The fallen price of indie games

“It was obvious hours into launch that I’d messed up.”

In 2010, Terry Cavanagh released the platformer VVVVVV with a launch price of $15 but soon received complaints about it being priced too high. Kieron Gillen wrote in the RPS review of VVVVVV, “While I think it is worth the money, fifteen dollars does strike you as a lot for an indie lo-fi platformer.”

“I desperately wanted to fix it and drop the price,” says Cavanagh. “But it seemed super unfair to the people who’d already paid $15, so I held my ground. More than that, I’d done pre-orders – over a hundred people had given me money before the game had even come out to help keep me afloat. It would have been totally unfair to reduce the price of the game to less than what they’d paid for a pre-order.”

Cavanagh was one of many who discovered the hard way that the price of indie games was on the way down. Should independent developers just accept low prices as a given – or is there an argument for pushing back against market forces?

If you’re a developer who has no interest in zero price models such as free-to-play, finding the means to raise what is perceived as a fair price would seem like an important goal. Indie developers are entrepreneurs who face high business risk. A videogame studio must continuously create products which have an onerous development time, finite shelf-life and be sufficiently differentiated from their peers to have a decent chance of success. A single failure can easily kill a studio.

Indies who already have a strong audience may find it easier to commit to resisting low prices but this has its own downside. Games designer Tadhg Kelly has described how successful developers banding together against adverse market factors can be called out for “pulling up the ladder”.

In May 2014, a survey conducted in the UK by TIGA, The Independent Game Developer’s Association, revealed that nearly every developer they contacted relied on some form of third-party funding in the previous year. It is an incredible leap of faith for indie developers to commit to a project full-time, so many follow the 80s bedroom model: coding games in their free time. Without access to a line of direct funding, such as a publisher or crowdfunding, those who take the full-time plunge will use contract work to keep afloat, burn through savings or rely on family to subsidise their entrepreneurial endeavour. This is not unique to games; author Ann Bauer has talked about this last option being the dirty secret of the writing industry.

But does the bedroom model hinder or promote low prices? Bedroom coding discharges the developer from the urgent responsibility to seek a living wage through game development. By definition it is a low-cost model and if fresh indie developers fall into an attitude of ‘when it’s done’ as opposed to ‘getting it done’, they may lose sight of development costs in terms of their own labour. After all, the alchemy of deadlines and commercial constraints can transmute the joy of a hobby into work, so it is natural to resist formalising bedroom projects. Joseph Mirabello is one of the rare few who slavishly noted down every hour he worked on Tower of Guns, the procedurally-generated FPS he released in 2014. Over 600 days, he discovered he had worked 3,850 hours.

We could argue that the subsidised bedroom coder is unfair competition for those who need game sales to live. But an individual’s ethics only last as long as there is food in the pantry; if you’re desperate for success, pricing against the grain is a hard ask. The bedroom coder is better positioned to fight for higher prices.

School teacher Kyle Reimergartin is a hobbyist game developer and doesn’t require a game to be a raging success to survive. Prior to releasing his first commercial game, FJORDS, he had conversations with fellow developer Merritt Kopas about pricing. “She helped me see that setting prices on our work helps other artists do the same,” Reimergartin explains, “and setting a price helps frame player expectations and influences perception of our work.

“I realised that I hadn’t been consciously releasing my games for free; I had been doing it because I didn’t know how to charge for them, and I hadn’t thought about all the implications of having a price. The conversation [about price], unfortunately, often turns to the dollars-to-time scale when deciding whether a game is worth it or not. I realised that the price of FJORDS would actually be the initial point of interaction, as players decided whether they would or wouldn’t pay it, and I wanted to avoid, as much as possible, the conversation about hours and content. I wanted the decision to buy FJORDS to be a curious, impetuous one, made preferably without any knowledge of what the game might be like.”

Perhaps this was a lot to ask for an audience who may never have heard of Reimergartin before, particularly as FJORDS is an unkind and surreal platformer. He released FJORDS in 2013 at $7 but it would come with additional extras if the player ponied up a full $10. Much thought went into the original price. For example, it needed to be more than $5 so it evaded the whole videogame-versus-price-of-cup-of-coffee debate. “Delightful as coffee is, food comparisons inevitably communicate the ephemeral qualities of videogames, no, no, no, no.”

FJORDS is a niche game and, as expected, has not brought in money to rival his salaried job but it did well enough for Reimergartin.

However, sometimes a higher price doesn’t actually mean what it says on the tin because the price waters are muddied by the presence of the ubiquitous discount. Browsing through the Steam release feed for any particular month will unearth many examples of product launches with anything between 10% and 50% off the ‘official price’ and the portals generally recommend this to gain market traction during the critical launch period. For example, when Mouldy Toof Studios released The Escapists to Mac and Linux in 2015, they reduced the game’s price by 40% across all platforms including PC.

Instructive in how the launch discount rewards the developer, take the example of Peter Brinson, an Assistant Professor of the Practice at the School of Cinematic Arts, Los Angeles. He has been responsible for many game experiments over the years but his most well-known work is 2011’s The Cat and The Coup, a metaphorical retelling of how Britain and the US toppled Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, which he developed with Kurosh ValaNejad. This was released for free through digital portal Steam, but he went down a different route for Rehearsals and Returns, a meditation on our connections with others.

After raising a modest Kickstarter in 2013 which brought in $6,000, nearly double the original goal, he heavily discounted the game at launch. “Rehearsals and Returns was $1 at launch and exactly for a week. Then it was $4 for a number of months,” says Brinson.

For Rehearsals and Returns to work, it needed to gather a lot of player input – and fast. “It was important to get a critical mass quickly, and when it was new. I wanted to gather thousands of player statistics – an integral part of the individual user experience – as soon as possible. And yes, the game’s website had a specific countdown warning when the price would quadruple. And indeed 90% of the sales were in that first week and during the intermittent sales.”

Brinson’s project shared some similarities with eSports titles, which usually adopt a free-to-play model to grow the player base quickly. In fact, after a few months Rehearsals and Returns became free. “I see this as like a movie being put on Netflix. Technically, Netflix is not free, but this is how it feels to the audience: upon release, a movie is expensive in the theatres; months later, it is cheaper as a rental; months later still, it is all but free on Netflix.”

Brinson’s pricing strategy demonstrates the power of near-zero prices. “Rehearsals and Returns is not my first project where the aggregate of plays is an explicit part of the individual experience. It’s a strange mechanic for a project that I never intended to be popular. I knew I was at best making a game for a small group, appealing to those who seek games with a stark lack of a reward system. But I learnt that it is possible to make nearly all your money at $1 per sale and little at $4.”

It’s a common story. British developer Alan Hazelden also revealed that most first-year PC sales of his puzzler A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build had been made through discounts. Discounts create revenue spikes. These spikes are so pronounced that the official price is all too often a fantasy, a framing device to make the real discounted price look like a bargain. Discount price dominates revenue and indeed, for many developers, it would not be far-fetched to suggest a game without a discount is a game off the market.

Discounts straight out of the gate are also common in the AAA space, but they descend from a much higher price point. Although perhaps more concerning for the indie developer are older AAA titles which are discounted heavily or re-released in cheaper collections. These can compete directly for indie dollars in the same price space: polished, content-dense and relatively recent AAA works can go head to head with an indie pixel platformer. Good luck.

Full-time developer Jason Rohrer, who is known for curiosities such as Passage and Inside a Star-filled Sky, organised his own little revolution in 2014. He wanted to put a stop to the churn of discounts, opposing the idea that your strongest supporters should be “gouged” with an initial high price, benefiting late adopters who always got the best discounts:

Sales screw your fans. Your fans love your games and eagerly await your next release. They want to get your game as soon as it comes out, at full price. But they are foolish to do that, because a sale is right around the corner. Even in economic terms, the extra utility of playing the game early, at release, is not big enough to offset the extra cost for most people. It makes more sense to wait, unless they love you and your work so much that they’re willing to throw economic reason out the window. It’s nice to have fans that love your work that much. And these are the fans that you kick in the teeth when you put your game on sale.

