Some Truly Fascinating Numbers on Video Game Economics

Back in October, Valve co-founder Gabe Newell explained the economics of video games as his company sees it. The Geekwire article is worth the read. For now, I’ll point out that he admits “We don’t understand what’s going on” and uses the language of co-creation of value, which I happen to believe is the current future as it were, to describe what the company is doing:

This is probably the biggest change that’s affected the gaming business over the last few years. It’s not just that we have digital distribution to our customers. It’s that we have this incredible two-way connection that we’ve never had before with our customers.
We’ve gone from a situation where we dream up a game, we spend three years making it, we put it in a box, we put it out in stores, we hope it sells, to a situation that’s incredibly more fluid and dynamic, where we’re constantly modifying the game with the participation of the customers themselves

The comments on piracy comport with insights from other industries:

One thing that we have learned is that piracy is not a pricing issue. It’s a service issue. The easiest way to stop piracy is not by putting antipiracy technology to work. It’s by giving those people a service that’s better than what they’re receiving from the pirates. For example, Russia. You say, oh, we’re going to enter Russia, people say, you’re doomed, they’ll pirate everything in Russia. Russia now outside of Germany is our largest continental European market. … the people who are telling you that Russians pirate everything are the people who wait six months to localize their product into Russia. … So that, as far as we’re concerned, is asked and answered. It doesn’t take much in terms of providing a better service to make pirates a non-issue.

The information on pricing is really cool. “[W]e varied the price of one of our products. We have Steam so we can watch user behavior in real time. That gives us a useful tool for making experiments which you can’t really do through a lot of other distribution mechanisms. What we saw was that pricing was perfectly elastic. In other words, our gross revenue would remain constant. We thought, hooray, we understand this really well. There’s no way to use price to increase or decrease the size of your business.”

Yet he goes on to describe how sales such as a 75% price reduction lead to a “gross revenue increased by a factor of 40.” They tested against a product they did not own and saw similar results. Then they tested free. It turns out free to play and and free work differently. His thought is that the user base matters because they value the products differently including “what the statement that something is free to play implies about the future value of the experience that they’re going to have.”

Furthermore, conversion rates shift too. Free to play often “see[s] about a 2 to 3 percent conversion rate of the people in their audience who actually buy something, and then with Team Fortress 2, which looks more like Arkham Asylum in terms of the user profile and the content, we see about a 20 to 30 percent conversion rate of people who are playing those games who buy something.”

What do all these tests mean? As Newell said, it’s unclear. That is why I could see some rather cool studies being done for this emerging area.

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