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

I suspect nobody will read this one either but…

I guess we live in attention deficit times. I’m guessing roughly 95% of people commenting on the various sites that ran my last blog post, most of which had a bucketful of abuse and hatred for me, didnt actually read the article at all. They skimmed it, eager to whine and moan and hurl insults at a game developer, as is the trend, and assumed it said “Sales are a bad thing because I make less money”.

Which it didn’t. it didn’t even come fucking CLOSE to saying that. Sales make me, and many devs a lot of money. I’m not moaning about money, my games sell very very well, but as 95% of people just wanted to hurl abuse at a game developer to deal with whatever issues they have in their lives, then thats what people wanted to read, and thats what people moaned about.

Why bother?

If you won’t read an article, why comment?

The vast, vast majority of insightful, interesting and well-thought out commentary on the games industry I have read has been on invite-only private mailing lists and forums that you will not find or be able to read. Why? because it shuts out the foghorn of internet abuse from anonymous angry kids. I try, in this blog to write stuff of some interest, from a point of view most people do not have (indie game dev) because I feel it might be something other devs and gamers like to read. Quite why people who hate me, and want to insult me even read my blog is beyond me. I think Jeremy Clarkson is a dick, so amazingly, I don’t follow him on twitter!

Let’s try again…

I studied economics at university. One of the things you learn is about maximising market utility. This is basically trying to achieve a situation where everyone is paying for something what it is worth to them (not what they ‘think’ it is worth). That means people who LOVE a game pay more than people who play it for 20 seconds. PWYW bundles kind of achieve this, but only if people are 100% honest about what a game is worth, and because they probably haven’t played it yet, it’s kind of backwards.  F2P kind of achieves it, but it doesn’t take into account different income levels. $100 to me is different to $100 to you.

The reason we want everyone to pay what something is worth, is that this leads to the absolute perfect allocation of resources. Really good games do really well. Really bad games tank entirely and the developer goes bankrupt. That’s the free market, and in theory it works great. it means we get more good games and less bad ones. If you don’t agree with me that this is a good thing, then stop reading.

Given that we want everyone to pay what something is worth, two things come to mind:

1) If you pay less than the value of something to you, then this is a market distortion, the developer is not rewarded in proportion to the products quality, and thus the important market-signal is not sent, so less games like that get made. THIS IS A VALID POINT BUT NOT THE ONE I WAS MAKING.

2) If you buy something you don’t like at all, and do not even actually EVER play, then a developer is potentially rewarded for making a bad game. A NEGATIVE market signal is sent, encouraging the production of more bad games, and taking resources away from making good games. This is the point I was making. Sales of 90% off where people grab 20 supposedly 20 hour games that they will never play lead to this problem.

If you don’t see how 2) is bad for Gamers, then I give up. If you don’t see that the mass phenomena of people buying games they never play leads to 2), then I give up.

More upbeat posts about Democracy 3 coming next :D



21 thoughts on I suspect nobody will read this one either but…

  1. Completely agree with your original point cliff. A couple of things which could have a positive impact on this:-

    – the demo needs to be revived, basing decisions on half an hours gameplay out of a 20 hour game is still not perfect, but it’s infinitely better than basing it on a trailer a title and a screenshot. It also acts as a buffer to those who impulse download.

    – through a campaign of mass hypnosis we normalise the behaviour of an extra donation to the game developer after you’ve finished the game. So often I see games where I think, “that is atleast a £10 game for me, but if it’s as good as I hope it is, it’ll be worth £20”. So it would be nice to be able to fork out the £10 initially and then tip the additional £10 at the end. I know nothing stops me from doing this, but everybody would need to do it to have an impact.

  2. There’s a difference between not playing a game you buy on sale and buying it just cause it’s on sale. My steam library has 300+ games and I have never started on about 100 of them. Some were in bundles where I wanted 1-2 games and it was cheap. Some games I bought and wanna play them one day cause I like the concept and they are more of a “security blanket”. I know that if i every wanna play the game, it will be right there, just 2 mouse clicks away. Some I bought on sale that I have already finished pirated versions of (that happens less and less tho) cause I just didn’t feel like the game is worth full price, but when it was on sale I usually go “ok, that’s a fair price and I already finished it so I might as well support the dev”.
    It’s never a black and white issue. but I would like to believe that the number of people that buy a game at reduced price just cause it’s on sale is very small. There prolly is a number of games that I have bought, never played and never will play… but that is because I liked the concept and game a year or 2 ago but don’t like it anymore. Like minecraft clones. I don’t see what people see in rust or 7 days to die. While a year ago I would prolly go “oooh… this looks nice”. Then again, if it’s done correctly it’s fun. Like starbound and planet explorers. Oh and when I say “minecraft clones” I’m talking about sandbox games with a survival element, and a reasonable resource gathering and crafting element. just for those people that will go “welll XYZ isn’t a minecraft clone”… no, and CoD isn’t a doom clone… but i still like to call it that :P

  3. I agree with point 2, but to me, it is true for any gane that is paid upfront, not just sales. In a pay-upfront title, players are paying for the promise. Often that promise is substantiated by demos, by reviews, by trailers (assuming they don’t lie…) and so on.