This is an exaggeration because as previously explained launch and pre-launch discounts are common. But the point that the best discounts arrive much later is sound and is the same concern that Terry Cavanagh had when he knew he’d pitched VVVVVV at too high a price and was trapped into keeping it there.

Rohrer was also concerned this would reduce developer revenue in the long term:

If just half of the players who buy the game during a 50%-off sale would have bought the game at full price if that was their only option, we’d already have a wash. What fraction of sale-waiting players fall into this category? I suspect way more than half.

Even though he had found sales on Steam to be intoxicating, each generating its own revenue surge, he chose to forfeit that for an ideological approach. He released The Castle Doctrine, an MMO about home invasion, with the following pricing arrangement: during the alpha testing period, the game was priced at $8, on launch week it would rise to $12 and then, after that, rise to $16. Forever. As promised, it is still $16 at the time of writing.

But we cannot infer much that is significant from Rohrer’s experiment. Individual success is often a function of marketing rather than a sales mechanism or even a game’s character. The inverse pricing experiment became an integral part of the chatter about Rohrer’s game; his stand was endlessly discussed on Twitter, Reddit and various blogs. Further to this, some game critics called for a boycott of The Castle Doctrine as they viewed it as a parable supporting the right to kill someone who breaks a social contract. If you followed indie gaming at the time, it was impossible not to have heard of the game.

Rohrer posted that sales were dropping towards the end of the launch week and he had made – alpha sales all included – around $70,000 in revenue. The spikes on his sales graph all reflect the game hitting the news circuit, demonstrating the importance of attention over pricing models. While not making Rohrer wealthy, it was enough to keep a roof over his head and he considered this a success although stopped short of saying it vindicated the approach.

The niche product has the biggest problem. Such games have a particular, small audience and cannot survive without higher pricing. It is the developer without attention who suffers most in a bargain basement economy. It’s difficult to see how a few rebels in the niche world could change the indie gaming moneyscape. Established developers are more comfortable with lower prices as the volumes make up for it so it’s usually left to the starving artists, struggling for an audience, to make the case for higher prices.

While running an indie game business is about competition, the difficulty in getting financial traction led to the adoption of a cooperative strategy: the bundle. In this approach, different developers come together and sell their games as a single bundle, combining their individual marketing power and fanbases for the good of all participants. It became a promising solution to the precarious nature of indie software development.

In 2013, the collaborative title Sportsfriends demonstrated how bundles could go further. The three games Hokra, Johann Sebastian Joust and BaraBariBall had done well at conventions and gaming expos – but they were local multiplayer games. The market for such titles in the indie space, particularly with special requirements (Joust needed Sony Move controllers), meant the likelihood of individual success on the market was slight. Four developers came together to create an integrated product, Sportsfriends, which would have a broader appeal. The games would become inseparable. Perhaps you would not be able to play all of the titles — but you would be able to play something. In November 2012, the team launched a Kickstarter which just scraped across the finish line. The anthology was launched a couple of years later although there was some disappointment that flagship title Joust could not be played on Microsoft Windows. How well did it do? The results are not that encouraging.

Sportsfriends producer and co-designer Doug Wilson explains: “I didn’t expect to make much money off of Sportsfriends, it was primarily a passion project. Still, in the end we actually did a little better than expected! I certainly didn’t lose money on the project, which was a relief. I saw none of the initial Kickstarter money – for the two years of development I got by on savings and side jobs.”

It did well enough that Wilson had a little breathing room after the project was done but he didn’t make enough money to fund a whole studio. “I could probably work on my own small games for a bit, but I couldn’t fund a team project. All that said, I feel like we did as well as we could reasonably hope for with such a strange game! So I feel pretty fortunate, all things considered.”

But collaborations like Sportsfriends are rare. What became the norm was the industrialised bundle, which allows customers to pay for several games at a price of their choosing. This became so successful that AAA publishers began to get involved; the Humble Bundle which championed the concept for indie games in 2010 began to take on AAA bundles in 2012. The bundle became a permanent feature of the market, like the discount. The blunt truth is that the bundle was just another vector for game prices to slip to zero. Their innovation for consolidating customer attention became an innovation for reducing the effective price to sub-dollar levels.

Even if a consortium of independent developers could agree to keep prices high, forcing consumers to confront what might be dubbed ‘realistic prices’, what is the average consumer meant to make of that? The indie game cartel, keeping prices artificially high? This unfortunately casts developers and players as combatants in the economic sphere.

There are examples of small outfits who tough it out. Arcen Games, who are known for deep tactical titles such as AI War that will never be populist, have survived over the years with higher product prices. They released The Last Federation in September 2014 with a 25% discount but its official price remained £14.99 one year on.

But I choose my words precisely with “tough it out”. An unexpected drop in sales in 2015 meant Arcen were rapidly burning through cash reserves every month while struggling through the protracted development of a title called Stars Beyond Reach. They switched to making a smaller title, a bullet hell roguelike called Starward Rogue. The last-minute desperation of its launch in January 2016 meant no one had been able to allocate time for marketing. So while the Arcen team successfully created something to save the company, the lack of buzz meant it arrived on the market stillborn. Many Arcen staff were laid off as a result of this failure.

Developers continue to beg players with appeals to reason. For crying out loud, the refrain goes, do you not understand how much work goes into a videogame? After complaints about a $20 price on the Steam forums for the game Brigador, developer Hugh Monahan compared the game’s five year gestation with getting married and having children or getting a PhD. He also pointed out many trivial items which were more expensive, like a trash can or a toilet plunger. Thankfully, he didn’t cite the price of a hot cuppa joe… but did bring up beer.

Such appeals have been going on for years. Developers and fans may punch the air at such flawless logic but Brigador was declared a failure by the team for turning in low sales although much of the blame was attached to a lack of marketing. Brigador had its first discount two months after release.

Even stalwarts of the price-the-niche-high club have had to reduce prices. Jeff Vogel has been making indie games for two decades and insisted in 2009 that developers should stick to a price they felt was right, that no one should shame them into dropping. Two years later, he dropped his prices.

I ask Vogel if it was because the prices were doing harm and he says, “My core position has never changed. If you sell niche products, to survive, your base price has to be high enough to keep you in business, and you have to convince a lot of people to pay that price. It’s just that business conditions change. The business of indie games changed a lot between 2009 and 2012, and then a lot again between 2012 and 2015.”

Returning to Cavanagh, his minimalist twitch game Super Hexagon became a hit on iPhone in 2012, priced at $2.99, and it seems unlikely that he will release again at higher prices. “I think my experiences with both VVVVVV and Super Hexagon have left me feeling like pricing my games lower is better. I’ve been quite lucky to find an audience with both games, and the fact that they’re cheap is a big part of that, I think. I’d much rather people felt like a thing I made was too cheap than too pricey.”

While mobile is firmly in the thrall of zero, there has been resistance on the PC market. This resistance is so pronounced that Robert Boyd of Zeboyd Games (Breath of Death VII: The Beginning, Cthulhu Saves The World) was concerned that prices were too high, calling it a “disturbing trend” that $20 was becoming the standard. In truth, prices remain in flux and heavy discounts are commonplace. And we must not forget that powerful economic forces conspire to depress prices.

Perception of value is king: does the price feel like it befits the end product? There is a simple solution to keeping prices high. Money. Nike spends millions on marketing as do AAA publishers. This marketing transmits one message, ‘This is a quality product worth the money we’re asking for.’ The price of $60 is millions of dollars.

Although it is difficult to see how the price of the average indie game could be boosted without such deep pockets, we must be mindful that nothing changes without resistance. In a world of wall-to-wall discounts, developers should always strive to convince players of the value of their work.

This is an adapted extract from The Weapons of Progress: From Videogame Revolution to Control. The book is a work in progress, but the first two chapters can be downloaded for free from itch.io.

