You really need to start charging more for your games.
Every year, life is getting more and more expensive. Insurance. Rent. Food. And, at the same time, your games are getting cheaper and cheaper, sometimes as cheap as a dollar, as you engage in a full speed race to the bottom.
Now don't get me wrong. Some games (casual quickies, simple puzzle games) should be inexpensive. But everyone (retailers, reviewers, customers) is enabling a mindset where all games, even the niche products and larger, deeper, less casual titles, are expected to be desperately cheap. This is not going to help developers stay in business. This is not how a healthy industry is maintained.
Creating the Expectation of Insulting Cheapness
There is an increasing attitude that Indie games should be cheap. Super cheap. Like, pennies on the dollar, "How can a developer make a living that way?" cheap.
XBox Live gave the trend a big push by charging $5 or $10 for most titles. That was still enough to get rich on when the gold rush was going. It isn't going anymore. I was genuinely surprised when people seriously complained that Braid, one of the coolest, most innovative titles out last year, was an entirely reasonable fifteen bucks.
Then Microsoft created XNA, a set of tools anyone can use to write and sell games on the XBox. Sounds cool, so far, but the maximum anyone can sell their game for is $10. Not good. Think that, sometimes, some games should actually sell for more than that? You are, apparently, crazy.
Then Amazon opened their game download store, selling all titles for ten bucks or less. Not good. (Oh, and look at the comments in the article I just linked to if you don't think people are now expecting games to be that cheap.)
Now the iPhone has boldly lowered the bar, with $4.99 being the highest price point for most of the titles, and the user reviews on most $4.99 titles are about how excessively expensive they are. (As if.) And many of the games are going for ninety-nine cents. Cents! Once the gold rush is over, only the lowest budget, most casual titles are going to be able to make money at that price.
Bargain basement prices are becoming the expectation. It wasn't always that way.
A Bit of Ancient History
When I first founded Spiderweb Software, in 1994, I spent a lot of time thinking about pricing my first game, Exile. Back then, there was a good rule of thumb for pricing your shareware product:
Charge half as much as the comparable product being sold in boxes on store shelves.
Back then, new games sold for $50. So Exile was $25, which was a very common price for shareware games back then.
A few years later, I started sending the registered version on a CD (instead of E-mailing a registration code). I charged $30 for a CD. Sales changed very little.
Two years later, I went back to an E-mailed code system and lowered the price back down to $25. Sales changed very little.
Three years ago, I looked at all of our expenses (credit card fees, postage, insurance, etc) and went "Holy crap! We need to raise prices to account for this." We raised our price to $28 (still about half the price of comparable products on store shelves). Since then, our money intake has actually increased. We're doing quite well now.
And yet, in the last few years, Indie game prices have been falling through the floor. They get more and more expensive to write but are approaching unheard of levels of cheapness. ($10. $5. $1.)
So What's the Problem, Loudmouth?
Some games being sold cheap doesn't bother me. Some games SHOULD be sold cheap. Braid and World of Goo, both fantastic games, are perfectly priced at $15 for 6-7 rich, no-filler hours of play. $28 would be too much for them.
What bothers me is the increasing number of outlets where low, low prices, no matter what the quality or depth or size of the game, are the expectation. (hi2u Amazon and iTunes) This squeezes out the niche products. Niche products (like single-player RPGs, adventure games, wargames) are going to have small, intense audiences. They need to charge a fair price to survive. And that means taking all the factors into account.
How Should You Price An Indie Game?
The difference between an amateur and a professional is that the professional knows how much to charge for his or her work. When people argue about how much an Indie game should sell for, they tend to ignore several important factors that should go into the decision:
- How Big is the Game? - Braid lasts about 6 hours, or about $2.50 an hour. A little on the pricey side, but the game gets away with it by being so fun. Our newest game, Geneforge 5: Overthrow, lasts about 30 hours, or less than a buck an hour (not counting considerable replay value). $28 seems very fair.
- How Niche Is the Game? - Economics says that scarcer things should sell for more. A Bejeweled clone is common and thus should be cheap. Good single-player RPGs are scarce. They should sell for more.
- How Much Do I Need To Earn To Live? - Suppose your game takes a year to write and thus, counting salaries, needs to earn about $100K to break even. If you sell it on iTunes for $.99, after Apple's cut, you need to sell around 130000 copies to break even. That is a LOT of copies. A spiffy and addictive puzzle game (which is harder to write than you think) might sell that many. A plot-heavy niche RPG? No.
Indie developers are harmed by a blanket idea of what their games "should" cost. Everyone who allows this bargain basement attitude is part of the problem.
Oh, And a Quick Note For Those Who Disagree With Me ...
If you don't care about the people who work so hard to entertain you being able to charge a price that enables them to survive, I have no interest in what you have to say.
Why You Shouldn't Go Cheap, and What You, Yes You, Should Do
This is already pretty TLDR for a blog post. Next week, I'll give some of the reasons to sell games cheaply (I've heard them all over the years) and why they are bogus. And I'll give some suggestions for how everyone can maintain a market in which ALL Indies can survive.