Let's Improve Distribution

Digital distribution for PC games has been around for a long time. From major publishers offering downloads of their games through portals like Steam and Direct2Drive through to small-time indies self-publishing from their own site, almost every modern release can now be purchased and played without leaving the house. In fact digital distribution has been around long enough for people to start experimenting with the format and the money-making opportunities it offers. This has ranged from the emergence of companies that exploit the legally questionable area of licence key distribution through to developers themselves offering new purchasing models and payment schemes.

The latest of these experimental models, more of a promotion in actuality, comes from World of Goo devs 2D Boy to celebrate the first birthday of WoG. For the last week, and up until the 25th October, they have allowed customers to pick their own price point for the game. They’ve also released sales figures and survey info from the sale.

Hooray for charts!

The results are fascinating. Perhaps unsurprisingly the largest percentage of people paid the lowest amount ($0.01). 2D Boy have stated that PayPal fees meant that they did not see anything for money given below 30 cents, meaning that between 29 and 40% of downloads would not have benefited the developer. Except that, in a sense, they did. To celebrate the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur developer Wadjet Eye Games made their game The Shivah free to download. Despite having seen the press coverage this generated I had completely forgotten about it by the time I’d got home from work. That was until Idle Thumbs started praising the game on their podcast the week after, at which point I bought a copy. Free publicity from a free release led to sales of a three year old game in at least one case, and undoubtedly more besides. On top of that it raises awareness of the publisher, encouraging people to check out what other games they have and will release.

The promotion saw a 40% increase in Steam sales despite their not being a Steam sale. This just in: People love Steam

World of Goo wasn’t being given away for free and, from the sounds of it, 2D Boy made a lot of money from the promotion. An in depth analysis of the figures can be found here. What I want to look at is the data given from the survey which asked why purchasers chose the price point they did. It’s worth mentioning that the survey figures are, inevitably, obfuscated because not everybody has answered. In fact only 3.4% of people who paid the lowest price point filled in the survey data. There are, however, a couple of trends that are worth looking at.

Firstly, not everyone who paid the lowest price point will have been a lost sale. It’s probably fair to say that the majority of people willing to pay full price for the game already have due to the fact it had been out for a year. Many of the surveys respondents claimed they paid 1 cent because they were getting a second copy for a different OS, or had lost their original download link. Others mentioned that they wanted to get an ‘extended demo’ of the game and promised they would donate money at a later date if they liked it.

The largest amount of respondents have said that they paid the amount they did because they liked the pricing model. This is where we start to be unable to draw accurate conclusions with the data available. If more developers used this model then, presumably, the number of people paying to support the model would drop as it would cease to be a novelty. A lot of people also wrote that while they didn’t have any interest in the game, or had never heard of it, they essentially donated some money because you’ve “gotta support the indies”. There is an incredible amount of good will out there for indie devs, perhaps suggesting that such a promotion would be less successful if it had come from a major publishing house. Then there’s the fact that this was a limited time promotion instead of a release date pricing model. As one respondent claimed:

It IS worth USD20, but since this is a “sale” I think I deserve a discount on the price. :)

Would a game that had always been sold in this way have received more money because people wouldn’t be applying their own discount to the amount they were prepared to pay or would the difference be marginal as the majority stuck with their impulse buy price? Would the developer be able to recoup the money the games creation cost without a year of sales at a fixed price? Unfortunately until more companies are prepared to experiment with their pricing models and then openly share the results we won’t know.

We are, however, left with a couple of discussion points:

  • How much would you pay for a newly released game that let you name your price?
  • Would that price change dependant on whether it was a small indie game or a multi-million AAA release?
  • Would you always default to an ‘impulse buy’ price point or vary depending on how critically acclaimed / anticipated the game was?

Share your thoughts in the comments.


2 Responses to “Let's Improve Distribution”

  1. 1 Izzi
    21/10/2009 at 21:02

    If it was available, i’d want to play a demo before i was expected to rate its value- How much i would pay for a game is based entirely on what i think of it, so a ‘pay as you like’ model *must* be following a lot of strong, positive publicity to really work. Otherwise, people will just pay the minimum price because they don’t know what they’re buying and they’ve got the option to reduce the expense.

    Hence, i think the model would be a really bad idea for a newly released title. It works for WOG because its had a lot of really good publicity over the last year, so first time buyers, especially those that tried the demo, won’t have a problem with paying more than a couple of dollars. Even if the game was utter shit, at least i’d feel i know it well enough to feel justified about only paying a couple of cents. (i wouldnt do that to wog, but u know what i mean.)

    as for the indie thing, i dislike doing things ‘out of principle’ because i kind of see it as the dark path to poor decision making. If an indie company made a crap game they don’t deserve more than a big company who made a superb game. That said though.. i admit i most likely would be tempted to add a few dollars on the price if it turned out to be an indie developer, because you know, they need the funds. But that really would happen as a tip, i wouldn’t want it to be a deciding factor, but thats just me, i can be a harsh cow with money.

  2. 22/10/2009 at 07:56

    I agree with Izzi above: a pick-your-own-price scheme with no restrictions would only work on a game that has already received a significant amount of publicity. If I were allowed to pay whatever I wanted for a game I’d never heard of, I’d probably pay the absolute minimum. And even though I might tell myself “I’ll donate some money later if I like it”, I know full well that this will most likely not be true. Once I finish a game, I usually feel very little need to retroactively spend money or effort on it (unless it’s particularly awesome). Games are like sex in that respect.
    (Just think about it.)

    As for your other questions: yes, my price point would change depending on whether or not it’s an indie game. I feel a kind of moral obligation to support indie developers. They don’t have the publicity and reach big companies have, and their games are often much more personal and interesting. That’s not to say that there aren’t any passionate people working in big game companies, but these people have a “safety net” indie developers don’t have.

    And finally, the biggest factor in deciding my price point would be the quality of the game. Of course, unless there’s a demo, there’s no way to know how good a game is prior to purchase, other than reading the reviews. So yes, critically acclaimed games will probably get more money from me than less acclaimed ones. It’s like collector’s editions. I only shell out for them when I believe the game will be good.

    There is one remaining difficulty, though: let’s say a developer make a great game (Portal-level great) and decide to use this “pay what you want” plan on release, would I still pay the equivalent of the full retail price?
    To be honest, I don’t think so. I’d shell out 50%, 60% tops.

    So I guess my conclusion is that these pay-what-you-want schemes aren’t a good idea at launch, no matter who you are or how good your game is. A good year after release, à la WoG, that’s probably a good plan.

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