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    Ninja Dodo says:

    I don't think complaining about supposedly unworthy games flooding Steam and other stores is an effective strategy for getting attention and sales. Everyone thinks their game is the exceptional exception - How is this phoned in phone game selling millions while my brilliant magnum opus languishes in obscurity?! - but even ostensibly simple games have often had an extraordinary amount of love and effort put into them. One man's shovelware is another's diamond in the rough... Sometimes (not often, but sometimes) even "my first gaem" is actually "my first gem".
  1. Son_of_Georg says:

    This is a very interesting article. As a consumer, the difficulty is that there are too many games (a good problem to have) and too many of them I end up not playing for very long. All I have to do is look at one of the various Steam calculators to see how many of my games I’ve never played or only played for a few minutes or an hour. Sometimes it’s because a game wasn’t as fun as I thought it would be, but often times it’s just because I don’t have time to get through my backlog. So how much should I spend on a new game that I might not have time to play, when I can go back to an old one that I know I really enjoy?

    As a result, I rarely buy games at full price. I understand the plight of the devs, but I can’t afford to buy all kinds of games I might hardly play. Like the article says, “perception of value is king.”

    • Shuck says:

      It’s a very common problem now to have such a backlog that people just don’t ever get around to even starting many of the games in their libraries. These days I find myself only buying games when they’re on sale for some absurdly low price because that’s the only way I can justify to myself buying a game that I know, realistically, I’ll never play. But all this argues for games to be shorter rather than cheaper. In fact, it argues for games to be much shorter and more expensive.

      • Chillicothe says:

        I agree, in a “we’re never getting most humans to agree to this non-self-bettering way once we have release from want right now”.

        I will echo what someone interviewed said: don’t ever f***ing second-guess where the money’s going in development, especially if you ain’t kickstarted. I have seen so many broken, hateful “hot takes” on this by incredibly ignorant pricks right where they know the devs can read.

      • Urthman says:

        I love having a backlog of games that I think I’d probably enjoy. Anytime I’m in the mood to try something new, I’ve got plenty to choose from. And if I try a game and don’t like it, I feel free to set it aside and play something else.

        Who wants a bookshelf made up entirely of books you’ve already read?

        • Saarlaender39 says:

          “Who wants a bookshelf made up entirely of books you’ve already read?”
          ——————————————-
          While having the option to add new books from time to time is appreciated, of course – I will say this:
          if your bookshelf is filled with already read books, that are good or even excellent, it is also a great pleasure to just re-read those books from time to time.

          I don’t know, how often I re-read my Terry Pratchett books, or my Val McDermid books, or my Stephen King books, or…well, you get the idea.

    • The Sombrero Kid says:

      If you paid more for fewer games you would probably play more of them? I, personally, don’t really have a backlog issue, although sometimes I do like to play a game where I find a game in my account I haven’t played and give it an hour to hook me, if it does, great! If not it can safely be forgotten.

    • Someoldguy says:

      I have to agree. I own a lot of games that came in a bundle. Games that presumably netted the developer less than £1 on my purchase. However many of them are games I would never have chosen to spend anything on had they not been bundled with something that I considered was worth my £10 on its own.

      When I was young and skint I really had to weigh up each game I bought. That purchase was going to have to last me 2+ months before I could afford another. Needless to say even being careful, half of them turned out to be complete duds even when I could afford to check magazine reviews first (often by flipping and replacing on the rack.) Thank goodness for Arnhem and Desert Rats by RT Smith, then in due time Warlords and Civ. They were my fallbacks whenever the latest game turned out to be a total flop. If games were priced by the hour, those would have earned a stackload from me.

      The MMO model did that for a while before market forces killed it. Now we just get the dubious in-app purchases and deluge of DLC (I’m looking at you, Paradox) instead. With premium titles shipping relatively cheap but trying to get more money from you with add ons it definitely keeps the indie prices down. If it looks like you can get a top title that’s taken an army of programmers years to make for £35, it automatically sets expectation that an indie game should cost far less. Sales volumes and expectation of half a dozen DLC don’t really factor for the consumer when looking at the headline price of the games.

      Interestingly, I know some really niche developers head to Patreon to get funded for working on their material. A few seem to get a healthy monthly income from it.

      • Son_of_Georg says:

        Paradox DLC is an intriguing example. I think I actually spend more on their games (so far Stellaris and EUIV) because of the way they keep releasing sizable expansions for a game I already own. Since I know I’ll go back to it, I don’t feel so bad spending another $15 on more features. I suppose it could also be a case of the “sunk cost fallacy” where I feel like I’ve already bought all the other stuff, so I would be wasting those previous purchases if I don’t buy the rest. It also helps that each DLC isn’t very expensive by itself.

        • SanguineAngel says:

          I definitely fall into the sunk cost fallacy, which is a great term I’ve somehow not come across before. Paradox titles really get me on that in particular.

          Also, though, I really love what Paradox are putting out there and even though I just know I’m not really going to get to make the most out of all that content I absolutely want to support those games in the hope that support will encourage future titles to take a leaf from the same design books

      • malkav11 says:

        MMOs have almost never charged based on the actual amount of time you play them outside of Asia. Instead, it’s generally been a month to month subscription regardless of whether you’ve even logged in that month, which was historically a major factor in my dropping many MMOs forever. If I could have banked 100 hours in a one off expenditure and played 4 here and 5 there, I’d have kept going with them. Since they’ve now generally shifted to a freemium or buy-once-play-indefinitely model, I may only intermittently visit games like Guild Wars 2, The Secret World and SWTOR, but I keep them installed and updated and I do come back on a semi-regular basis.

        • Someoldguy says:

          Yeah I know MMO montly pricing isn’t totally anologous, but it is pretty similar. When you had to be teamed to do almost any content, you pretty much had to invest a moderate amount of time in the game to progress. Even these days, when much of it is more solo friendly, if you can manage to team up with some guild mates for as little as 3 hours a week you’re getting value from your sub. If you can’t manage that then you’re not going to maintain those guild links anyway.

    • Landiss says:

      This keeps popping up in comments in RPS and I’m always astonished. I think I even already asked some questions about that in the past, but I’m still just so puzzled about this whole phenomena.

      Why do people buy games if they have no intention of playing them? I should be more precise, I know people have intention of playing them somewhere in the future, but why they buy games if they don’t have a more or less clear plan of when they will play them. For example, I had never and would never (as much as I can say) buy a new game if I had another one that I bought, but never even installed. Exception are games from bundles, where I bought bundle for one game and ignored the rest. And some people say they have not one, but lots of never-installed games. I can’t even imagine that.

      Nowadays with Steam excellent return policy (finally!), I find that I’m buying games, try them out and quite often return them if I don’t like them. I don’t feel a need to own a game, especially if I don’t like it.

      I really struggle to understand why people do that. Is it perhaps because games are so cheap for you, you are just making compulsive purchases? Perhaps this is an effect of different country and economic situation. On the other hand, it’s not like 10 € is really a lot to me (but it’s also not something I spend without thinking). I don’t know…

      Or maybe it’s because you buy them during big promotions on steam etc.? But those events are not really special for years now, you don’t have to make stocks for the whole year.

      The way I buy games now is that I usually go to isthereanydeal.com to check how the price history and basically I never buy if the current price is not at least close to what it often was in the past promotions. I only buy at full price when it’s something that I think I will really like and it’s a new game.

      Funny thing is, I often find that I’m having much more fun with games that were cheaper. Recent example is Doom and Card Quest. I played Doom for 10 hours, finished campaign, which I found quite boring near the end, tried multiplayer, didn’t like it and uninstalled the game. I played Card Quest for already over 30 hours and I can’t stop. And it costs 7 €, for which I am very glad to the devs, as I would probably didn’t try it if it was over 15 € or something like that.

      • Sarfrin says:

        It’s because most people don’t make their decisions entirely based on logic.

        • cardboardcity says:

          Right. There’s a persistent myth, despite everything we know about human nature, that people make economic decisions completely or primarily based on reason. If that were true, the advertising business wouldn’t exist. Car commercials wouldn’t show the car in a magnificent setting, with beautiful people driving the vehicles; it would just be a list of statistics about the car. Likewise there must be a lot of non-rational reasons why people by video games.

