This article was originally posted on the author's blog, Think Small
People are fickle with their money. Even 5 bucks can be a huge barrier to getting people to forking over their hard-earned cash. But, if you have a better mousetrap that people want then generally, so long as they know that you exist, they’ll beat a wide path to your door. The operating phrase here of course is, “so long as they know that you exist.” One of the primary problems that indie game developers face is that people simply don’t know that they exist. It’s difficult to compete with the marketing and PR departments of half a dozen major publishers, and so one way to push through the clutter is to offer your games at a discount.
In a recent interview Gabe Newell mentioned that he’s observed a high price elasticity in game bundles. What this means in non-Economics-major-speak is that when the price of a bundle goes down the demand for a bundle goes up at a disproportionate ratio. So, selling a game for half as much doesn’t net twice as much revenue, it for example can net ten times as much revenue. Being a marketing neophyte that I am I decided to listen to the advice of one of the most prominent men in the industry and I put together a game bundle of my own.
The result of this was the “5 for 5 Indie Games Bundle” (or perhaps the “Buy Games Not Socks Bundle” as it was also called) which was released on the 22nd of last month and ran through yesterday. This is the final report.
Bundles sold: 3,642
If you compare that to the revenues of the Humble Bundle then it’s a paltry number, clocking in at about 2% of the Humble Bundle’s revenues. But given some of the other bundles that I’ve seen it actually did quite well. All in all I would say that given the type of bundle it was (there was no original pay-what-you-want device to draw it attention) it did fairly well and I’m happy with the results.
This being the first bundle I’ve put together, I learned a few lessons. Here they are, distilled into a neat list for your amicable consumption.
Quality is better than quantity.
The 5-for-5 bundle began as a slightly different idea; to unite 20 indie games into one bundle for 20 bucks. I first started to do some market research to see how people in the bundle’s audience (the core gamer) would respond to a bundle like that and the general reaction was, “I don’t know if I could turn that down.” That was encouraging and I began to dig a little more. But then, there was also a large contingent that replied, “I don’t know how I could have time to play so many games, and $20 is steep even if it’s $1 per game.” So the bundle was simplified to 10 games for $10 keeping with the “x for x” theme. Even 10 games seemed to be a bit high as I soon realized that the logistics of coordinating ten game developers in a single bundle may prove to be somewhat difficult. I also began to realize that I had to make a tradeoff to get 10 indie games in a bundle - many of them may not fit my target audience, and many of them may not be of the required quality level.
In the end I decided to reduce yet again to 5 games, to keep things simple. Even this proved to be rather complicated, although manageable. I can’t say whether the number of games in the bundle is a big influence on sales. On the one hand you could argue that a variety of games helped players pick up a bundle when they wouldn’t have otherwise, but on the other hand you could argue that profit per developer goes up with less developers. I don’t have that data but I think in the future I’m going to lean towards having less games in my bundles.
People don’t like to feel like they are being ripped off.
I hate the idea that someone ever feels like I’m ripping them off. I never want to make a single dollar in this life that isn’t honest and worked hard for. But at the beginning of the bundle I figured, “5 pounds? 5 euro? 5 dollars? All basically the same thing!” Not out of greed but just as a result of not thinking it through. I’ve seen lots of low-price-point items sell for one dollar in the US and one pound in the UK, even though that’s not technically the same amount of money. So I didn’t think about it much and this turned out to be rather shortsighted, as people grew quite mad. A number of people said, “I’m not buying this ripoff crap,” which at first I wrote off to people having an inflated sense of entitlement. But after I fixed it those same people turned around and purchased the bundle. One person who purchased the bundle before the price change asked what I could do about it and I offered him a partial refund, but he passed on that because he just wanted to know that I was being fair. He just wanted to know that I was being honest. Good thing for me, I’m always honest.
People appreciate prompt customer service.
I think that during the bundle the median response time for people emailing me and asking for customer support could be measured in seconds. This is despite getting more than 200 emails due to a logistical error. About 80% of those emails were replied and the issue resolved within a minute of me getting them. The remainder were all resolved within 8 hours, and they only took that long because I was eating, sleeping, or maybe running with my dog. (Come on now, exercise is important!)
The response was clear. At least a dozen people commented on how fast my reply was, or saying, “I think that’s the fastest customer service I’ve ever had.” I learned how to do customer service by working at a big corporation having to do support on some of the most buggy software I’ve ever had to work on. You could say that I learned what not to do working there. The main thing people appreciate is not to have to wait to play the games that they paid for. In the games industry, reputation is critical and customer service is one of the best ways to keep a good reputation. But, it requires having your shit together and knowing how to find and diagnose problems, and having an answer ready for your customer before they email you.
Everything you say is marketing.
I forget where I originally heard this, but it’s true. I’m a personable guy and I love engaging the people who play my game to see what they like about it. I very much am motivated by people who enjoy my game. I want people to feel like they can talk to me any time, because I genuinely like to talk to people who enjoy my games. So it’s not difficult for me to be personal when replying to customer service emails. It pays off, at least a half dozen people mentioned in their emails that they are thrilled about how personal their support was. People respond very well when they know it’s a person on the other side of the line and not a robot.
