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,


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Single player games as a social activity?

A few years ago, my friend Brandon and I were chatting about games.  More specifically, games that took place in New York.  I remembered hearing about a game called "True Crime: Streets of New York" for the original XBOX.  It was a GTA-like urban sandbox game, where you played a cop who went on various missions around the city.  It had been out for awhile, and it was reviewed very poorly, but from what I read it was very faithful in re-creating the streets of Manhattan in virtual form.  Sure enough, a week later, Brandon found a copy of the game in a bargain bin for 5 bucks and brought it over to my apartment.

After getting through the tutorial, our avatar was walking through a last-gen version of Times Square.  Without wasting a minute, we nabbed a car and drove our character downtown through Union Square and into the East Village.  Soon enough, we were walking through my neighborhood, looking at my apartment building as depicted in the game.  There was something very zen about the experience, but that didn't stop Brandon from selecting grenades from the character's inventory and start fire-bombing my apartment building. 

A few hours later the novelty of wandering through (and blowing up various pieces of) virtual New York had worn off.  The game was as buggy and rough as the reviews said it was, but it still remains one of the more memorable experiences in gaming for me.  Why?  Because for the first time in my life I was playing a game with another person.  Brandon and I both remember that moment and laugh. 

I've been playing video games since the Atari 2600 lumbered its' way out of the primordial ooze and heaved itself onto store shelves.  It's a hobby I've enjoyed all of my life, but there's one thing about it that you can't deny.  It's a very solitary one.  Sure, there are two player games, but most mainstream console games are made with a single player in mind.  Even social MMOs like World of Warcraft require that the player be sitting by him/herself at the keyboard.

Lately, I've discovered the joy of playing games with other people.  I recently went to a gaming meetup, where every month a group of people play through "Shadow of the Colossus".  I went to it wondering how it was going to be handled.  Do we take turns?  Do we each take down one Colossus (there are 16 in the game)?  In actuality, it was a very laid-back and loose affair, where people who wanted to play would play and the rest of us would just watch and make funny comments.  It was a total social thing, and I had a great time.  Something I never thought I would experience while playing a single-player game.

Honestly, I'm not sure of the point I'm trying to make here.  I just think it's great that video gaming - once considered the past-time of pale shut-ins, has become much more widely accepted.  Does anyone else have memorable moments like these?  Do share 'em!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Cafe people: Angry phone lady

One of my regular cafés is a place called "Cosi's".  There are quite a few Cosi's in New York, but they seem to concentrate downtown where you get a lot of students.  I like Cosi's because you can order food and they bring it to your table like you are in a real restaurant.

If you go to a place often enough you begin to recognize certain people.  Some are just faces, while others are a bit more... eccentric.

Whenever I enter this café, I always see the same woman.  A middle-aged, heavy-set, black woman with a permanent scowl.  She stomps in carting a massive suitcase on wheels and maneuvers her way to a booth in the corner.  Once there, she heaves the suitcase onto the seat opposite her and sits down.  She grabs a coffee and then proceeds to mumble angrily into a headset phone.  For the entire day.

And when I say the entire day, I mean the entire day.

Now, there are days when I get to the café at 9am and don't leave until the late afternoon.  There are days when I don't leave until six or seven.  But this woman?  She's still there.  She's still talking into her headset phone, she's still looking angry, and that massive suitcase is still on the seat next to her.  I first thought she was some kind of homeless lady, but her clothes always look clean and she's not dirty or anything.  I've seen enough sleeping weirdos in cafés to tell the difference.

After three years of seeing her in action, I still wonder.  What the heck is she doing?  And why does she need so much stuff to do it with?  I suppose I could just walk up and ask her, but hey.  This is New York. You don't do that kind of thing.  Perhaps one day she'll end up in one of my games.  If so, you heard it here first.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

The cafe lifestyle

I mentioned in my first post how I generally write my games from various cafés in New York.  This practice started with in 2006 and continues now.

At the time, I did it because I was between jobs and I wanted to feel like I was really working, so I'd pack up the laptop and bring it to a café in Tribeca (an area of NYC which is short for "triangle below Canal").  I'd plop down, order a latte, boot up the laptop, and then type type away on The Shivah.  For a solid month, I'd be there by 9am and leave sometime in the later afternoon.  The place had food, so I was able to nab lunch when I wanted it.  When I finished the game I figured it was a neat way to work, so I kept doing it.

In the four years since then, I've worked on games in all sorts of different coffee joints.  Most are your average Starbucks, others are New York based chains, and some are unique privately owned indie cafés (which there are less and less of, lately).  I tend to choose different cafés depending what my needs and mood are that day.  They all have something different to offer. Some have food, others have free wifi, and others have more convenient electrical outlets. I've actually become an expert on the location of every electrical outlet in every café with a five block radius of my apartment.  

Lately, more and more people have adapted to this café lifestyle.  I used to be the only nerd in a Starbucks with a laptop, but now it's hard to find a café-goer without one.  I see people writing papers, working on resumes, updating spreadsheets, or just surfing the internet.  I've seen a group of men in suits gathered around a café table, hunched over their laptops, discussing what appeared to be a high-powered business stuff.  I once saw a dentist examining 3D models of his patients' teeth!  The sheer amount of productivity that goes on in these places is mindboggling.

Earlier this year, the crowds temporarily drove me out of the cafés and I actually rented a cubicle in an office.  I gave it up in a few months.  Despite the crowds, the café lifestyle suits me.


Friday, January 1, 2010

A new year, a new decade, and a new blog!

Hello and happy new year!  Allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Dave Gilbert, and I've been running a small indie game studio for almost four years now.  My studio is basically a laptop, which I lug around to various cafes in New York City.  Most of the games you'll see from me have been written and programmed from cafes, from the zero budget Shivah to the higher-budgeted Emerald City Confidential

I am not all that new to the blog scene, as I used to write ad nasuem about my life on my old personal website, but maintaining the wordpress software became too much of a bother.  You've got to keep it updated or it gets attacked by spyware, and it was too easy to let it slide.  So I've decided to move house and set up camp here on Blogspot.  The Blogspot site is hosting my stuff and the system gets updated automatically, so I don't have to bother doing it myself!  Delegation, baby. That's the key to success.

Anyway, back on track. It's been said that indies like me are bottom feeders, taking the crumbs that the big developers miss.  And while a few games like World of Goo and Braid have reached major mainstream success, there is some truth to that analogy.  We don't do this for the buckets of cash, but because we love it.  Myself, I count myself as one of the lucky "bottom feeders" who have managed to eek out a living doing this full time.  I'm not rich by any means, but I've somehow managed to keep this company going even during these Dark Economic Times, so apparently I'm doing something right.

Like most indie developers I have many opinions on games, game development, and anything in between.  As time goes on I plan on talking about the New York game scene, funny things that occur while working in cafes, and my own thoughts about the games I (and others) make.  I also hope to offer some insight or tips for fans or other aspiring indie game developers.  I'm a total moron, so if I can do it anybody can.

Thanks for reading this far!