      • Son_of_Georg says:

        I would say that for me there are three different reasons for unplayed games:

        (1) Games gotten in bundles. Most of them I would never have purchased on their own, so I don’t feel bad about not playing them.

        (2) Games gotten in Steam sales. I try not to do this too much, but I’ve definitely purchased games just because they’re cheap. Sometimes it’s to fill out a collection, sometimes it’s because I hope to get to it soon. Often these are older games.

        (3) Multiplayer games that didn’t work out. I mostly game with a small group of friends, and sometimes it turns out that a game doesn’t work that well for someone in our group or someone just really doesn’t like it. Usually it’s too late to return by the time we figure that out. On the other hand, this also keeps me playing some games that I don’t care about all that much.

      • Person of Interest says:

        I buy games and throw them on the backlog because:
        1. I think I’d like to play it one day, and it’s on sale for an especially cheap price (Humble Bundles, basically)
        2. I’ve got some benefit from the game already, by reading/watching stuff about it, so it’s only fair to pay a bit for it
        3. I want to support the developer so they continue to make games of similar style/quality
        4. I played the heck out of the developer’s previous game but paid peanuts for it. I buy their next game purely as a “tip”

      • Enkidum says:

        I’m probably one of the most ridiculous examples of buying games I won’t play. At the moment, I have 1079 games on Steam, as well as a couple of hundred on the PS3 and a couple of dozen on Xbox (360, not 1 – I haven’t played console for a while). Almost all of these were bought as part of a bundle, or on very big sales.

        I actually don’t have time to game that much any more, I probably put in 10 hours in a very heavy-gaming week, and more likely 1 or 2. So I’m not sure how many of those games I’ve played for more than 5 minutes, but it’s probably in the neighbourhood of 5%.

        I guess a big part of it for me is that I’m somewhat of a completionist – I always wanted to have all the music, all the books, all the movies, etc. There’s something about the simple act of cataloguing them that appeals to me, having them in a list I can look at.

        However I recognize that this is not exactly a healthy way to approach things, so I’ve essentially completely given up on purchasing games unless it’s (a) something I specifically want, and (b) ridiculously cheap. So I’ve probably bought something like 15 bundles in the past year, which is still too much, even the 1-2 games per bundle that I actually intend to play is more than I’ll be able to manage, but at some mythical future date I will have a ridiculous quantity of games I’m interested in exploring.

      • aerozol says:

        I don’t mind supporting an industry that I like, even if I can’t play everything.

        But honestly, feel free to say the same thing about car collectors, or record collectors, or anything similar. Fact is that we all have an amount of income that we spend on ‘leisure’ etc, and studies have shown that it stays static regardless of external forces, for instance whether you actually play much or not. The only thing that can change is that you might start spending money on other ‘leisure’ items, eg start drinking more beer or going to see movies, in which case games expenditure might drop off or disappear. But I guess my point is that a certain income level, particularly in a first world country, you are almost certainly wasting a portion of your money on something. In your case it’s probably just not games, might be expensive coffee or “treating yourself” to something else that you consider more ‘logical’ in your case.

      • darrrrkvengeance says:

        i’m another who has a massive backlog of games i’ll never play. (i just checked Steam, and i haven’t even played *any* game since January 23.) i’ve never returned a game either, as that just feels unethical to me. i guess the backlog is due in part to an optimistic (albeit quixotic) idea that EVENTUALLY i’ll get to the game — combined with the knowledge that even if i never do, the several bucks i’m throwing at it is supporting an indie creator, which is its own reward.

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        keefybabe says:

        Speaking as someone who has 1600+ games and over half unplayed a lot of it gets bought when I’m feeling miserable and away from my machine.

        It’s a feeling of “that sounds great, I’d love to play that” and it gets bought with no thought as to when I might find the time to play it as, now I’m an adult my game time is at a premium.

        But back in December I promised not to buy anything else until I’d at least TRIED to play everything I own.

        I suppose one advantage of having so many games means I can pull the rip cord when I’m not enjoying it any more. You’ll get no 900 hour negative reviews from me.

        • Landiss says:

          Thanks for being honest. This is something I can understand, even if I just don’t have such need (or not as strong).

        • cardboardcity says:

          I’ve been like that for not only video games but books, but can’t afford the habit anymore. When you’re skint, what you’ve stored during good times looks appealing again.

      • Peksisarvinen says:

        Why do people buy stamps to keep in folders, when they are never going to use them for posting stuff? Why do people collect bottle corks, when they are never going to open their own breweries? Why do you keep that one thing you’re never going to need for anything around? You’re never going to need it for anything.

        It’s called collecting, hoarding, whatever you want to call it, and it’s fun. Plus I’ve bought games on a whim that turned out to be great when I finally got around to playing them, and you can’t really run into those unexpected gems without running into a few duds as well.

      • ramirezfm says:

        Glad I’m not alone in that, but I buy games bacause :
        1. I think I’d like to play it one day, and it’s on at least 50% sale (I’m looking at you Resident Evil franchise)
        2. I think I’ll like the game if I play it and want to support the developer so they continue to make games of similar style/quality (I’m looking at you Frozenbyte)
        3. I really really really like the game and want to support the developer (I’m looking at you every soulslike ever)
        4. I like to collect stuff and games are one of the things I collect

    • gmickd says:

      I know that the article claims that games have a short shelf life, but it seems that the shelf life of indie games has rapidly been extending in recent memory. With game developers choosing low-fi aesthetics and general graphics quality reaching a certain level of diminishing returns, a lot of indie games released this year don’t look drastically different than games released a couple of years ago. Compound that with most indie games relying upon a single player experience, the main impetus for gamers to buy a game on release is to be a part of the conversation surrounding the game. If you don’t care too much about that then there isn’t really a reason to buy a new game when I have some of the best indie games of last year on my hard drive. Initially I didn’t set out to wait a year for games to be cheaper, but I’ve settled into this state entirely because of these factors.

    • MajorLag says:

      That’s one of the reasons I think Steam was possibly the best thing to ever happen for indie game developers. Without the “gotta buy it, it’s on sale!” mentality, and the bundles, and the special holiday events, many of these games would have much lower sales volume. For the developer, it doesn’t really matter so much that the game sits in your library never being played if it means they made some extra money to continue their work.

      –Majorlag, 57% played.

  2. Lobotomist says:

    Great article.

    While I personally left video game industry some time ago ( as any sensible human that dont want to burn out would ), I have a story, very relevant from software development side.

    You see I moved to small software startup. And we developed very good app. During developing this we made money trough all kinds of “free” apps – but we couldn’t wait to finish our goal, since we all hate the so called “F2P”. And start earning the “old fashioned way”

    Well it turns out that our app. Although priced below the competition, and better. Makes way less money than “free” software we used to make money before the launch. And I mean – we can not keep the company running.

    So we are back to “free” software.

    I guess the point I am trying to make, is that we collectively shoot ourselves in the leg. We now accept so call free – that is actually costing us much more ( just imagine if developer of FREE is making more money than on payed product – that means that “free” earns more money from user ), and we just ignore the “payed” products that are actually cheaper.

    • Joel Goodwin says:

      In a later chapter of the book I will be covering F2P. I don’t know if this is heartening or just makes it all sound horribly bleak but the truth is the F2P gold rush is also over. You’re probably just as likely to go out of business with a F2P model as an upfront one.

      • Lobotomist says:

        I am excited for the follow up article. But sadly F2P still outperforms traditional one ( from our first hand experience )

        But F2P models are dominated by some of most unmoral business practices and the seediest companies. And basically vanning as well for everyone except real scumbags.

        Today it seems basically only one thing works – insanely high marketing budgets.

        You want to hear funny fact ?

        Marketing companies ask 40$ for each lead ( meaning a person that trough their channel bought your product ).

        Our product costs 9.90$

        So go figure….

  3. The Sombrero Kid says:

    The key is to keeping your perceived value is to not put your Fabergé egg on the same shelf as fertilizer. Coca Cola can afford to sell their product in poundland because their brand carries it’s own authenticity but if Nu-Kola sells in poundland that taints their brand. Store fronts have got absolutely no incentive to engage in quality control. Only when developers who want to be taken seriously refuse to be sold alongside ‘my first unity gaem’ will those store fronts start to take notice.

