Friday, January 29, 2010

My thoughts on indie game pricing

So, there's been some interesting news in the Indie game scene lately.  The controversy, such as it is, got kickstarted with the release of a game by Distractionware entitled VVVVVV (that's 6 V's, all in a row).  The game looks unabashedly old-skool with blocky Atari 2600-like graphics.  The game mechanic is interesting (you get around by flipping gravity), the levels are very challenging, and the soundtrack is this awesome pumping techno music that puts you just in the right mood.  It's hecka fun.  The issue?  The game is made in Flash, it lasts around 3-4 hours, and costs $15.

Nobody is denying that the game is interesting, but there are wildly differing opinions on the price.  An article on the Escapist says that it's way too expensive, and an on-the-spot sarcastic comic offers tips on how to afford it.  The argument seems to be that Distractionware is hurting themselves by pricing the game too high, and that a lot more people would buy the game if it were $5 instead of $15. The opposing argument is that $15 is not really that much and indie games are too cheap in general.

As someone who has been on the brunt-end of this argument before, I thought I'd offer my perspective. I've always had a lot of difficulty knowing what to charge.  With a film, it's easy.  It could be a multi-million dollar blockbuster or a ten-thousand dollar indie film, but you'll still plunk down the same amount of cash to see both in the cinema (FYI: movies cost $12 in New York) .  Games are different.  There are so many different kinds of games that no set price could ever be agreed on.

So, I experimented.  My first game, The Shivah, was only $5.  My second game, Blackwell Legacy, was $15.  When I released Blackwell Unbound, I decided to sell it for $10.  Mostly I was just experimenting to see what worked, but some thought also went into how much money I spent producing them (Unbound cost significantly less to make than Legacy).  When the time came to set the price for Convergence, I took a look at how well my previous games sold at certain prices and tried to reach some conclusions.

The argument about cheaper prices is usually that "if the game is cheaper, more people will buy it."  This is definitely true.  Unbound definitely sold more than Legacy.  But while Unbound cost 1/3 less, it certainly did not sell 1/3 more in order to make up for the drop in price.  The lower price was earning me less money.  So based on that, I decided that $15 was the "sweet spot" for my new games, and $10 was a good price for the older ones.

Of course, I don't know much about business and I could be completely wrong.  There are probably many factors I have not considered, but it's been working out pretty well so far. As for VVVVVV (and other games like it), if $15 works well for you, then resist lowering it by all means!  We want you to stay fed and happy so you can make more awesome games.

Anyone else have their own thoughts on this issue?  Agree? Disagree?  Comment and let me know!

Till next time,



  1. I think $15 is fair price for your games. I'm looking to do PC/Mac standalone games in the future, and I definitely expect to go for the $10-15 market.

    There are definitely some weird expectations with regards to style and price. I don't think adventure games have been chucked in the bargain bucket expectation yet, but 2D platform games probably have.

  2. I think, as this discussion continues, that we'll discover that it's the same with indie video games as it is with movies. That is to say the content is less deterministic of the price than the price is deterministic of the price. "Why'd you pay $12 to see that movie?" "Because movies cost $12." "But that one cost $132 to make, including the second hand flip camera they filmed it on."

    I aught to charge $15 for an ASCII game and really get this contriversy started.

  3. Braid was about 4 hours of gameplay and it sold a whole lot of copies at $15. Yeah, the graphics are way better than VVVVVV but I'd say VVVVVV is as fun if not more fun than Braid.

    $15 for 4 hours is a great value.
    As you said, a movie costs $12 per person.
    A 4 hour game is twice as long as a movie and can be replayed by you or by a friend or sibling.

  4. I think a lot of it has not to do with perceived quality but perceived playtime. Commercial games have set expectations about the $s to playtime ratio, for better or worse, and I think $15 can be a tough sell for what I've read is a 3-4 hour experience.

    Your discussion of $5 vs. $10 vs. $15 made me think of this piece, which might be worth a read if you haven't:

  5. Your games are longer than 3 hours though, correct?

    While $15 is a pretty fair price for your games, and I certainly wouldn't go as low as $5, I don't think anything that takes only 3 or so hours to play should cost more than $10, especially if it doesn't have particularly advanced graphics.

  6. @Chris: If $s to playtime ratio really was as important a factor as you postulate, it would be hard to explain how it is that, for instance, most mainstream FPSs these days have incredibly short singleplayer modes of roughly 8-12 hours each but are still selling just as well at $60 as older and longer games did in their day. Of course, the near-obligatory inclusion of multiplayer does affect the replayability in substantial ways, but given the amount of repetition that mode of gameplay inevitably involves it can be argued that there's no functional difference between MP and similarily repetitive but playtime-extending features - such as time trials - which you find in many indie game.

    Ultimately, I think the price sensitivity comes down to far less intellectually defensible factors; such as the deeply ingrained but ultimately groundless notion that paying real money (at least above the 0,99$-4,99$ price range) is something you only do if cutting edge graphics and big budgets are involved.

  7. I don't think a game's author should ever be pressed by the players to give lower prices. Why is it considered immoral to attach prices that work out for your business?

  8. Demiath, I do think people buy almost all FPSes for the multiplayer mode, with the solo campaign a nice addition. If I was going to make a groundless generalization, I would say 10 hours is the cutoff point where people start to get antsy about playtime. I dug on the latest Silent Hill, which is closest to adventure in genre (I feel), but it was getting dinged in the press because an average playthrough took less time than that -- even though it was really designed for multiple plays.

    You're totally right, though. People love shiny things.

  9. I think '9.99 or 19.99' is good. 09.99 or 19.99, I mean. First number means something to buyers(incl. me.)

  10. It does depend on the quality of the art, music, and the gameplay length (but also awesomeness). Unbound was a shorter game and $10 seemed right. Convergence is longer, bigger, and has more elaborate music and art so $15 seems like a sweet spot. However, I did not buy the game until it was on sale – either I was too busy or something else, but the sale pushed me over the edge.

    So I think creative pricing is good. Give a break to people who pre-order a game, run sales for past customers, and be sure to lower prices as games age.

  11. This is capitalism my friends! People are free to charge whatever they like for their products. If you don't think it's worth the money, you don't buy it, just like anything else.

    Perhaps some major publishers could be accused of charging unfair prices (*ahem*, Activision), pricing games higher than usual when there is nothing extra in them simply because they know it will sell anyway... but not in indie development. Which of the indie developers have become fabulously wealthy from their expensive games? Their future is often balanced on the success of every game they release... and I for one am willing to spend $15 on a Blackwell adventure to keep Dave making more. For one thing, it's nice to know you've made a direct contribution towards the developers - with the AAA commercial titles, your individual sale means just about nothing to the developers.

    What Dave says makes perfect sense - settle on a price which finds the perfect balance between copies sold and overall profit. No one can say it makes sense for you to do anything else - people may think you'd sell enough extra copies to make a lower price more profitable, but it's a fine balance, and only experience with past sales can give you an idea of where the sweet spot is.