So, you have probably noticed with any luck that we are making two games currently. One of them, Basingstoke, is taking years to make, and has a level of development, content and polish that we’d hope from some actual professional studio, and it will absolutely cost an appropriately large sum of money to purchase when it is released. Don’t hold me to this but it is almost certain to be more than $20.
The other game we are making is Battledroid, and this is also taking years to make, and has a level of development, planned content, and eventual polish that we’d hope others are generally envious of, and it isn’t going to cost anyone a penny to play.
Both projects are pleasingly progressing well, by the way.
But isn’t it strange that we can work on both a game at the high-end of indie premium pricing and the absolute bottom at the same time? How do we justify the business models of each, given that usually the proponents of either model are usually scathingly critical of the other?
Background: the Race to the Bottom
Much has been said about the so-called “race to the bottom”. The situation is that as more and more games are released, and more and more people enter the industry expecting to make a living, two main factors seem to come in to play to control the pricing of content.
Firstly we have our old favourite, supply and demand; a basic economic theory that is often bandied about relating to the value of things dropping as supply exceeds demand. It is not, however, a perfect theory, because it is originally rooted in the world of physical goods. There is, in effect, an infinite supply of digital goods these days – it costs nothing to actually supply individual units. There’s a different model in play, which is a large up front cost of research and development, followed by an infinite-length but zero cost production run with zero lead time or inventory costs, in order to attempt to recoup the research and development costs. It’s subtle but it’s very different from having to actually continually construct things and sell them on physical shelves. The effect is still there but manifests itself in different ways.
Secondly we have the perennial visibility problem. The visibility problem is again subtly different to the issues usually traded in traditional economic theories which deal with physical shelves, cost of stocking inventory, and so on. Essentially, instead of a short, blazing hot stretch in the limelight on a shelf for a brief period of time, digital products such as games are now available forever… on an infinitely long shelf, with all the other titles now available forever occupying the same shelf. How on Earth does an indie developer get their title into the limelight now?
Back in 2008-2009 or so, Steam was actually just the intrusion of its 4D self into our 3D universe, occupying 3D space rather like an ordinary store front with ordinary shelves. It was just the the tip of a multidimensional iceberg. There were a limited number of titles. New things appeared on the top shelf under New Releases and had their 2 weeks in the limelight, and so everything that got released made a mint and everybody got fantastically rich.
But in the fourth dimension, if we’d cared to peer, we would have seen that the Steam store shelf stretched off in to infinity like the daft ending to Interstellar. The future was there for all to see if you peered through the looking glass: the Steam store is infinite in size, and infinite in duration. What has come to pass was inevitable, and obviously inevitable.
So what do developers do to get noticed now?
Why, they put their products on sale at increasingly massive discounts. Hell, why bother with a sale. Let’s just make them cheaper to begin with too. Reductio ad absurdum: eventually games are sold in a pricing structure that guarantees they will never make a profit and mostly everyone goes out of business. We have reached the bottom.
How Do We Fix This?
Well, our take on it is, you have to go either way: aim for the moon, or forget pricing at all. Nobody really agrees which is best of the two, so we’re hedging our bets and doing both. You definitely can’t stay on the bottom, selling games for a dollar.
But both ways have their drawbacks.
The Drawbacks of a $25 Game
The current fashion for consumers is to play something for hours and then whine like a spoiled Californian teenager who just got given an iPhone for Christmas in the wrong metallic finish. “$10 for 5 hours gameplay! Rip off!” And that is the mentality of the herd these days: somehow being totally entertained for $2 an hour is no longer value for money in exactly the same way that coffee is.
As developers we have to live with this sort of thing on a daily basis cropping up in Steam reviews and so on. The rookies’ mistake is to take any notice of it. If you try to pander to this, you will go out of business – end of story. You cannot keep producing content for less and less. If customers are getting just one hours’ entertainment from a $10 game, I think you’re doing just fine. Especially as many of these customers will pick the game up on a whim in a sale for considerably less. So don’t sweat it. Don’t forget that you can only really look at the three averages of time played to draw conclusions from, not individuals. Individuals are always posting bullshit about how they completed a game in just 1 hour and so on. It’s bullshit: they don’t. If they do, ignore them: they are like pigs gorging on swill. They don’t really care what they’re eating so long as they’re eating. Look to your Steam play time stats to get the real truth.
If we think that $10 for 1 hour is fine it’s not a great stretch of the imagination to design a game that should hold about 2-3 hours entertainment in a $25 package. And that’s where we are with Basingstoke: we’re aiming for a median play time between 2-3 hours, and pricing it accordingly. Don’t forget this covers a large number of people who put in only an hour of time, and a smaller but infinitely more grateful number of people who really dig it and play it for 20+ hours.
Which brings me to…
The Drawbacks of a Free Game
The first and biggest drawback to making money on a free game is that it’s free. People generally don’t pay for things if they don’t have to, and so, they won’t. One of the most important aspects of free game design is to be absolutely sure that the entire game can be played absolutely for free by everyone. Taking this to its logical conclusion means that nobody would ever pay for it, ever, and that is indeed what would happen…
… if it were not for the fact that there are other currencies than money that people pay with. I’m too lazy to link to the large number of articles about free-to-play that discuss this but I’ll focus on one particular currency which I recently realised was probably the most valuable one of all, and that is time.
Nobody has much time these days. People with time are people that probably aren’t working very hard on much, and that means they’re probably not particularly rich. Not particularly rich people are not great customers, especially when the money side of things is optional and you’re about to run out of weed. Being skint means they don’t like buying things that cost $25. They are however rather generous with time, and spend it freely on things like Battledroid. This is good.
If, like me, you work every night till 3am and then do a 9-5 day job the rest of the time, you’ll know a bit about how valuable time is, but you probably also have some money as a result of your toils (heh, unlike me, bah).
So this is how a true, properly designed free-to-play game really makes its money: it roughly segregates its players into time-rich and money-rich castes, and each pays with the currency it has available in a mutually beneficial symbiosis. The time-rich players fill the game with enemies, interaction, visibility, reputation, and life. The money-rich players accelerate their progress or standing in the game with money and keep the whole outfit afloat. The more they like it, the more they want to pay for it, unlike with premium games, where the most money they can give you is the amount that it cost when they bought it.
Blog post already too long! So I’ll wrap this big old rambling rant up here with a conclusion:
Fellow Indies, race to the bottom if you like, but it’ll get you nowhere but another stint at a day job. You must either go premium or go free, or if you’re able, do both (in separate products) and see what works.
Fellow game playing customers, give up whining about the price of games versus the hours and hours of play time they give you. There is nothing close to a game in terms of value for money. Not one other form of entertainment comes close in entertainment time per buck. Well, maybe books. You won’t get cheaper or bigger games by whining – you’ll just end up putting developers out of business and have less interesting games to play.