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

Indie retail… why bother?

I came to the conclusion a while ago that retail selling of indie games was a total waste of effort. I have a bookcase to the right of me with a big pile of boxes of published games on it, I can see Kudos 2 (lovely box), Democracy 1 in English and German, Oval Office, and the e-games ‘Space Arcade Collection’. However, I have concluded that the long term utility of these deals is thus:

People who aren’t in the industry who visit my home-office are very slightly impressed.

As that number of people is somewhere between 0 and 2 people a year, and as I never care what they think, I wonder what the point is. Oh the money? Well… in theory yes, but the problems with retail are huge:

  1. You need to spend 4 hours reading the 30 page contract 3 times, to spot the bit where they say they can deduct whatever they like as expenses from your royalties.
  2. You do a ton of work up front doing stupid crap like animating publisher logos at the start of the game, and it only sells 6 copies.
  3. You don’t get paid for retail until long after the end of the sales quarter. If at all. If the company doesn’t go bankrupt and then re-incorporate the next day owing you nothing (commonplace).
  4. You have NO IDEA how many copies were sold. you have to trust a person you never met, in another country. He trusts the distributor, who is in a third country, in the developing world. Yeah right…
  5. Your game is pirated immediately, as 50% of the staff in the packaging warehouse think they are ‘l33t’ because they are in some childish warez ‘scene’. *sigh*
  6. You are now commited to providing tech support to peole for whom you have NO IDEA if they bought the game or pirated it.
  7. People who bought the game through the Swedish branch of a French-owned store selling copies of your game made by the Belgian distributor for the Canadian publisher you signed a deal with through your agent in Los Angeles now email you saying they want a refund. They think it’s your fault.
  8. Once a quarter, for the next 10 years you get mailed a $3 royalty check it costs $20 to cash.
  9. Half the boxed copies you sell sold ‘second-hand’ on online sites turn out to be copies manufactured by some dodgy CD-replicator who pocket 100% of the cash.

When I get email from someone that says “greetings, we are a retail publisher of high quality…” I just bin it. I don’t care who it is. Retail blew it big time. I no longer care. I have enough boxes now. They are fab, but if you want to own Gratuitous Space Battles, buy it online :D. I had a poster made for my office instead.


13 thoughts on Indie retail… why bother?

  1. Ha-ha, very pessimistic post, i must say.

    But i have to admit I fully understand your position. That was quite a challenge for me as acquisitions manager from Noviy Disk (where i spent 6 years), retail publisher and distributor of high quality box products :) to convience other partners to work with us. We released many indie games in boxes, including brilliand masterpieces like Puzzle Quest, Darwinia, etc. and all of them mostly failed.

    But there are good examples how small games could perform – i’ve signed poor quality racing game from Polish publisher and it was sold in Russia at level of Call of Duty 5 in number of units =)

    BTW, we released original Kudos around 4 years ago =) It failed.

  2. I understand your point Cliff, but have you any thoughts about selling boxed copies yourself?

    Jason Scott made a big deal about the Get Lamp documentary dvd. Machinarium came with a nice walkthrough book, introversion made a tin collection box. I love things like that, and if the only place to buy it is direct from you, even better.

    I miss the infocom era when you got lot`s of items(feelies) in the box to help you in the game

  3. CD’s/DVD’s were the tyrannical regime period of gaming. I, for one, am finally glad the cd and dvd are no longer required for me to game.

    I still remember the day the original grand theft auto refused to work in my PlayStation. I took it out and stared straight at that sinister disk. I inhaled a deep breath and prepared to expel my lungs onto the object, then I realised the times be a changin’, so I considered other options. I used the bottom of my tshirt to wipe to dust off, I returned my gaze to the disk and found that not only was the dust reforming but scratches had appeared galore. For the next 10 years I would not be able to simply blow my problems away. The golden age of the cartridge was over, and like the market crash of an economic bubble, the day Grand Theft Auto failed to work was my black Tuesday.

    Fuck you Petra Tinkova, may you feel the passionate thrashing of a sandal bottom.

  4. I have to agree , that making boxes, maybe at the end of the dev cycle, and selling for a small profit, might be a nice touch.