    • epeternally says:

      Even a coalition of a hundred indie developers isn’t going to sway Valve’s positions on the handling of Steam in any meaningful way. There’s so much competition that you’re immediately replaceable, and there’s so many games on the market that none of your potential customers actually need your new product in any meaningful sense. Not to mention that they couldn’t really undo the flood without actually removing less popular games from Steam, rather than just changing the requirements for new titles, and that simply isn’t tenable.

    • A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

      It’s a good point. It’s something the consoles do a lot better than PC stores, I find, their stores are proper ‘shop fronts’ and when an indie title appears amongst the AAAs you take notice. Only problem then is it blocks out the vast majority of quality AAA games, and with something like PS4 Plus you just wait for the indies to turn up in your free monthly games. I always wondered how much they make from those actually, is it a worthwhile enterprise? It gets you huge attention and interest at the same time as making everyone feel they shouldn’t have to pay any money for it.

    • Premium User Badge

      Ninja Dodo says:

      I don’t think complaining about supposedly unworthy games flooding Steam and other stores is an effective strategy for getting attention and sales. Everyone thinks their game is the exceptional exception – How is this phoned in phone game selling millions while my brilliant magnum opus languishes in obscurity?! – but even ostensibly simple games have often had an extraordinary amount of love and effort put into them. One man’s shovelware is another’s diamond in the rough… Sometimes (not often, but sometimes) even “my first gaem” is actually “my first gem”.

  4. Premium User Badge

    yhancik says:

    (i first misread the title as “The Fallen Prince of Indie Games” – getting from the intro that this Prince was Terry Cavanagh. I was wondering what happened to him if he fell off his throne.

    4 paragraphs later I realise it’s only about the price of games and .. ohhh *smacks forehead*)

  5. left1000 says:

    I don’t think you’re going to get prices back up. Honestly the “hold outs” just don’t understand the market.

    It made sense to pay 15-20$ for an album in the 90s. Now people only buy songs for 99cents each.

    The reason games should cost less than trash cans or shoes is that each trash can and shoe has to be made. Each new game copy is free. The more appropriate comparison would be to the portion of each trash can or shoe sale that goes towards the “design” of the product in the first place. This design cost for a nike jordan might be 100$ a shoe but for a generic knockoff shoe? It might almost be 0.

    I own almost 200 games on steam and the average price I paid for them is probably about 2-3$ each.

      • Premium User Badge

        keefybabe says:

        People would rather buy an album but would rather pay £3 than £15. And most of the time they’ll stream the thing for free anyway.

        Also if you make the kind of album that takes a good few listens to bed in, forget it. People have already moved onto the next album they’ll only listen to once or twice.

        Unless you’re Bieber or constantly touring you won’t make much.

        I remember when you used to tour to promote albums. Now it seems you make albums so you can tour.

        Seems to be the consensus of my friends who work in the industry anyway.

        • aerozol says:

          Change is scary, but it’s not necessarily bad.

          The ‘industry’ chokehold going up in flames means that by selling an album for £3 than £15 an artist still is making much more from each sale than they ever did when they had to sign a marketing and distribution deal.

          I guess general consensus is that this vague thing known in the media as “people” (generally implied to mean the dreaded young people) no longer take the time to listen to or support music… but I put out 2 LPs (£15 each if anyone’s interested) and a bunch of tapes last year, and did just fine. The death of the ‘industry’ cultivated super-star that brings big bucks in off a smash album really has nothing to do with the state of music.

  6. Crafter says:

    I am a software engineer so it might color my vision :

    -I have a decent buying power

    -I see first hand how people don’t like to pay for an app, a service, a website, etc

    This being said, I really don’t mind paying 20$ for Hyper Light Drifter (I probably even paid more since I kickstarted it). It is very beautiful game, a joy to play and the music stays with me to this day. It would feel unfair to the dev to only pay 1$ for such a gem.

    I don’t mind paying 20-30$ for any well executed niche game . Hey, I kickstarted Planetary Annihilation knowing it would probably be meh but that it was the only shot at another supCom like I would see in years.

    As long as the game is crafted skillfully and deviates from AAA titles (I would not buy an indie fps .. unless it attempts a twist on the formula), 20$ sounds totally ok to me.

    Psychological prices are weird anyway. I would not buy an indie title the full 60$ price. However many of them entertained me for longer than some AAA titles, so this hardly seems fair.

  7. Tomo says:

    Cracking article this. Particularly like this point: “Nike spends millions on marketing as do AAA publishers. This marketing transmits one message, ‘This is a quality product worth the money we’re asking for.’ The price of $60 is millions of dollars.”

    Always wondered why they spend so much on advertising when you already know their brand, but when you think of it like that it makes total sense.

    I feel rather guilty quibbling over games that cost a few quid after reading this. But, as pointed out, I have so many games in my Steam library waiting to be played that buying new ones is not really a necessity. Might as well wait for a sale in that case.

    • Hedgeclipper says:

      I found that part of the article unconvincing, sure they spend a pile on advertising AAA games but unless something’s gone very wrong with development you can also see tens of thousands of man hours sunk into developing assets, generally decent sound and voice work and engage with several different gameplay loops through a game long enough to make whiny critics complain about having to finish so they can write their reviews.

      Indies throw up a few gems every year but an awful lot of them seem to want a good third of AAA pricing but have a short playtime, often only a single mechanic, ‘experimental’ or ‘minimalist’ graphics (read no art budget) and if there’s voice at all its the programmer or his girlfriend run through a distorter. All packaged up and launched into an over-saturated genre (seriously how many indie platformers are there on Steam? You have to have something near delusional faith in your product to think it will stand out in that crowd).

  8. meepmeep says:

    Why should the resources spent to create a game have any relevance to my decision whether to buy it?

    • Joel Goodwin says:

      That knowledge only tends to matter to hardcore fans who want their favourite developer to survive.

      I suppose if there appears to be a crisis where many “producers of content” are going out of business, you *might* find broader interest in the real cost of that business. But we’re not seeing it in journalism yet which is going through a disastrous period.

      • cardboardcity says:

        The journalism comparison is apt. I worked at a newspaper pre-Web, at print pubs and in various other writer-editor scenarios. Later I worked in freelance writing and editing. The worldwide aggregation of labor by Web-based companies, many of whom want SEO “content” (a hateful word) has destroyed the opportunity to make decent money at it. If you currently loathe the state of news media, you can blame Web aggregation for part of that. Now if you want to freelance write, you have to also have a whole additional range of skills that are usually not part of the writer-editor psychology, like promotion and hand-holding on social media. Finally “good” becomes synonymous with “popular”.

    • Premium User Badge

      Oakreef says:

      Do you want people who make games you like to be able to continue to make games in the future? If so then they need to be able to make a living off it.

      • ColonelFlanders says:

        I think you misunderstand his meaning – I think the snark in this post is unintentional and a symptom of internet-based inflection removal.

        I took this post to mean “why should I buy something on the basis that it costs money to make, instead of because I like it?”

        • cardboardcity says:

          Or you could be giving the writer too much credit. It’s impossible to know without the tags in place.

          • Hedgeclipper says:

            I read the same meaning from the OP as the Colonel, why assume the worst out of every first reading?

    • MajorLag says:

      From a purely academic view, it doesn’t. The market will pay up to a certain price, the creator will sell down to one, where they meet is the value, regardless of the resources consumed.

      However, if you are a lover of games, then it is worthwhile to consider the culture behind the market forces that drive the industry, and the result of those forces. Gamers are a whiny entitled bunch, really, and because of our insistence on discounts and cheap games we get day one DLC, and the horrific skinner boxes of F2P. If that’s not where we, as gamers, want the industry to be, then we should consider what we can do to change the culture behind the market forces.

