Thursday, September 23, 2010

Indie Games Should Be Too Cheap or Too Expensive.

I wrote a while ago how amazingly, crazily cheap Indie games have become. Big Fish Games sells every title for $6.99, tops. The most you can charge for a title on XBoxLive Indie games, ever, is $10. And, of course, if you try to sell a game in iTunes for more than 99 cents, you will get complaints about how expensive your game is, no exceptions.

This still really bugs me, because not all games should sell for so little, and systems that force Indie games to always be cheap aren't good for developers. But I went too far when I said that all Indie games should cost more. The people who made Angry Birds and Doodle Jump are making gigantic fortunes selling games for such low prices, and it is foolish for me to say anything about their tactics should change. Hey, success speaks for itself.

But I have been thinking a lot about Indie game pricing, as my games are actually quite expensive by the standards of the day. For any young developer who is trying to figure out how to price his or her sparkling new product, this is a huge issue. So how should an Indie game be priced, anyway?

These days, I think that there is a spectrum that all of these games fall on, and where your game ends up on it pretty much determines how it should be priced. This is the spectrum of Casual & Disposable versus Hardcore & Deep.

1. Casual & Disposable?

What games fall into this category? Games that are relatively small in scope, simple, and easily to learn. Games without huge, complicated rules sets, so that a LOT of players can figure them out easily. Games that lend themselves to be short play sessions. Games that aren't too deep in any one niche (not too easily marked as an RPG or a shooter), to maximize the size of the customer base. And games that are meant to be disposable impulse buys. You buy it for a small amount of money, have a bit of fun, and move on.

These games are really cheap. They have to be. They have to be cheap enough that the amount of money you spend on it hardly feels like spending money at all. Probably a dollar, up to three for an experience that is particularly well-known, high quality, and sought after, like Peggle.

To make any money at all selling a game for a dollar, it really has to catch on. You have to write a game that scares away as few players as possible. And then you have to either market it well (which costs money) or hope that it gets noticed through word of mouth (which requires a lot of luck).

Writing these sorts of games is perfect for an Indie developer because they can be made in a small amount of time with a small team. Most games in this market fail, but the few that break through into the public consciousness do very well. It's a lot like what has been written of Broadway: "It's a place to make a killing, but not a living."

If you're making a game at this end of the spectrum, you'll probably have to swallow hard and make your price low enough to compete. It's a painfully small amount to get in return for your work, but you need to be an impulse buy to have a chance.

2. Hardcore & Deep?

What games fall into this category? Games that take a long time to experience and that have more complicated game systems to maintain interest during this increased play time. Games with longer individual play sessions. Games that are deeper in a niche and that were written to serve a small and perhaps neglected set of gamers. Games that have few competitors that are very similar, and that you buy because you will only be happy with that game. Games that you pay more for and that reward you with an experience that you live with for a while.

These games are more expensive. They have to be. When you write a game for a small, dedicated fan base, you need to extract more money from each customer as a condition of survival. Suppose the market for my retro RPGs is ten thousand people. If I charge each of them one or three dollars for a game, I go bankrupt in one year. So they have to pay more, but, in return, they get an experience that is deep, lasting, and rare. I can charge more because very few developers make what I make.

Writing these sorts of games is perfect for an Indie developer because you can "own your niche" and have very little competition. Blizzard can always make a bigger, shinier real-time strategy game, so you can't ever beat them. But if you write a super-detailed simulation of war in the Pacific, lack of competition will help your fans to forgive the flaws that come with a smaller budget. And, when you do build a fan base, they can give you a decent living. You won't get rich writing games for 10000 people, but you can have a nice life.

If you're making a game at this end of the spectrum, you'll probably have to swallow hard and make your price high enough to survive. You will get e-mails every day complaining that your game doesn't cost as much as Doodle Jump. Ignore them, and turn away any distributor who tries to get you to charge a pittance. You have to charge what it takes to survive.

Remember, This Is a Spectrum

Of course, few games are completely casual or completely hardcore. It is a spectrum. Plants vs. Zombies is a great example. It's casual enough to have broad appeal but enough in a genre (tower defense) and deep enough that it should sell for actual dollars. Ten bucks (twenty on some platforms) is a great price for it. Figuring out how to price a game is a matter of judging where your game is on the scale and pricing accordingly.

In the current environment, small developers really do need to make hard decisions about what their game has to sell for to survive, price accordingly, ignore the criticism, and stay away from markets where you can't charge what you need to. When XBox Live Indie games only allows you to charge $10 for a title, it makes games at the niche end of the spectrum far less viable.

And customers have every right to complain that games are too expensive. Customers are going to say whatever they can to have the chance to save money. That's their job. I just hope they will remember that some games are expensive not because developers are cruel and grasping but because that is what they have to charge to be able to serve a relatively small niche.

My next game, Avadon: The Black Fortress, will be $25. I hope that turns out to be the right spot. I'll know soon enough.


  1. Have you looked into letting your customers chose how much they would like to pay for your games? I know that has worked out well in the past for some games/music/etc that got publicity. I have been wondering how it has worked out for less well-known products.

  2. Actually, now you can only charge $5 max for an XBLIG title. (A few that set the price before the change are still set to $10.)