    But for decades, publishers have learned that selling on the promise, which generally means a graphics arms race and unnecessary extra features to fill a list of checkboxes on the packaging, has been more advantageous than making great substantive games. ( end of wild generalisation).

    Your concerns about sales seem to be this same concern, except focused on one signal (price) not others (marketing-led product).

    Or have I misunderstood you?

  4. No, I agree with you. This is one area where F2P works really well, in that it does allocate money based on player enjoyment, in an ideal world and implementation. I still don’t like it :D

  5. Hi Cliff. Just wanted to say that a lot of your readers are like me, the silent majority. Don’t cater to the trolls as they will only troll more. Keep up the good work!

  6. Your #2 is a reasonable point – but it REALLY wasn’t conveyed by the previous post. The previous post came across to me as rather muddled and unfocused, with an invitation for people to tell you you’re wrong, so I’m not at all surprised that people responded to something other than your #2. My post felt a little digressive, but was prompted by, if not directly addressing, some of the things you seemed to be arguing in that post.

  7. Hi Cliff, as a frustrated, once and future (hopefully) game devr, I really enjoy your business side posts (and rants) but usually don’t have anything to offer. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate them though. I did miss (or didn’t parse) the ‘TELL ME :D’ at the end.
    Anyway: Yes, your points are valid; it’s a problem and a puzzlement. Maybe your next game could be a game publisher sim? That might put all this analysis to good use. :)


  8. Cliff,

    I don’t think any of us *here* disagree with you. That’s a complement to your blog, that the comments here are worth reading.

    Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror made a really good point about comments, that they should be moderated here ( . I don’t know which sites ran your blog post, but I assume they are meant for a more anonymous/free for all crowd. After all, ad impressions is all that counts, right?


  9. Hi,

    I one of those silent readers who follows your blog at times. All the best.


  10. The subject is central to the new entertainment industry born from the internet. Any inside you got on it, is worth sharing.

    I have no idea what it really mean (having ton of game, cause they are free or on sales).
    Intuitively I’d say it had to do with hoarding, and with almost free numeric space hoarding pictures, games, or books is on a dramatic raise. How the urge is exploited, exploitable, and economically rational is a question worth asking.

  11. While I agree with what you are saying here, unfortunately most publishers and marketers won’t. Most of the major, and a lot of the minor companies are looking for any way to capitalize on their product. The overwhelming number of sequels and clones prove this. I’ve seen great companies destroy what might have been a great game by trying to make more money, and it’s sad.

    Remember the favorite marketing phrase: “There is no such thing as a bad product, only a bad price.” This is the mantra that Humble Bundle, Steam, etc follow. Unfortunately they are correct as well, there are things I would buy for the right price, and I have purchased things in the past because the product eventually cost what I was willing to pay.

    I wish most developers could/would focus on making a game they would want too play, one that they find interesting and fun. Unfortunately the reality is that this takes time and money, so often what gets released is not what anyone wanted in the first place.

  12. Maximizing market utility means a market participant tries to maximize benefit and minimize cost. People buying games on sale are absolutely working to maximize their market utility. Conversely, a company are trying to maximize revenue while minimizing cost; given the incremental cost of online sales, occasional deep discounts are very rational. Having benefits exceed cost isn’t a market distortion, it’s the basis for a healthy free market. “Value” is that gap between cost and benefit, and a health free market literally creates value for everyone involved.

    When a seller charges a customer equal to the benefit the customer gains, that is evidence of market distortion. Unless by coincidence the cost to the seller is about the same, it means that competition has failed.

  13. I think I was inspired to comment on the previous post because of the assumptions that just because I might wait for a sale to buy a title, that I’ll never play it, never finish, or pick a game I won’t like because it was under $5. I do my research, I know what I like, and once in a while I even pay full price. I’ll support a free-to-play title with purchases if I get enough enjoyment out of it. I’ve even bought gift copies of games like FTL at full price after feeling guilty for having so much fun at a discount.