  9. delberry says:

    Sort of interesting article. I’m working on a game for which I hope to have a trailer ready in the next few months and the question of price is hard. I’ve spend a lot of my time on the game and am taking quite a risk doing it, since it has meant no income for the last year or so. This means I would like some income back. With the tax man and the cut a shop takes… grunt. I guess most developers (like myself) interested in pricing strategies are just trying to tone down the insecurity by temporarily believing that perhaps a pricing strategy can make the big difference. Then there’s people believing that the price of a burger at McDonalds against a cheap indie-game is justified because you can make a copy of the game. You can make a copy of McDonalds recipe for cheeseburgers too. But this ‘algorithm’ is priceless.
    I guess there’s no point arguing about it. I think maybe in the future (like 2000 years from now). Old classics (like Doom) might have been elevated to a status equivalent to Homer’s Iliad. And on that a sense of value in games will be build that will allow games to be build and then sold under exclusive license to an individual for millions. Maybe technological advances combined with totalitarian enforcement will make it so software licenses are absolute and make it impossible to copy software or movies or music without a license. And after centuries of this, this would probably increase the perceived value of software, movies and music making it more equal to ‘matter’. Or perhaps the digital age (among other things) will do away with all sense of art, or more precisely ‘high art’ or value in art and relegate it all to the realm of hedonistic consumption on par with burgers.

    • Joel Goodwin says:

      You might be interested in checking out the rest of the chapter because it’s really about the inevitability of zero pricing.

      Having done a lot of research my instinct is (a) a pricing model will not really save you (b) if you don’t expect to sell much, you’re probably better off pricing higher (Cogmind is a good example) and (c) getting attention is much, much more important.

      Most of the benefits of low pricing has actually been marketing in disguise; it’s been about grabbing attention. It is not as effective any more because low pricing is standard.

      • delberry says:

        Oh, thank you Joel. What you’re saying in your second paragraph echoes my own feelings. I’m definitely going to read the link. Maybe I didn’t read the article very well but I didn’t realize this was part of a book/series you wrote.
        How do you suppose small-team/single-developer games will continue to be made if there is no money in it?
        Or do you think this will totally disappear except for people doing it ‘on the side’ and a few making a living on an established name somehow?

        • Joel Goodwin says:

          I’ve been trying to write this book for five years! I’m happy to finally get some words out there for people to read.

          Games will not go away because because there are plenty of people who want create and ultimately don’t care enough about commercial success. This isn’t meant as a criticism, but a statement of fact: there will be developers who do not want to prioritise that or assume it doesn’t need to be a priority. You’ll still get plenty of one-off projects that fail. Already, most indies cannot survive on their game earnings alone.

          Towards the end of the chapter this is excerpted from, the important lesson is not to think one game is enough and instead focus on sustainability. What’s important is building prestige, a repertoire and finding ways to reuse what you’ve made. You might be lucky and hit some clever sweet spot like Minecraft or Stardew Valley, but you can’t run a business expecting that to happen. Jake Birkett did a great GDC presentation on this (which is why I ended up interviewing him for the book).

          • DFX2KX says:

            Yeah, I’ll be keeping a close eye on this book of yours for much the same reason as the guy above me.

            Although I will admit, I feel like a bit of an ass now, because I’m using my firm ‘bedroom hobbyist’ status to keep dev costs at subterranean levels. I was excited to see how much value I could stuff into the $10-$20 range. Now I feel a bit bad about doing that.

          • Hedgeclipper says:

            There’s also a bit of alternative funding out there. I’ve noticed a few games with government bodies on their splash screens – Hand of Fate had Screen Australia I believe. Student projects, Pateron, that Salon article about authors was interesting too.

    • Archonsod says:

      “And after centuries of this, this would probably increase the perceived value of software, movies and music making it more equal to ‘matter’.”

      Software will never be equivalent to matter due to the simple reason that it doesn’t degrade. You kind of hit on the problem in your example – I can still fire up Doom and play it right now if I choose. It’s not necessarily about how easy it is to make a copy of software so much as those copies are persistent; trainers will eventually degrade and need to be replaced, a burger once eaten is gone but if I already own a shooter I’m perfectly happy with, why would I ever need to buy another one?

      I think there’s a kind of mistake being made both in the article and in your argument in assuming all software is equal when this generally isn’t the case. When I look at the indie games I’ve been willing to pay more for in the past it’s invariably been because they’re relatively unique – I was happy to buy Spiderweb’s stuff prior to the discounts because Vogel’s take on the RPG was pretty unique. I handed over $60 for Dominion back when Shrapnel was publishing it because there was (and still isn’t) nothing else like it on the market. When it comes to something like a platformer on the other hand there’s already a horde of them on Steam, with 40 years of the genre available out there should I want to pursue it. So the problem for any developer releasing a platform game today is that they basically need their game to stand out in a crowd of thousands, which is a pretty big ask.

      • Joel Goodwin says:

        Archonsod – just to let you know, in the book (the original version of this article) I use the term “context price” and the book accepts that your peer price depends on… whatever constitutes your peers. I simplified and dropped the term here because this was already pretty long.

      • delberry says:

        Yeh, I agree entirely with your 3rd paragraph about all software not being equal, etc. I don’t know about your “it doesn’t degrade” argument. Gold and diamonds are pretty much like that and I think it is one of the reasons they are valuable.

        • Robert The Rebuilder says:

          …until they create nanobots that can poop them out for free (a la Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age).

        • Hedgeclipper says:

          Gold is valuable because you could fit everything we’ve mined in 3 Olympic swimming pools. And diamonds because there’s been long an intense marketing by a cartel that keeps most of them off the market.

      • BlueTemplar says:

        Software *does* degrade over time :
        link to en.wikipedia.org

        Doom is kind of an exception because it was so successful and its source code was released at the right time. The overwhelming majority of software isn’t so “lucky”.

        Still, it’s only 24 years old… and data in general degrades too over time, be it because of physical degradation, imperfect backups or because these backups can get lost… a lot can happen when your timeframe is centuries!

  10. Frank says:

    Speaking of FJORDS and the ubiquitous discount, I only today realized that I didn’t get it in “A Good Bundle”, contrary to RPS’s post link to rockpapershotgun.com Whoops, no big deal. I’ll buy the game sooner or later.

  11. Daiz says:

    Good article, and somewhat amusing in that I was one of those people who bought VVVVVV at full price on launch, and found myself really disappointed with my purchase when I finished it 2 hours later, and got 100% completion not long after. It was a fun game, but 6-5 dollars per hour fun? Not really. A product would have to be supremely good (like personal top games of all time good) for me to feel satisfied at that kind of price level, and VVVVVV isn’t even close to that.

    After that, Super Hexagon on the other hand provided me with excellent value, and because of the cheap price I actually ended up buying it twice for myself (for both mobile and PC) and like four times as a gift for friends, so I’ve ended up paying more for it than for VVVVVV overall. And I got around 20 hours out of it, so even with all the money I’ve spent on the game it still works out to less than a dollar per hour, at which point pretty much getting any enjoyment out of the game makes it feel like a worthwhile purchase.

    Though expectations are still weird. I’m a big fan of indie roguelites myself. I bought Enter the Gungeon at launch, and I’ve played it for 19 hours. That’s less than a dollar per hour, and I had a pretty decent time with the game, but I still feel disappointed about it. Why? Well, for one, the unlock metagame basically makes “fully completing” the game into a most likely over 100 hour project, but the game’s design flaws just don’t make it fun enough to make me want to go all the way with it. So the game’s design also plays into the perceived value equation, working negatively for me in this particular case.

    In any case, I feel that indie developers are in a better position to ask for more for their games today thanks to Steam refunds. It gives users a peace of mind to try things out more freely, since if it turns out to not really be their thing, the ability to refund will help out a lot in not feeling too burned about it.

    • Joel Goodwin says:

      Now this is an interesting point: “I feel that indie developers are in a better position to ask for more for their games today thanks to Steam refunds”

      But I fear that the psychology of the “bigger price” will still put people off. If £4.99 can persuade significantly more people to buy than £5.00, then I think the headline price including a “refund premium” probably won’t be strong enough to defeat the psychology.

      But it’s still a good point; the refund technically makes all games F2P with an expiry unless you pay.

