Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Free isn’t tempting any more

I read an interesting, I may even say *insightful* post on a website recently. No wait! stop! I really did!

It was a debate about a new game, which had been released as ‘Free To Play’. There was some comment along the lines of how this was great because it meant there was no barrier to trying the game in this case, and that posters A and B would check it out. And then came the genius of poster C, who said something like this:

“So? Free isn’t a big deal any more. There are too many free / very cheap games. I have to weigh up whether the game is worth my time, rather than care about the cost”.

And I think this is going to be an increasingly popular view. I don’t blame people who put games on 90%-off sales. and I don’t blame people who immediately impulse-buy a game they haven’t even seen a video of, because it’s 90% off and sounds like it might be fun. I know how we have got where we are.

But where we are may not be sustainable.

A lot of gamers now complain about a huge game ‘backlog’. Games they bought for $1.99, which claim to have 30 hours of gameplay. There is this big thing of ‘backlog guilt’ where people try not to buy new games until they play all the ones from the past sales. It hasn’t happened to me, I’m very critical of games and only buy maybe 6 a year. The last two games I bought I played for maybe 8 hours combined. I do, however have absolutely no feeling that I *should* go back and *finish* them. I got my moneyworth, it’s not like I ‘owe it’ to the game makers to finish them. Most portals 2 buyers don’t finish the game, according to valve.

Clearly I’m a freak, and atypical, so going back to all these people with a big backlog of games and not enough time to play them, I think (hope?) we may see a change in mindset to this:

“I have limited free time. I enjoy games. I want to spend my limited free time getting the highest quality entertianment as possible. The fact that some games are very cheap is not an enticement, if I can afford to spend my limited free time playing the non-cheap stuff, and still have enough money to fill my free time in this way”.

It’s the way I think about food. I can afford to buy good food, and I know that there is only so much food I can buy, so I tend to spend more money than I have to on food. I don’t agonise about the economy / luxury decision when it comes to a chocolate cake (mmmm cake), because even if the economy cake is mega-cheap, there is only so much cake I can eat, so it may as well be good cake.

Do you think like this? or are you still drawn towards a game because it’s $0.99, even if you know it’s not as good as the game next to it, for $5.99…?


21 thoughts on Free isn’t tempting any more

  1. For me, it is quality over quantity. I’m at a point in my life where I’m more than happy to spend money on a quality game. In fact, cheap games are sometimes a red flag absent other information.

  2. Quality over quantity for me too, but on the other hand I’m more likely to take a chance on a cheap game. If I’m on the fence about a game, if it’s cheap enough, I’ll just buy it and hope for the best.

    If it’s a £40 game, I’m not going to buy it unless I’m sure it’s good. If it’s a £4 game, and I think it’s probably good, I might buy it anyway as I’ll regret it less if I was wrong.

  3. This leads to my main complaint about the Portal 2 complaints: I don’t give a crap that it is comparatively short. Because that means I can enjoy it a lot for 8-12 hours, and then move on. On the other side of the spectrum we got Dragon Age (Origins), which throws billions of boring combat encounters at you. Sure, it takes you 40-60 hours to get through the game, but of these 40, how many were really as good as a movie like King’s Speech? None? How many hours were are good as the average of the 8 hours of Portal? One? Which means not only do I pay 8 times as much for the quality, no, I am also forced to waste 5 times more time to get what I want.

    On the other hand, that didn’t hold true before I had a job and was a student. Lots of free time, and only a few hundred Euros to burn on all hobbies combined. Per year. When you factor in hardware costs, that leaves you with less than one game per month.

    That said, sure, I’d rather pay 5€ than 40€ for the identical game. ;)

    Thing is, that is a very rational way of buying things. You don’t make much money by selling to people’s rationality, seeing how insanely stupid most people are.

