Clouding My Mind: The Cleverness of Steam

Why are the Steam Sales are so darn effective?

As someone who’s worked in PR, sales, and marketing for a few years now, sometimes I like to think that I’m “above” the reach of typical advertising and market tactics. Just like someone who works in film can’t sit through a movie without picking apart the shots, or a game developer can’t help but analyze how well the character camera works with the level design, so it goes for us flacks. We see an animated web banner or a Black Friday flier, and we start thinking about whether the branding is effective, the virality of the content, the effectiveness of the messaging, and a lot of other buzzwords we are ashamed to know.

As such, it takes a very effective piece of marketing to make me take notice – and, rarely, to actually put me into a frenzy of drooling, ravenous, I’ve-gotta-buy-that consumerism. One company is able to do this to me, consistently, year after year: Valve, with their recurring holiday sales on Steam, their digital game distribution platform. The Steam Sales may well represent some of the smartest marketing in gaming and e-commerce today.

Plenty of other stores, digital and otherwise, have slashed prices during the holidays. What is it that drives me to spend my money on Steam, rather than Origin or Good Old Games?

Gamification that Goes Somewhere

By now, we’ve seen the places that gamification can apply, and read many times about its effectiveness in using game mechanics to engage people in everyday tasks. It’s easy to forget where the practices come from, and sometimes it seems charmingly, ironically “retro” to use gamification for actual games. The last few Steam Sales have found a use for gamification tactics that promote their catalog brilliantly.

Gamers have been split over the concept of achievements for their own sake for some time, but one would be hard-pressed to find someone unwilling to hunt in-game achievements when there are actual material rewards on the line. In their last few sales, Steam and its many partners have taken to adding new, themed achievements to their promoted titles, and attached tangible gains to them: complete a certain number of specific achievements, and you can wind up winning store discounts, exclusive DLC, or even free games in some cases.

These achievements, of course, are tied to a select list of promoted titles, which means you have to be lucky enough to own them to get those rewards. If you don’t own them, though, you’re in luck – those titles just happen to be on sale right now for a steep discount.

This, by itself, is wonderfully clever, and gives gamers an entirely new incentive (beyond a reduced price) to look into a title they might have never otherwise considered. Where the tactic really shines, however, is in areas some marketers fail to consider. For starters, the last few Steam Sales have seen an increasing number of these special achievements linked to free-to-play games, a genre Valve has started to heavily increase their efforts in lately. Maybe only a limited number of gamers are willing to justify a full purchase just to chase down a small reward, but far more are likely to spend some time checking out a free game if it means collecting valuable achievements and bonuses. Simply by adding an achievement, Steam has bought themselves probably thousands of fresh installs, and coaxed players into spending time trying out games they might not have ever given a second glance.

By making the achievements new, furthermore, Steam gets players to re-engage with older games, which may market even more effectively to current owners than potential buyers. I can recall, in a prior sale, seeing an achievement offered for a game I hadn’t played for over a year. I re-installed the title and started playing, in hopes of collecting that minor reward, but to my surprise, I found the game to be vastly changed and improved from my previous experiences! The developers had just issued a major update which might have flown under my radar, had I not been given a new incentive to play.

One little achievement and I had been converted back into an evangelist for the title. “Hey, have you played this one lately? Yeah, they just updated it – you should really check out all the new stuff, it’s like a whole new game. Oh, sweet, they’re about to offer some new DLC, too!”

I Wish I’d Thought of That

Advocates of Steam are quick to point out that the service is much more than a storefront; the platform includes a wealth of social features, including friends lists, voice chat, and so forth. The tool I find myself most focused on, lately, especially as it ties into the Steam Sales, is the simple inclusion of the game “Wishlist.”

The feature works just like you’d think it would, as it does on many popular e-commerce sites: you see a game you want but aren’t necessarily going to buy right now, and you add it to your wishlist. Your friends, subsequently, can take a peek at your profile at any time and see an ordered list of the games you’re interested in owning. It’s the most effective marketing tool in the world – actual recommendations (and/or requests) from people you know and trust. Of course, it only works if people take the time to use it. Amazon has a wishlist feature, but how many of you have actually taken the time to fill one out? How many of you have “friends” linked to your accounts on Amazon, or Wal-Mart?

Enter the “Wishlist Giveaway” from Steam, which popped up three weeks ago. Once a day for most of December, Steam awarded one lucky user the top ten games from their wishlist. Entering the contest was free; the only catch was that, to be eligible, you had to actually have at least ten items on your wishlist. Have you put together the brilliance of this move yet?

The end result: hundreds of thousands of Steam users, now with fully completed wishlists full of games they would like someone to buy for them… just in time for the big holiday sale. It’s impossible to browse Steam right now without getting dozens of gift recommendations. Every featured title, every slashed price that catches your eye – each page now has a nice long list, under the heading, “The following friends have wished for this game.”

My digital holiday shopping, completely taken care of via personal requests, guaranteeing my friends will like the titles I pick for them… and we all gladly provided that information ourselves. It’s a marketing masterpiece.

There is a reason, every holiday season, why gamers make jokes about their wallets being cruelly stolen by the masterminds at Valve. It’s because that is precisely what they do – and we love them for it.