      • aepervius says:

        I actually use the invert psychology. With the deluge of Dreck on Steam, I don’t bother anymore looking at price which are *below* 10 euro, because I know that the probability are very very good it is not worth my time. Sometimes I get it wrong, but then word of mouth correct that.

        • Agnosticus says:

          Using that heurstic you’ll miss out on many a gem, like the recently released Bleed 2!

          Btw people are already complaining about the price of that one, because it’s just about 1,5h long and 10€ (9€ at discount)

    • Don Reba says:

      By the way, Steam’s refunds don’t apply to game backlogs, since they are only given within two weeks of purchase.

    • PanFaceSpoonFeet says:

      I don’t think measuring a game’s worth in $/hours is all that meaningful. We’re not robots..? It’s this mindset that confused the quantity of games like Fallout and Skyrim with the quality we really want to see.. My satisfaction of a game is related more to things like happiness, awe, the quenching of my ravenous bloodlust. I pay the money I want to pay for a game and leave that transaction at the bank. For me there is no correlation between price and satisfaction, so I’m a happy gamer.

    • golem09 says:

      I was thinking the same thing about refunds. I must have refunded more than 10 small indie games in the last year or so, but also kept 4-5. Without the refund feature I would have bought none of them, because I would have been unsure if they are really interesting enough to me to dish out the full price.

  12. Don Reba says:

    Hugh Monahan compared the game’s five year gestation with getting married and having children or getting a PhD.

    I think it is hard to argue that getting a PhD or marrying are far more valuable time investments than indie game development.

    • Don Reba says:

      We can use that to get a back-of-the-envelope upper bound on the intrinsic worth of an indie developer’s effort. US yearly science spending is about $60 billion and there are about 6 million scientists and engineers in the country. About 100 million Americans pay taxes. All of which means that an average American gives 0.01 cent to every scientist every year. So, if a 3-person game development team thought they were owed more than 0.15 cents for their 5-year effort, they would be valuating themselves above science.

  13. sadwatertunnell says:

    I take issue with the way this article frames indie games’ prices as having declined — implying that there was a time when people would have paid 15 bucks for vvvvvv if only steam sales never existed, or whatever reason. To me the grand struggle was always about getting consumers to pay for a small game at all. free (read: ad-supported) flash games and freeware releases basically were the indie download market for years, and getting people to pay a fair price for stuff “that just looks like a newgrounds flash game” has always been a challenge.

    Don’t get me wrong, im all for devs pricing their games at the true value of the labor involved, as it leads to happier devs and better and more games. seeing people being able to support themselves through work they actually like to do is always fantastic. This article just misjudges the problem in my view.

    • BlueTemplar says:

      In the unabridged version, the author talks about the “first indie revolution” that happened in the 1970’s, years before the rise of the World Wide Web and Flash games. (He also mentions the “casual” market, which I assume are these flash games at a later point.)

      • Joel Goodwin says:

        Yes, people were splurging $10-$20 a game on Bejewelled clones until 2009. Steve Pavlina, one of the original indie dev heroes, created had a game called Dweep which was selling (as shareware) for $15/$25 back in 2000.

      • Joel Goodwin says:

        This particular part of the ebook deals with the idea that developers can raise market prices through force of will. It’s unlikely to succeed, but there’s no harm in trying. It would be better to price pragmatically according to your situation. (Niche? Price high!)

        I should add that my intent is to work through all the various arguments that get dragged out when we talk about the indiepocalypse. Many developers were concerned that prices were falling and sales volumes were not increasing to match.
        The chapter in sum establishes where low prices have come from, why they were inevitable and persistent, and that this is not something necessarily unusual.

  14. Ejia says:

    Ah. That bit.

    I have accepted that while I love videogames, I am not particularly good at them. I have made my peace with the fact that I will never get veni vidi vici, or last a whole 60 seconds on Hexagonest.

  15. Hyena Grin says:

    That one micro-economics class that I took in university rears its head.

    It just sounds an awful lot like what the article is saying is that for most indie developers, the cost of development isn’t worth the price they can sell games at and still expect a profit.

    And yet there’s just staggering numbers of small games coming out. Steam’s store swells with them. And though the market may be fairly large, there’s a soft limit on the amount of money that market is going to spend.

    The customer has enormous power in this scenario. You have developers essentially competing with each other to sell their products and a market of customers who, let’s be honest, for the most part don’t give a shit. It’s a luxury. More than that, it’s a time-consuming luxury, and the market is saturated. Gamers have too many games and not enough time to play them. If you staunchly raise prices, sales will plummet. There’s no getting around that. The value of the work put into these games is not the same value that customers place on their dollar. On a personal level I absolutely empathize with the developers who work hard and put their heart into something that means something to them. But there’s too many games. Raising the price in a flooded market is just moving sales around. And even if everyone raised their prices, there’d probably just be much fewer sales and fewer developers would be able to subsist.

    Man, I didn’t mean for this comment to come out so grim. I feel for the devs, I do. And maybe charging whatever you think it’s worth and accepting fewer sales is fine. But personally, I’d be aiming straight for that economic equilibrium. More people playing and more profit is worth the degradation of low price points that seem at odds with the time, effort, and skill put in.

    Then again, one dumb microeconomics class never made anyone an expert. So, of course. Just my humble opinion.

    • Lobotomist says:

      So very true…

      • Rack says:

        Yeah, this really feels like a lot of people railing against reality. Raising the prices isn’t going to increase the amount of money going into the hobby, odds are it’s going to decrease it. There’s not really anything noble about pricing your product higher than the market will bear. The only way to get more money into the system is to attract new players.

    • Blastaz says:

      Yes. This article seems to fetishise price as if it were a measure of artistic worth, and that a four quid game is less intrinsically valuable than a sixty rather than in less demand. It treats the topic as a question of moral philosophy rather than one of economics. I could write an essay in response, but no one has the time for that in a comments section :) the tldr summary would be you don’t “resist” market forces, or rather you don’t successfully resist them and indy devs shouldn’t pretend that “discoverability” is Steam’s problem, but actually work out a marketing strategy. To pick up on a couple of key points:

      Advertising: Activision doesn’t spend millions of dollars marketing Call of Duty to convince people that it’s game is “worth” sixty dollars they do so to let as many people as possible know that their game a) exisists and b) is cool and you should buy it. If you pour your life and soul into an Indy game, but then never tell anyone that it exists why do you think anyone will know? And if they don’t know it exists how can they buy it? Look at Punch Club to see what a clever, and basically free marketing gimmick can do for your sales. Yes your game may become flavour of the month on Steam and sell a million copies through word of mouth but the odds of that are low if you don’t get the ball rolling yourself. Rohrer notes that the spikes on his sales graph reflect his game getting press coverage – this is exactly my point if you tell people your game exists some of them might choose to buy it!

      Volume isn’t a dirty word: the idea is raised that if there weren’t ever any sales and half the people paid full price for the game then the dev would break even. I would suggest that a) this isn’t true – sales spike in sales because people are only willing to spend small amounts of money on no name Indy games they have never heard of but quite like the art style of and much more importantly b) even if it were true the Indy dev would be worse off in that situation. Why? Fewer people would have bought their game, fewer people will look out for their next one, fewer people will tell their friends about it, write wikis for it, tweet about. If it were true you would have halved the size of your community. And that hurts you in buz, dlc and new game sales. You are better off selling 30k copies at a quid each than 1k copies at 30 quid each. More people might buy the soundtrack.

      Capitalism isn’t evil: your game may be art but it is also a commodity and one with a unit cost that is functionally zero, competing in a very saturated market. The world doesn’t owe you a living, don’t go all in if you can’t afford to. Etc.

      • RabbitIslandHermit says:

        Commodities are by definition interchangeable with each other. Creative works aren’t commodities, which doesn’t mean that they’re immune from the market, but that that market is a lot less predictable than the market for corn or steel. Pricing low doesn’t guarantee high volume, especially not linearly.