  4. Hmm… I’m often enticed by reasonably priced games. It’s easy to say quality over quantity, opinions about quality are subjective though. I remember seeing The Orange Box on sale for $9.95 about 6 months ago, how could someone resist buying that at that price? Would you call someone crazy for not buying it at such a low price? 5 full games, 1 low price. You’d have to be crazy to not buy it right? Yet there were still copies available whenever I went back to the store. Point is, peoples tastes are very different. There are obviously large amounts of people who have no problem __wasting__ money on the next CoD game (even before it’s been released). And I might be one of the people that buys Battlefield 3 on the day that it comes out. If I’m disappointed then you can bet your behind that I’ll be writing about my disappointment, unfortunately by that time it’s too late.

    So as mentioned earlier, cheaper games or games that go on sale are very enticing. They also provide a way for people who don’t have a lot of money or free time to play games they might otherwise not. I’ve found quite a few gems this way. The other thing is, look at a site like If I have $15 – $20 dollars to spend I could either buy 1 game (most likely and indie game or budget title) or I could buy 2 – 4 classic but high quality games from yesteryear. The decision comes down to what I want more… so if we’re strictly speaking about quality then people might just go with the cheaper GoG games when they know that they’re already good games, rather than take a chance on something else – even though it’s only $20 bucks we’re talking about. It makes sense though. Even though people like to trend and react as mobs sometimes, there are still plenty of them that think before they spend and think about what it is they really want or what they’re buying. So it’s hard to determine quality at times.

    Buy The Orange Box or CoD: Black Ops? I’ve owned both, but if I were to recommend either of those titles to avid gamers I would definitely recommend The Orange Box even though it was only $9.95 at one time (and still only sells for $19.95 in most retailers) – rather than waste $59 dollars on CoD: Black Ops. But wait, aren’t all CoD games high quality? Heh, good luck with that question. I’ve been increasingly disappointed with each new CoD titles ever since CoD: Modern Warfare 1 (the pinnacle of the CoD series, and only slightly better than CoD 2 – but that’s my opinion).

    Still, 5 games for low, 1 game for high. Most people (I’d wager that most of them would be adolescents) would pick up CoD rather than The Orange Box, because it’s cooler. :-) But that’s not my opinion, it’s just the way I see gamers (and consumers) behave.

  5. I’m also wondering a lot about how sustainable it is to have 75% off and even 90% off promotional sales be fairly common things. Eventually supply floods demand, right?

    Of course, if your new game is really a fresh idea then there is no pre-existing supply of it, etc. But proving “this is a fresh experience” to a large number of potential customers is a complex and difficult problem. Particularly for indie developers.

    There’s also customer-loyalty in the form of “I know these guys make awesome games”. Even if I had 1000 games I’d never played (thankfully it isn’t that bad), I’d still snap up a Space Rangers 3 if they ever made it. For full price too, and that’s saying a lot for me. But to develop that degree of loyalty they have to have bought and PLAYED your game (or at least seen your community interaction, support, etc). Judging by the steam sales numbers during this last holiday season, there are now A LOT more owners of our games. And our forum community did see some growth. But disproportionately way lower than the growth we see from the usual flow of normal sales and periodic “normal” promotions. My conclusion: most of the people who bought them never played them, just as they never played 70+% of the games they got during the holiday sales. Until they do crack open the games, they’re not likely to develop any kind of customer-loyalty in our direction.

    So this “promotional sale culture” is definitely creating some odd dynamics, some of them problematic.

    On the other hand, it can have a very powerful effect on a developer’s bottom line. The psychological and financial impact of a 3-day 90%-off sale is pretty profound. All sorts of people will impulse-buy it because it’s really cheap and “it’s only 3 days, if I ever want to play this I really should get it now”. 1-day sales perhaps moreso, though tightening up the window that much has other issues. Sure, selling the game that you’ve poured months/years of blood, sweat, tears, money, and time into for 90% off is a bit… humbling. But if you sell a million copies (possibly over the course of several such sales over a couple years), then you’re probably still doing rather well. Or even 250,000 copies (probably not at 90% off, but 50% here, 66% there, 75% there, etc).

    That particular technique is so successful, and people have such huge backlogs, that I’m wondering if it’s even ethical. Nobody’s forcing any purchases and it’s not a lot of money changing hands, but it feels psychologically manipulative. I even find myself thinking “hmm, a $20 list price point is a lot better than $10, it allows bigger-percent promotional sales”. I don’t want to become that kind of person. Welcome to sales, I suppose, but I’m not fond of the standard ethics in sales. I don’t worry about it too much, though, as I don’t recall anyone offhand who bought either of our games and thought they were genuinely not worth whatever they paid for them (I’m sure there have to be such people, statistically speaking, but it seems pretty rare).

