Tag: free-to-play

A Viable(?) New Business Model for Indie Game Development?

This article has also been posted on Gamasutra blogs.

So, I was thinking about making games, and why I do it. I’ve always said that I don’t care if the games I make generate income. I’m doing it because I love it, and while that’s enough motivation for me, any money I do make will help justify doing it more.

Then I thought about business models, and piracy, and copyright, and all the pain that goes along with that, on all ends of it. And I thought about the “pay what you feel like” model, and the crowdfunding model, and the way some AAA games get pre-ordered so gamers can reserve a copy at their retailer. I kindof like pay-what-you-feel-like. But then I thought of something innovative, that combines the strengths of these approaches, and takes them to the next level.

It’s a secret to everybody

So here’s my idea: All the games I release are free/pay-what-you-want. There’s no DRM on any of it, you can play it as much as you want, share it with whoever you want. I think most will agree that DRM sucks, and I don’t want to spend time or resources trying to come up with some copyright enforcement mechanism that will only be broken hours after I release the game, or tie the game to some online service that will mean that if the company ever goes out of business, all the games will become unusable. I don’t want to inconvenience legitimate owners of my game and then have to offer a quick patch and a lame apology for it later. I want people to play my games — and share them with their friends — why would I want to put an obstacle between them and the game that I want them to play? I’ll even put in social features that help you share it with all your friends and tweet about how much fun you’re having playing my game.

Let’s play money making game!

Here’s the money-making part of the plan: You pay for me to make my next game. Whatever it is. I’ll announce my projects and work at them at the pace that I can sustain. If I have to work a lot at some other job in order to pay my bills, then I spend more time working, less time making games, and the game still happens, but probably not for a long time, and maybe not ever.

This is, after all, pretty much how Kickstarter works: you pay up front for a thing to be developed, and you wait some time until it is ready to be released. And like Kickstarter, pledged funds would not be collected until the goal has been reached. And it seems to work well, at least for established names who have a reputation and fan base. But how does an unknown attract The Crowd and convince them that they’re worthy of funding? Anyone can start out small and build their fanbase over time, assuming they are dedicated and talented and put in the work. I know of no other way to build a fanbase than to release high quality games and distributing them as widely as you can, and ensuring that people who get to play them learn how they can get to play more awesome games even better than the one they just played. And the best way to ensure the widest distribution is to release for free. Once you have fans who believe in what you are doing, enough of them will gladly pay to see more.

If I finish the game before it has reached the money goal, I hold on to it until my fundraising goal is met, and taunt you with YouTube videos showing how awesome it is, and asking for money to release it, and otherwise marketing the game. Once I hit my revenue goal, I release it, for free, no DRM or anything, and the game becomes an advertisement for my next project which I am happy that you share with anyone and everyone.

So, if you like the games I make, and you want to see more of them, give me more money, and the more I get, the more time I can spend making games instead of doing other things that make me money.

I like it. It’s straightforward, it completely eliminates any concern about piracy or DRM, because you can’t pirate what hasn’t been built yet, and in fact my games’ popularity is aided by people who enjoy the games spreading the word about them, and getting more people to play them, it basically de-fucks copyright and performs its original purpose — To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts — and, if the money comes in, it encourages me to make more, better games faster.

Learning from previous business models

During the shareware era, the proposition to the market was: “If you like this game that you just played for free, pay the shareware license for this game, because if you don’t then I’ll go out of business and there won’t be any more games.”

But most people ignored this. Revenue from shareware releases was always a tiny percentage of the total number of people who used the software. Users don’t like the nag screens and the guilt trips, and they’ll hack the binaries to eliminate them. They share the activation codes or crack whatever license controls you can think of, and you end up spending more time researching anti-piracy and fighting the spread and popularity of your game than you do making more cool games. It’s counterproductive.

But with this new approach, where the developer is explicitly saying: “This game is free, play the hell out of it and share it with as many friends as you can!” but also, “Here’s what else I have to offer, and you can help make it happen by contributing money to the project.” Kickstarter and IndieGogo have proven that this is viable. So, we’ve fixed all the problems of the old model — although the difference is subtle, the business model is crucially different, and addresses the failings of the previous models, and turns them into strengths. All the games are free upon release. Suddenly, there’s no longer an adversarial relationship between the players and the developer: I do what I love and make games, and you do what you love and play them. And if you want to play my next game sooner, you help me out by funding it.

By itself, I think many, perhaps most gamers would still ignore and pay nothing, like always. I mean, sure there’s always going to be leeches in any system. Leeches gonna leech. But that’s fine, because in my business model, they’re performing a valuable service: they’re doing your marketing for you, if you get out of their way and let them. Some people would pay because the idea that they’re helping to create the next game sooner holds great appeal. It’s that hipster “I was into X before X was cool” prestige. But there does need to be enough of those people. I think Kickstarter and IndieGoGo and others have established that there are indeed enough of these people. So, there just needs to be ways to encourage and incentivize gamers to fund your next project.

We’re already seeing this done with the Kickstarter model. A pitch video, a tiered system of rewards, regular, open communications between the creator and the backers. That’s part of what was missing from the old shareware model. In the shareware days, the developer was faceless. But today, the developer’s on the web, on youtube, on Twitter, in your inbox. You have a relationship and they’re more responsive to you than ever before. This makes you much more likely to be willing to spend some money. Because you know who it’s going to, and you see what it does.

To encourage people funding me, I would have a progress bar tied to my income stream showing the actual money raised, making that information public. And some kind of goal showing what my expenses are. We’re not just talking direct project expenses, but the funding level needed to buy me out of my job and go full time indie.

There could also be a progress bar for each project I have announced, or each feature, showing how many hours are needed to complete them, how many hours are funded in the next week, and how many dollars need to be raised to fund more hours.

That way, you could see things like:

  • How much I’m making
  • How much I need in order to not have to work on anything but game development
  • How much the money you’re paying towards my projects is helping me to get them done
  • What projects I have announced
  • How much progress has been made on each project
  • How soon you can expect my next release to be

I’d also establish a relationship with the players of my games, through active blogging/tweeting of what I’m doing with the game projects, and where my time is going, why it’s not going to game development, and stuff like that.

I figure if people see the person creating the games, it will tend to humanize them, and make it clear that the developer isn’t a faceless corporation with huge revenues that won’t notice if their money isn’t added to the giant swimming pool of gold that we all splash about in.

Plus, if gamers know how much money a game is making, it will tend to disabuse them of the idea that wealthy corporations are raking in all kinds of money hand over fist, that they can’t possibly be hurt by people not paying anything to enjoy the games. And by tying the money paid directly to new projects, it’s easier for them to see what they’re getting for their money.

Actually, hell, I could turn it into a web service and let any indie dev sign up for an account, and they’d each have their own blog, their own projects page, and their own “fund this and it will happen sooner” button. Maybe an API that they can tie into their games, allowing them to meter usage so they can show “X number of people played this game X’ times in the last 1|7|30|365 days, and collectively have kicked in Y dollars to fund my next project, an average of just Y_avg cents per play, which means that I am in H financial health, and so my next project will get delivered in Z months.” And here’s an appreciation leaderboard showing the G most generous, loyal fans, thanks so much for your patronage.

I’d love to develop this idea into an actual business, but I’d also gladly work with an e-commerce services provider who could set up a system that would work this way.