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.