Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Should Games Sell For Donations? Or, Is Setting a Fixed Price For Losers?

So here is a question for Indie developers. Suppose you didn't have to charge a fixed price for your game? Suppose instead you could just have it sell for a donation. Customers give any amount of money, and they get the game. Should you do it?

Of course, any credit card transaction involves a fixed fee, so we'd allow you to set a minimum price, say a dollar, so that you aren't losing money giving people your game. Some people will complain that it's not a donation if you set a minimum price. But only a true jerk would expect you to lose money for the privilege of bringing them entertainment, so these people can be safely ignored.

This question has been asked a lot since the success of the Humble Indie Bundle. I have been repeatedly asked what I thought of that, so that's a good place to start.

What Was the Humble Indie Bundle?

Basically, it was a bundle of five successful and high quality Indie games. They were not new, but they weren't so old either. They were sold for a donation. You could have all five, with DRM, for Windows, Mac, and Linux, for whatever you wanted to pay. And, even better, you could designate a percentage of your donation (from 0% to All) to go to charity!

It succeeded beyond all reasonable expectations. It got huge amounts of attention, everyone involved made buckets of money, and a lot of statements were made about what the Humble Indie Bundle meant for the future of games distribution. In particular, since they all made so much money just asking for donations, shouldn't every developer consider this?

It was a brilliant idea. It got several deserving developers a lot of money, it got deserving charities a lot of money, it got a lot of people some really good games, and it was just generally fantastic overall. If I was asked to include one of my games for a future Bundle, I would jump at the chance.

But Let's Not Overstate the Case

We should probably not leap to extreme conclusions too quickly. Because of the novelty and general virtue of the offer, it got a HUGE amount of publicity. And then it made a ton of money, which got more publicity, and they extended the sale, which got more publicity, and so on.

Look. If you gave me extensive free coverage on Slashdot, Kotaku, The Escapist, and every other online news outlet, I could make a fortune selling quarters for a dollar each. (Hey, it works in real life.) This is something people forget when they look at sales on, say, Steam making a lot of money and then say, "OK. All games should be cheap, always." Sales do so well because they get a ton of attention. If it becomes a regular, everyday thing, it won't get the attention. Will accepting donations generate acceptable income if many developers do it? I don't know, but it won't get the same glowing success it got when it was new.

But the fact remains. The Humble Indie Bundle was a brilliant idea that got a ton of well-earned success. They made a ton of money asking for donations for their games.

Should you?

When It Might Work

Not long ago, I wrote about how there is a spectrum in how games should be priced. On one end are the casual, disposable, impulse-buy games. These should be very cheap, painfully cheap. At the other end are are hardcore, involved, long playing-time, niche games for a small audience. These need to earn as much money from each member of their small player pools as possible to avoid developer bankruptcy. These games need to carefully choose an actual price that brings in adequate earnings.

So suppose you're writing a cheap, impulse buy, casual game and you had the chance to make it donation-ware. Should you? Quite probably! You need to charge a small amount anyway to work as an impulse buy. And, if you ask for donations, some people will give you more money. Maybe they love Indie developers, or they feel the higher price is fair, or they just hate having money. Either way, it's freely given, so grab it while you can!

I have several games that I bought on XBox Live Indie Games that I got for a dollar each. I like them a lot, and they made good money for their makers. But if instead of charging a fixed dollar they asked for a minimum dollar donation? I would bet just about anything these games would be making a LOT more money. I don't think Microsoft is going to add a Donate button to the Indie Games channel soon, but they should. It's a great option for developers, and it would make more money for Microsoft too.

When It Probably Won't Work

When you have a niche product with a small customer base.

The average donation for the Humble Indie Bundle was $9.18, and you got SIX games out of that. I am planning to charge my small but dedicated fanbase $25 for my next game. If my donation size was similar to what they got, to make the same amount of money, asking for donations would have to increase my sales by 250%. That is a LOT. To get that, I would have to get a huge amount of publicity and gather a lot of sales from people who would otherwise have pirated it. However, if this became a common business tactic, the publicity wouldn't be there, because donation-ware wouldn't be new and exciting anymore.

And if it didn't improve sales that much? At nine bucks per copy, I would be out of business inside of a year.

But I said earlier that I would jump at being in another Humble Bundle in a second. That is because the Bundle would get that sort of publicity. There's strength in numbers. But a lone small developer? It's a dangerous, dangerous tactic.

Who knows? It might work. Part of me would love to try it. However, Spiderweb Software is how I make my living and buy food for my kids. Someone will experiment more with this in the future, but it can't be me. The personal consequences of failure are too big. So feel free to pillory me in the comments for how much I suck and am a coward, but I'm sure some of you will understand.

It's An Exciting Time

The last few years have made all developers rethink everything they know about development, distribution, and pricing. It's an amazing world, full of exciting new options. Why just considering whether I should ask for donations instead of charge a fixed price totally blows my mind.

And, finally, one more thought about PC/Mac development. Since it is so easy to pirate games on personal computers, people will only buy your game in they are virtuous and don't hate you. Since you are only actually selling products to Good People anyway, going to them with open hands and saying, "Pay me what this is worth to you." might eventually be the only business tactic that makes sense.