        • Joel Goodwin says:

          I take the “commodity” problem to task in the bit before this in the ebook. In short: each game is technically unique, but there are aspects that make many of them feel like commodities: billions of Bejewelled clones – they’re going to feel interchangeable!

          AAA gets out of this because they are expensive to produce and thus maintain an appearance of scarcity even if this year’s top shooter doesn’t seem so different to last year’s.

  16. The Lambton Worm says:

    One thing that I think is interesting and might imaginably be a way out of this model is patronage-type ways of generating revenue. It’s worked for other kinds of project which I think are relevantly similar to indie games, such as webcomics (I’ve given more money to Subnormality in patronage than I’d ever be likely to have given them in sales), and if I recall correctly it’s worked out OK for a few games/studios as well, like Dwarf Fortress. The most basic worry/motivation of paying higher prices is to keep your favourite devs churning out more games and patronage is a really direct way to do that, more direct than buying things off them. If market forces are going to drive the price of ‘objects’ like games toward zero, maybe the solution isn’t to fight that but to change our idea of what it is that we’re paying for; and I think that that is possible and has been done successfully before.

    • The Lambton Worm says:

      (Actually, it just occurred to me that this is also basically how I think of Paradox games. I buy the DLC one by one over time, in a way that roughly reflects the amount of time I’ve spent on the game, and I don’t resent it because each of those five or ten pound purchases reflects another twenty or fifty hours of play.)

    • MajorLag says:

      This is my solution, or will be if I ever manage to release anything even remote worth mentioning. I long ago gave up the dream of quitting my day job to make games, partly because of the way the market is, but mostly because I’m actually just not very good at making games.

      Additionally, as a linux-loving computer nerd from the 90s and unabashed software pirate (not PC games though, at least not since Steam came out), there’s just something about telling other people they should pay for my work that feels a might-bit hypocritical.

      So, if I ever accidentally create something of value, my plan is to release it for free, and ask for donations. I’m not quitting my day job anyway, more people are likely to actually play it, and if they want me to make more they can patronize me.

  17. Premium User Badge

    caff says:

    Excellent article.

    Last year I got way more enjoyment out of indie and small studio games than I did from big budget stuff.

  18. Peksisarvinen says:

    This is me simplifying a matter that can’t be simplified to this degree, but if you sell your game for let’s say 5€, it’s a price everyone can afford and are willing to afford, even at the risk of it being a waste. Steam has millions of users, and if you can increase your potential audience from let’s say 10% of the user base to like 50% (completely made up numbers to illustrate a point), just by taking less money per sale, it’s what you should do.

    Plus, it allows more people to enjoy your product/art. Believe it or not, not all people can afford to pay even 20€ for a game that might potentially not be enjoyable to them. All games run that risk, especially if you don’t release a demo. And why should they? You don’t buy a car without driving it first or a house without visiting it first, why should you spend money on games without playing them first?

    That’s why piracy was so popular. People were sick of paying far too much money based on industry hype from biased and bribed gaming “journalists” and gameplay videos without any actual gameplay, as they should be. Give us either a demo or be willing to sell your game at a price that people are willing to risk, or at the very least don’t complain about refunds.

    As a writer, I plan on releasing my upcoming second book for at 5€. It’s a price I feel is not plain insulting/risking people thinking it’s the kind of garbage that usually sells for 1€ on Amazon, and still a price that most people can/are willing to dish out, no sweat. I don’t know if I’ll make any money off it, but at the very least the low price will make the book available for more people, and just getting more people to read my work is a win in and of itself I think.

    Work on things as a hobbyist. Then once you get something done you don’t care if it makes a buck or not. Counting the hours you’ve spent on a project for which nobody is paying for by the hour is silly.

  19. Hawke says:

    Interesting article.

    I’ve supported a couple of “crap” quality level indies (two have been in development for 4-5 years, thus backing those turned out to be a mistake), purchased several great games (ended up with all DLC, such as soundtracks, artbooks and expansions and the new game from those developers purchased on the launch day) with 50% discount, some average stuff with 75% off.

    I think about the devs, only if I’m satisfied with the game when the credits roll. Otherwise I’m concerned about my time and money wasted.

  20. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    Great article (Joel’s always are). Linked to this I’m really curious how the Witness got on with its fairly bold move of charging £30 for an indie game. I recently picked it up in a sale for £12 and I wonder how many others did. It’s whole-heartedly an enormously generous offering at that price point, but if it launched at £12 I wouldn’t have bought it, I don’t think. I’d have waited for the sale. Not sure if that was in Jonathon Blow’s thinking when setting the price, or if he just had the cohones to look at his creation and say this ticks all the boxes people expect of AAA games – Beautiful graphics, Large open world, Dozens of hours of gameplay. Replace clicking on heads with clicking on puzzles and it’s not dissimilar to most AAA launches. Only thing against that is the limited story aspects – a deliberate decision very in keeping with the game, but does give away its indie origins.

    Overall I do see things changing of late, especially sales and bundles, seem to be calming down. You see less and less bargain basement prices, and at the same time AAA games are getting 50% offed within a couple of months of launch. Everything seems to be steering towards a £15 sweet spot. Not sure if that’s good or bad…

  21. thenevernow says:

    I don’t think indie PC games have “a finite shelf-life”. For reference, VVVVVV was released on Steam six and a half years ago and it’s still there, with a price tag of €5, potentially still making sales (not many, for sure, but still).

  22. MajorLag says:

    “I wanted to avoid, as much as possible, the conversation about hours and content.”

    I really wish more people would do this. Equating time to value in gaming is doing irreparable harm to the industry in my opinion. If you tell a developer they need 60 hours of gameplay for every $10 they charge, then they will artificially inflate their game length with bullshit grind, boring as hell procgen, or :shudders: crafting.

    If anything, I think a game is worth MORE if it can entertain the player sufficiently in less time. My time is valuable to me, and I’d rather not waste it on tediousness.

    • delberry says:

      Ha ha “:shudders: crafting”.
      My favorite is getting my smithing up to 100% in Skyrim [sarcastic emoji].
      Your not even crafting anything you’re going to use except for getting better at crafting. Genius.

  23. Haruspicus says:

    I really enjoyed this article. It was in depth, well sourced and very interesting. Good job!

  24. wisnoskij says:

    I would never knowingly buy a game from someone who believed that a cup of coffee costs $5. $5 is not the cost of a cup of coffee, it is the median daily wage for all Earthlings.

  25. quasiotter says:

    If there’s a game in a bundle I know I won’t play, I gift it to a friend! It works out for both of us that way.

  26. Dynamique says:

    Great article! Yet another one suggesting that this internet thingy tends to “destroy” the creative middle class (e.g.: decently paid jobs with some medium term perspective), boosting both attention economics (as in: AAA, adware-games) and self exploitation… Sad.

  27. Tridus says:

    Mobile is firmly in the thrall of zero, but the games are overwhelmingly there to waste your time instead. Instead of costing money, they cost time and frustration, which you then pay money to alleviate.

    It’s a terrible business model and ended up pushing me off mobile gaming. Finding decent games amid the sea of garbage is next to impossible.

    Steam seems to be heading in similar directions, but at least there are still a fair amount of good things being made.

  28. alms says:

    It’s just my speculation ofc, but I suspect the truth is Vogel has made more money from revised pricing than he has ever done before.

    His games are a good example because they shine for the writing, world-building and mechanics, but how many does anyone think are going to find that out where the games look, sound and feel the way Vogel’s do?

    My contrarian opinion is that there is a potential, at least theoretically, for games to be, on average (key point this one) even cheaper, because it’s obvious that there’s a greater hunger for them than it can be satisfied by current pricing, as proven by some shady sites I won’t mention, and things as Humble Monthly as well.

    However, there is a problem with the psychology of buyers that fall into the marketing trick of associating worth with price, and other undesirable effects.

    The FJORDS developer seem to have a better hang on this than most people.

    • malkav11 says:

      It’s not really speculation, I don’t think. I am pretty sure he’s said he’s made more money at the lower pricepoint than he did with his old methods, and there’s definitely a reason he’s pushed as many of his games as he could manage onto Steam and even had them in bundles.

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