Puppygames is a small development studio in the U.K., co-founded by Caspian Prince who thinks that his customers are worthless. That is not something you would expect an indie studio head to tell their loyal fan base who pays the bills, keeps the lights on and continues to purchase their games. However, that is exactly what he said to them in an emotionally charged blog post on the PuppyGames.com blog.
“You are worthless to us.”
Few quotes have generated the kind of response that Price gave the internet in the lengthy post describing how the de-valuation of games and sales combined with business decisions that do not work have combined to not only bring PuppyGames to a close, but how it has hurt the industry in general.
The logic behind Prince’s statement isn’t based on the customer being worthless in a personality or moral sense, but rather from a fiscal sense. In his blog post he mentions how the price of indie games have gone down over the years since 2002 when indie games would sell for around $20.
“We jokingly used to say that we sold you a game for a dollar and then $19 of support. That’s actually pretty close to accurate when you work out the time spent fixing someone’s computer for them.” – Chris Prince
Then Steam came and the landscape for PC gaming distribution changed forever. When Steam launched it was a buggy and bloated bit of software that has since been refined and is now the #1 PC digital distribution platform. And with Steam came the steam sale which was followed quickly by the Humble Bundle and clones. Developers like PuppyGames would find themselves selling 40,000 copies of their game at ten cents each which equated to less money for the volume of tech support that followed such a massive influx of sales.
Prince’s passionate post echoes that of GamesBrief founder Nicholas Lovell who published an article on Vavle’s race to $0 for the PC gaming market after allowing developers and publishers to set their own price points.
PuppyGames is set to close soon, heralded by the release of their own Final Fantasy, Basingstoke. The game puts the player in the blasted ruins of the city Basingstoke, after the Titan Invasion. The player must then escape the city with no hit points, and instant death. Sneaking, distraction, surprise and running away are your only options and the game will be brutal.
Prince is not the only developer who has come out against digital sales and the race to $0. Castle Doctrine creator Jason Rohrer is another advocate against sales for games. In a blog post on his site he stated,
“To put it bluntly: sales screw your fans,” Rohrer said. “Your fans love your games and eagerly await your next release. They want to get your game as soon as it comes out, at full price. But they are foolish to do that, because a sale is right around the corner…It’s nice to have fans that love your work that much. And these are the fans that you kick in the teeth when you put your game on sale.”
With Valve now letting developers and publishers set their own pricing on Steam, the competition has become even more fierce. To combat this Rohrer decided to do a sort reverse sale in that the further away from launch you pre-ordered the game, the cheaper it was. When the game finally released it would be locked in at the final price, never to change again. While he posted the results of the strategy pre-launch on the link above, we have not heard any solid figures from him since launch.
While the idea of worthless consumers is a view shared by some developers and economists, there are examples of where Steam sales have also benefited studios as well. Ken Berry, the Executive VP for XSEED Games told Gamasutra:
“While some may argue that [major sales] contribute to an industry-wide price deterioration problem — where smartphone games have made people unwilling to spend more than $5 on a digital game — [Steam sales] are a bit different,” says Ken Berry, the executive VP of XSEED Games (Ys Origins, Ys: The Oath in Felghana).
Runic Games CEO Max Schaefer also made the assertion in the same article that Torchlight benefited from Steam sales.
“We find that we get several thousand percent increases in units and revenue on the days of the Steam sales, and unit sales are usually about double the normal for a few weeks after the sales are over,” he says.
The idea of building brand recognition and loyalty through a gateway purchase for next to nothing is not a new idea and has been used in other marketing efforts in other industries. Giving a customer a free sample, or a reduced price on an entry level product is something most of us have been exposed to at one time or another. However it is worth noting that the two examples listed in Gamasutra are from fairly well established developers. While this does not give them immunity from having the financial drain of a flop game, it does mean they have the ability to more accurately predict the market and therefore make a better game from the outset.