    In practice, most games that charge anything higher than $1 are completely ignored.

  3. Thats funny. Recently there was a bit of a discussion about pricing at the shrapnel forum. When talking about the future of Dominions 3. Here I think around page 10 or something.

  4. @Dwayne: I will revisit this in a later post. Short answer: It works in limited short-term circumstances, but I don't think it's a lasting solution. But it'd be cool if someone proved me wrong.

    @Chounard: Totally not sure where you're getting that more than $1 ignored thing from. Source? Actually, from what sales figures we have, charging more that $1 is a great way to make a bunch more money.

    - Jeff Vogel

  5. FWIW, I think $25 is a better price point than $30. Psychologically, it is still a "twenty dollar game" and seems more than five dollars cheaper than games which fall in the nether-regions between 'indie-cheap' and 'AAA-expensive'.

  6. @disperse: Yeah, $30 feels expensive and $25 doesn't. It's really a weird psychology thing. THat's why my recent games are $28 instead of $30. $30 just doesn't feel right.

    - Jeff Vogel

  7. Would you develop/port for the iPad? It seems a big enough format to hold the depth of your games, unlike the gold rush situation.

  8. Will you consider accepting more different payment systems (other than PayPal)? Adding, let's say, Moneybookers or WebMoney as an option would probably increase your potential customer base.

  9. @Jeff: It's a common theme on the XBLIG forums. There have been a few successes over $1, but it's far from the norm. Lots of good games are ignored because they go over $1. And you get the same complaints as if you charge more than 99 cents on the iPhone appstore.

  10. @Chounard - Been a while since I've been on those forums. I'll take a look. But I suspect that successes of any sort are far from the norm.

    Anyway, I'm not saying that $1 games should sell for $2. I say the opposite of that. What I AM saying is that some sorts of Indie games CAN'T sell for $1 and turn a profit, and XBLIG doesn't allow those. Not seeing anything to make me feel different. We'll never know how well those games would do on XBLIG because they will never appear there.

    - Jeff Vogel

  11. Jeff if you wrote a game I could play on my iPhone instead of my PC I would happily pay up for it. If I could get the same amount of enjoyment that I get from your $25 games, I would pay $25 for an iPhone game.

  12. I think you're underestimating the audience for retro RPGs at low prices. We released our first XBLIG RPG (Breath of Death VII) for $1 and so far, it's sold over 30,000 copies and continues to sell around 50-100 copies a day - pretty nice for the first big title from 2 unknowns working part-time for 3 months.

    Now maybe we could have sold it at a higher price and made more money in the short run, but we viewed it as an investment. We're in this for the long haul so sacrificing some short term profit in exchange for additional visibility and a larger fanbase (who will hopefully be excited to purchase future games) felt like the smart move.

    Our next RPG, Cthulhu Saves the World, will be $3 since it's bigger and of higher quality. Games over $1 haven't been selling much on XBLIG in 2010, but I think this one will do well - not just because of the improvements in quality, but because we now have a fanbase and some media connections that should help us greatly in spreading the word. If there's one thing that our first game has taught us, it's that it's not enough to have a good product - publicity and awareness are just as important if not more if you want to get sales.

  13. Jeff - what do you think an\bout the subscription model? Buy my game in chapters? I know this wouldn't work for a lot of games, but it seems it would work for a retro RPG.

    I'm anticipating that your answer might be "Nah - I want to give fellow gamers enough of my game to really make them want to finish it and pay for the whole experience. Fair enough. However, in this limited attention span and limited patience world we live in, it might be that players will never finish the demo and therefore never pay you for any part of their experience.

    I hope I'm an oddball and not typical of any market - but I also have this problem: I've paid for the three Exiles and the first 5 Avernums. But now I sit with unfinished Avernums 4 and 5 and after 6+hours of Avernum 6 am asking myself "Is this just going to join the pile of games I haven't quite finished yet?"

    Chuck Waterman

  14. Big Fish actually raised the base price for its games from 6,99$ to 9,99$ recently, and a number of games in the top 10 on the site are 19,99$.

    So it seems it's not a complete race to the bottom after all.

  15. I personally don't mind Spiderweb's pricing model. You have great games. I could pay $50 for Civilization 5, enjoy it for a week, then put it aside. Or I could pay about $30 and enjoy a few months of Avernum. I'm bored of Civ already but am still playing Nethergate Resurrection, even though its age shows.

    I think Spiderweb's games are in the sweet spot. If you let me pay what I want, I'd be paying $5 or so, even if I'd be willing to fork out $30 for it. But I'm sure that there are a few kids out there, and a lot of people from poor countries like Indonesia who can't afford a $20 game.

  16. I love the fact that you have such LOOOONG demos. That's what convinced me to buy Avernum 4 (then additional titles)...I figured that if I was that immersed in the demo, the full game would be amazing. I wasn't disappointed. The under $30 price tag made it a reasonable investment.

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  25. "You won't get rich writing games for 10000 people, but you can have a nice life."

    This is very similar to what you said in Secrets of the Game Design Gurus, or was that Seth Robinson? I'll have to dig up my copy when I get home. I love indie testimonials; they make me warm and fuzzy inside, or perhaps that's the rotgut.

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