    Stardock has a good idea if they ever fully implement it- you can pay about $5+Shipping more and get a box, then you can pay a little bit+shipping a few years later to get another disc that’s patched up. You’d probably want to charge more then Stardock does though- as you’d want to make a profit on it.

    I believe it’s mostly for the anti-DRM zealots that Stardock seems to attract, but if I really wanted a game for posterity, I’d be interested in such.

    That said, I’d have to want to save a game for posterity first.

  5. It’s not pessimistic at all, it’s the status of retail market. The retail is DYING, and for real, not like “downloadables are dying”.
    If you exclude consoles, who buy games at retail ? nobody.

  6. I still pop by the local store to pick up bargains, but that’s becoming increasingly rare. I did get Mass Effect, Bioshock 2, and Dead Space for a total of £10 though (about $16 US).

    The problem is that for almost any individual game I see on the shelves, I know it’ll be cheaper online. In this case, online does include retailers such as Amazon though, so there are still physical boxes. I prefer this for any “large” games as downloading tens of GB of game data sucks compared to popping the disc in.

  7. Fully agree. I hate boxes, threw out dozens of them over the years because they served literally no purpose (and most of the kitschy ‘collectible’ stuff is stuffed in a drawer somewhere). I can’t fathom a reason why indies would saddle themselves with the worry, considering I can d’load the game from their online point of sale at midnight Saturday and be playing as soon as I wake up on Sunday morning if I choose to. All of the money goes to the person putting the game out there and they can work out their expenses and manage their finances from there.

    There is certainly still a role for publishers in the market, but I think if they want to cater to the up and coming devs out there, they’ll need to start offering better ‘bang for buck’ and accountability.

  8. Cliff,

    As someone with years of retail experience (working in numerous fields), I’d have to say that I agree.

    The whole thing is a giant mess really. It’s a shame really. It appears that the only people who can get this sort of thing right are the online retailers, such as Amazon. I’ve dealt with Amazon, but I don’t know to which extent they share their sales info with their publishers or how much of that info is passed on to the developers. In essence, retailers (stores that you actually walk into) could sell indie games as well. All they would really need is a display for each game (much like the retail boxes) but instead of buying the physical boxes, people would buy vouchers (much like buying an Xbox Live Marketplace points card, Wii Points, or PSN Cards – or Guild Wars download cards, WoW subscription cards, etc. etc.). You pay for the card in store, obtain a receipt (this process verifies the item HAS been paid for – and even includes the location, date, and time at which the item was purchased), and once home you just go to the appropriate website (a site such as your own lets say), enter the code into the downloadable game page (where the download script confirms these codes) and there you have it. An indie game, paid for with cash, credit, debit, or gift card in physical form, allowing customers who don’t normally shop online (for whatever reason) to buy games which they might otherwise not buy or even know of.

    I make it sound so simple, but if you think about it, these systems are already in place and perhaps some scripting and coding would have to be done, but in the long run (and until actually start buying all of our goods and services using the internet ONLY) I think a fully fleshed out system involving software, music, and movies, would be much more efficient and remain profitable.

    All of this can (and should) be done. Retailers could keep track of sales with ease and I know for a fact that they are quite capable of sharing sales done in this manner (they do it all the time for market research). In this case all they’d be doing is sending vouchers out each time an item is purchased directly to the developer (or publisher).

    Again, it all sounds so simple, but that’s only because it would be simple, eventually. Some work would need to be done from within the retailers first, but with a system in place developers from anywhere in the world could essentially sell their “goods” through almost any big retail outlet in the physical world allowing consumers to buy items in the safety of a store (they feel is safe) and are comfortable handing over cash or credit to.

  9. Well I think that retail should be only for collector editions. I buy most of my games online or by using Steam. However once or twice a year comes a game so great that I just NEED to buy a box with it :). But I admit that I buy them for the goodies(poster, books, figurines, etc.) and not for the game inside it :D(i can get that online). So maybe this is the direction that retail goes to….

  10. the problem with online is what happens if the place (Stardock) turns traitor to its users and sells out to the lowest form of scum….aka Gamestop, and all those games you bought from them turn into drm loaded crap (steam) ? or worse….you can’t get em at all? I prefer the disc and the box….

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