    There are games I’ll refuse to buy until they go on sale, based on reviews from sources I value. Aliens Colonial Marines was one, I ended up beating it on hard and it was enjoyable for five bucks, but I would have been pretty disappointed if I’d pre-ordered that title and played it before some of the patches. Thief 4 is another one I almost bought at release, but the reviews put that one down into ‘wait for a sale’ territory.

    Are there games I haven’t played? Sure. I had technical issues with the first Witcher game so I never played the sequel that came in the bundle. I’ve got a survival horror title I’m waiting for the right mood to play. I’ve probably got some Metro:Last Light DLC I forgot about after beating the game. There’s a few titles that came with Android versions and I’ve played there instead. Then there’s Civ5, which I’m afraid to install because of how much time I might spend with it. Doing a quick check, out of 200 or so games, there’s about 15 I’ve barely touched.

    Heck, I remember back before Steam, there was this game called Unreal Tournament 2004, and you could get a rebate on it if you sent in a page from your UT2003 manual. I even beat the single player campaign in that one, despite the fact that the last boss (Malcom?) cheated like a mofo when he was almost defeated. I remember thinking that rebate was a pretty good deal considering I’d just bought nearly the same game a year prior.

    I did read both posts. Maybe I didn’t get the point you’re trying to make, I think your perspective as a dev/pub is naturally going to differ from that of a consumer, even though you buy games too. I realize you’re not personally calling me out, yet I can’t help but read it that way.

    I still don’t think I’d buy a turd just because it was 90% off. I never bought a Gears of War title because I like to run and gun, not hide behind walls. I’m sure those games aren’t turds, but I’ll wait for another tournament game with crazy wall jumping and super speed powerups before putting down some dollars. Maybe even at full price.

  14. It is a well-known fact of the internet that nobody reads the article before commenting. Ars Technica famously ran an article on gun law a couple of years back which contained the comment “If you have read this far, please mention Bananas in your comment below. We’re pretty sure 90% of the respondants to this story won’t even read it first.” near the end of the article.

    It took three pages of comments for bananas to be mentioned.

  15. Don’t lose faith Cliff … I read your stuff and generally enjoy it. Much of it is out of my sphere, but I think that most times you have a very well thought out point of view.

  16. PWYW doesn’t work really due to the free rider issue. Also, you don’t know what it’s worth until you buy usually- you can just estimate it, and most PWYW bundles are for games that you passed on even at a 75% discount.

    I do agree that I think some companies are leaving “money on the table” due to sales being too early, but again , as a consumer, that’s not my problem.

    As for buying bad games. I agree that if you buy a game and end up not playing it, that creates a negative feedback (though all of my unplayed games are from bundles where I got the bundle for something else)- that said, when you estimate the value of a game, sometimes your estimate is wrong, and that is why some games are underplayed.

    Some games just turn out to be stinkers.

  17. Your point is good, but I don’t think that people are buying games just because they are on sale, if they KNOW that the game is bad. Even if it costs 5 cents. Why would anyone do that?

  18. Cliff I thank you for making and selling good games. Just don’t forget to thank me for buying and playing. :)

  19. I’m kind of thinking here what would happen if games were sold with an order book where consumers can put in bids of what they think the game is worth. Would a futures market for games with physical settlement cause those bad games to plummet to their true value quickly and good games price rise to proper values (I still think Machinarium developers initial price of $15 on their web site was a tad low, nevermind all the sales they had afterwards).

    The developer could sell their games futures before it was finished, allowing them to raise cash to improve production values without the price dropping, assuming buyers believed in their ability to deliver.

    It really annoys me to go to a retail shop full of chinese plastic junk priced sky high and walk out empty handed because there’s no way I’ll buy something made of plastic (like standard dvd cases) which is going to drop in value the moment I walk out the door. I should be able to go in and specify what I’m willing to pay and let the store figure out if they want sell or have me go shop the thing online from somewhere cheaper. I’ve heard Dell allows (or atleast has in US) this for consumers buying their computer gear.

  20. Laker> Your point is good, but I don’t think that people are buying games just because they are on sale, if they KNOW that the game is bad. Even if it costs 5 cents. Why would anyone do that?

    Well there’s a ton of bundles out there where you can’t really specify which games in the bundle you are most interested in. As a buyer it’s personally clear that some of the games are just filler for the bundle but it still feels bad buying the bundle if there’s some bad things in it, and if there’s only good stuff in the bundle then it’s arguably a poor signal of which game I was most interested in…

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