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Game pricing

This is an article I started writing sometime last year in a cloud of irritation and then promptly forget about once that irritation wore off. I’ve recently re-encountered the instigating factor that originally set it off in the first place, so here we go.

Pay a visit to the discussion page forum of any indie game on Steam and you should find a thread complaining about the game (whatever it is) being too expensive. If it’s $20 it should be $15, if it’s $15 it should be $10, if it’s $10 it should be $5, if it’s $5 it should probably just be free or the dev should give people money for them to play his/her game, and so on and so on.

(source)

This comic is maybe a little exasperated, maybe a little condescending, but it gets the point across. I think if a developer has made the decision to charge X for their game, you should either buy it at that price or not buy it. If it truly is too expensive, the dev will bring the price down and/or learn a lesson and charge less out of the gate for subsequent releases. If the dev hasn’t already reduced the price it’s more likely they’re selling plenty and doing so would only hurt their profits. Acting like you as a consumer on a forum have a better idea of what a game is worth and how it should be priced smacks of entitlement and presumption.

To quote Dave Gilbert:

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.

Emphasis mine. The argument is always that if you price the game lower you’ll sell more copies, but it’s never a given that the extra copies you sell will actually make up for the lower price they’re selling at. Lowering your selling price is quite a risk to take, especially since you probably won’t be able to just raise it again without anyone noticing if things don’t work out.

Perhaps some of the blame for this sort of thing has to go to the Humble Bundle and related deals. I love pay-what-you-want indie game bundles and have bought way, way more games because of them than I otherwise would have, but it’s entirely possible that the ability to regularly purchase four to six indie games for a dollar or less has driven down their value in a lot of customers’ minds.

Another common detriment to perceived value seems to be hours of play. Actually look inside one of these pricing threads, and it’s almost certain you’ll see people doing maths with hours played, trying to figure out the game’s cost per hour and compare it to other games. I’ve talked to plenty of people who straight-up refuse to pay X amount for a game if it won’t take them Y time to finish.

It’s kind of absurd.

On a superficial level, sure, maybe it’s nice to have a concrete way of determining which games are worth your money (well, semi-concrete, given you can only estimate how many hours you’ll spend on it), but it’s the kind of pragmatism that’s ill-suited to the purchase of entertainment. I’d make a decision about whether to buy a pair of shoes or a car or an umbrella at least partially based on how long it would last me, but those are utility purchases. You don’t try to watch the longest movie at the cinema just so you can get your money’s worth; you try to watch the best one, and best has very little to do with an objective measure of time. It’s more common to complain about particularly long movies being too long than to rejoice at money efficiently spent.

I played about four hours of The Stanley Parable, a game I paid $15 for. In that time, I reached most of the endings and seen probably 80% of the game’s content (though it’s not easy to tell with a game as full of secrets and oddities as Stanley). And they were an incredible four hours. Four far more interesting, memorable and absorbing hours than any random sampling of hours grinding in a hundred-hour RPG or backtracking in a twenty-hour FPS.

Portal, probably one of the most acclaimed games in the last decade, was so brief it wasn’t even originally sold as a standalone games but packaged with four or so others in the Orange Box. And yet its brevity allowed it to remain fresh and enthralling the whole way through, not outstaying its welcome. Games in more story-centric genres have a story to tell and “drawing it out as long as possible” certainly isn’t the practice of any good storytellers I know of. What’s more, and let’s be honest here, the average Steam user has far too many unplayed games in their library to be terribly concerned about wringing every last hour of play possible out of their latest purchase.

So although it’s your right to complain about the price of a game, you’re probably wrong. And if you measure a game’s worth by how long it takes you to finish, that’s also your right, but you might really be missing out.