    Anyway, sorry for rambling, just been thinking about this a lot :)

  6. This is long, but an idea of what I’m coming from.

    I’ll say this: I discovered you through a 75% off sale, so if your game is truly good, you can get followup sales at a higher price, at least on your DLC. While I didn’t keep interest for a super-long time, if your next project looks interesting I’ll get it when it hits about $25, which is what I paid for Din’s Curse.
    It sounds interesting from your tweets, so I’m definitely paying attention.

    I don’t think you should put a game on sale until you’ve gotten most of your fullprice sales, I don’t think it makes economic sense. Stardock also agrees with this model- which is why Impulse often gets criticized for its poor sales compared to other DD services. (no idea how Gamestop will do things) My expectations are lower for lower-price games, generally if I spend $40 or more for a game, I expect about 60-100 hours for it (this also comes from my main genre- where a good fighting game goes for $40 and provides that much)

    As for the reaction to sales, one idea I had:
    You put the base game on the DD portals, but you put the expansions/DLC solely on your own server, though you make the patches compatible with all versions (like you do with GSB). You put a store link in your game. Unsure how that would work though.

    as for the Portal 2 example, I think much of that has to do with Valve’s promotional talent/Steam fanboyism then anything else. Personally I don’t have much of a backlog, as I don’t buy games solely based on pricepoint, so I at least play them. I do think those backlog folks, while you get no loyalty from them, you do get $2-$3 you wouldn’t get otherwise, though I don’t know if that makes up for any lost sales due to excessive backlog.

    Hope this ramble helps.

  7. As a game designer, it depends to an extent on your target market. Are they adolescents who make $8 an hour at McDonalds? Or are they professionals who make $40 an hour? The latter group will tend to care less about the cost and more about whether it’s worth their time.

  8. I understand the main game on portals, DLC exclusive direct theory, but in practice it doesn’t work because:

    1) a lot of gamers now flatly REFUSE to buy anything that isn’t for sale on their portal of choice.

    2) a lot of portals refuse to stock a game that links directly to someone else’s store.

    I wish neither of these were the case…

  9. I figured 1) might be a problem, mostly with Steam fanboys.

    2) I didn’t think would be one. I don’t mind buying DLC if the game and DLC have legitimate value, and I feel it’s additional content, not held-back content.

    Personally, unless I know I want a game outright, I’ll wait for a sale. The only way I know I’ll want something is via reputation. I’ll pay full price for at most, 5 or 6 games a year. I’ll buy at the $20 or less pricepoint more things.

    Paradox probably has overdiscounted their stuff, they’ve gone from full price to wait for sale, though a reduction in their game quality has also factored into this.
    As a consumer, I”m not going to complain about getting things cheaper.

    Also, part of me wonders if this is just due to excessive supply of games. Games are a pretty elastic market, with a small pocket of inelasticity (specific game/genre fanboys).

    It’s interesting comparing your situation to some of the games Heidi kemps over at Gamepro talks about (Zerochan on twitter)- where gamers happily pay hundreds for those games, but they only get a fanbase in the three to four digits.

  10. You were reading Rock Paper Shotgun weren’t you? They’re how I found you!

    Even as a “poor” university student, I have enough money (and little enough free time) that I can fill my free time with games of arbitrary cost.

    I don’t think uber-cheap games are really sustainable… How many players with actual income to spend in micropayment stores can a game get by being free (and the associated level of quality)?

  11. I absolutely don’t care about the price of a game. The only decisive reason to buy a game for me is if the game’s theme, atmosphere and/or genre interests me and whether the game has quality (one of those quality points for example is: did the developer cared about giving the game a nice and well crafted GUI or just slammed something cheap on it, like in Mass Effect?). There are games that most people and press write off as trash but these might still have precious value to me because of the atmosphere they convey, in particular some older games.

