in a drunken fit, defecated or vomited on your carpet that they did so... that they left you a pile of shame. It shouldn't be used to describe some entertainment products that you haven't yet experienced.

Having a backlog shouldn't be a bad thing. Having options shouldn't be a bad thing. I think it is time for people to stop apologizing and feeling defensive about having more than a few games they haven't played. We have them and we shouldn't feel ashamed about them anymore.

And yes, the irony that I am finishing a post where I defended having a backlog with a statement about not feeling defensive about having one is not lost on me. 

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