  12. I’ll say this, microtransaction based games scare me. I often get the sense that it’s not about gameplay, but addiction (the Skinner Box effect).

    It’s why I’m avoiding Gettysburg Armored Warfare and World of Tanks. The only free one I do is a baseball MMO, but that’s because I knew the guy making it from the Virtua Fighter community and they needed folks for the beta. I won’t spend money on it though, just 10 minutes of time per day.

    On the DRM through store, would it be possible to pass the costs for Steam fanboyism onto the consumer, by pricing the Steam version say, 25% more (but calling your version 20% less and calling it the “open beta”?)

  13. So many games, so little time… I definitely fall into the “games backlog” camp. That’s a direct consequence of so many great games being so cheap.

    If the prices were higher, I’d be more discriminating in my tastes. It would certainly solve my backlog problem, but then I’d miss out on a lot of fantastic games I might not have tried otherwise. I’ve broadened the genres I play and the developers I follow as a result of today’s rock-bottom prices, and I think that’s a good thing. (As a consumer.)

    But I do worry about the health of the games industry as a whole. Too many companies out there are mis-pricing their products. I think most games companies are undershooting rather than overshooting the sustainable price, and that’s a shame. It drives a race-to-the-bottom mentality that can devastate healthy business ecosystems.

    There’s a great business quote I heard in my consulting days that applies here: “In a commodity market, you can only be a smart as your dumbest competitor.”

  14. I’m actually in a very interesting position. I’m not old enough to have a credit card yet, so any cost on a game is a logistical barrier to entry. I have to ask my parents to get up and type a credit card number in to get the game. As a result, I really do prefer free games. Granted, I don’t play EVERY free game, but its a lot easier for me.

  15. IMHO, it gets to the people expectations, that games should be for free.
    If they are not free then they should be cracked and torrented :-)

    First day I released my game (Age of Fear: The Undead King), there was crack request made on some piracy forum ( It did not matter there was 50% price off promotion (so 12.5 USD) then – people are used to just pirating everything.
    Even Google now suggests “torrent” word after games title :-D

    I am not sure what impact it will have on gaming industry. There are just two big players (Activision and EA) now, so we can talk about monopoly.

    I actually mailed you few times for adding my game to your showmethegames portal, but I did not get any response yet.
    Do you need some contract (commission?) signed or how this site works really?

  16. I would be very interested in a game rent system: pay monthly and have access to some online collection of games. Mapping time to price seems to make more sense than mapping unit count.

    If you have a wider collection of games available, you are more likely to sit down and play.

  17. It’s a mix for me – I’ve never paid more than £25 for a game, and I love a bargain, but then I almost completely avoid free games because it saves me brain effort.

    Frankly there are so many excellent games that are ALSO cheap, that I don’t really need to compromise and go for expensive or less good games.

    Having said that, I have been mulling over paying the £200 necessary to play Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars. I guess it would come with a 3DS too.

  18. I buy quite a few games on Steam Sale if they are 75% off, even if i know i will probably never get around to playing them.


    Because I might, and the alternative is not buying the game at all, and I want to support games developers.

    The games I actually need to play, probably a similar number to the ones you buy Cliffski i buy on day one at full price.

    This year that includes:

    Shogun 2

    It will also shortly include:

    Elder Scrolls 4 and the following games not already mentioned above:

    I am lucky in that I have the disposable cash to that, and I am quite happy to continue doing so.

  19. As someone who fits firmly into the ‘professional’ demographic (but more importantly, the ‘I have other hobbies’ area) money on games is not so much of an issue. However, I do tend to buy older games because I’m not in any hurry to get the latest stuff.

    There are exceptions to this. I might be missing out by not being part of the up to date community at times. Price is therefore not the overriding factors for games I really want. This list is depressingly short (last year : Machinarium), this year : Portal 2 and probably Witcher 2 (assuming I like Witcher 1, currently on sale) simply because I like to encourage DRM free high quality products.

    Everything else can wait, but I’m a sucker for price. If it’s under 5 quid and reviews seem good I’ll give it a punt. 5-10 I’ll look harder and only buy genres I’m interested in. 10+ and I’ll be expecting a demo and read several reviews..

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