12 days was too long. 5 or 7 would probably have been the best choice.
If you look at the sales curve, the reasoning for this is clear. Sales drop off pretty starkly after the 4 day mark, after all of the websites that are going to cover you have already done so. In the latter days our sales were stamped out almost completely by other bundles and summer sales. The last 6 days were just a march to the finish with not enough additional sales to justify the extra work.
The 6th game tactic was a failure.
I decided to experiment by adding a sixth game to the bundle midway through. The intention was that just as the traffic to the website would begin to die down, another news flash update would pick it back up again.
This didn’t work for what is in retrospect an obvious reason. Websites who had covered the bundle the week before were not going to re-post the news just because one more game was added, and people who had not purchased the bundle were not going to change their mind due to a single game being added. This also caused a load of logistical problems for me that took a lot of sorting out. In the end everything turned out to be fine, but it caused a lot of extra work for me and generally wasn’t worth it. That’s a shame too since Star-Twine (the 6th game) is a great game and really should have been rolled into the bundle from the beginning.
Marketing alone sucks. Get a professional.
I’ve been teaching myself the ins and outs of video game marketing for the past year and I can safely now say that I know enough about video game marketing to know that I can’t do it. It’s just not something that a developer can do. I looked for a year for a way to be able to do it myself, but it just doesn’t exist. Even if you had the time to do it, you’re competing with the large publishers who have seven digit marketing budgets and they suck all of the air out of the room. This is the only aspect by which I consider myself in competition with other game developers — in the marketing arena.
Fortunately we were smart enough to hire a PR firm to help us promote this bundle. It was well worth the effort, I think our sales would have been half of what they were without the PR firm, and the difference comes out to be much greater than what we paid.
Bundles are a necessity.
There are many things that are a necessity for indie game developers. Having a quality and fun game is one of them. Having a good demo and video is another. But of course the overlooked one is marketing. It’s almost an evil term for many game developers (the poor ones.)
Bundles are a great way to market the game since they get so heavily reported on. They increase the visibility of your game by pairing it with other games that players may know better. It’s an important avenue of discovery. Those same players are more likely buy your next game at full price. This bundle was somewhat of an experiment for me to see how effective they were, but given how effective it’s been I’m going to fold them into a regular part of my long-term plan.
Having an attractive “theme” worked.
I’m really an entertainer at heart. I didn’t learn to program games because I like programming or computers, but more because I like to see people having fun with the things I create. As such I’m always looking for ways to tickle people’s brains. Fortunately for me that’s also a great way to sell bundles. As a group we came up with a theme for the bundle, “What can you buy with five bucks?” the first prospective item being a new pair of socks. Going on from there I picked up the domain name buygamesnotsocks.com and it became the “Buy Games Not Socks” bundle. People responded quite strongly to this. Someone made a #whoneedssocks hashtag on Twitter. One person claimed that instead of buying socks you could print out game screenshots and tape them to your feet. People seemed to enjoy the theme and I think it helped the bundle get re-tweeted a lot. A great deal of our traffic and sales came from Twitter and Facebook, and other social venues. Without a consistent theme I think it would have been much less.
The price was not too low.
Cliff Harris (maker of Gratuitous Space Battles) is constantly complaining on his blog about the ever-dropping price of video games. For the most part, he is right. A week or two before we launched our bundle, he made this post on his blog, bemoaning another bundle which had just come out which was selling 6 games for $5. Personally I think he was just mad that they had undercut his own bundle which was selling for $30. But, even so I think he’s wrong.
Cliff posted on his twitter that he had made about $600 from his portion of the bundle, which means that in total (since there were 5 games) the bundle probably made about $3000 during its run. But the 5-for-5 bundle made that amount inside the first 24 hours. Because of the extensive press coverage we were able to reach out to a large group who would never have purchased these games otherwise, and there’s also the residual benefits of increased exposure. $5 is about what Windows users paid on average for the Humble Bundle. Yes, it’s true that if we had sold the same amount of copies for four times as much then we would have made four times more, but I think we would have sold ten times as many less bundles and made less money overall.
In his post, Cliff argues about the “race-to-the-bottom” pricing syndrome that so many games suffer from and in many aspects (AppStore market, anyone?) he is correct. But I don’t think indie games are suffering from this problem, and it doesn’t apply to these five games because now that the sale is over, the games have all returned to full price.
Many people care a lot about redeeming their downloads on a download service.
This is something I underestimated greatly. We were only able to provide Steam keys for one of our games, although we did provide Desura keys for all of them. I know that people have an aversion to buying things that can go poof at any time. This is why business such as OnLive have such a difficult time convincing core gamers to use their services. Many core gamers dislike the idea of paying for something and not owning it outright and forever. So, when presented with games that can’t be redeemed on some kind of download service, these people simply pass on the opportunity. It’s not even worth the five dollars to those people. This was helped in the latter days of the bundle by making it more clear on the website that the games were redeemable on Steam and Desura.
Many are resistant to buying a game that’s not on Steam.
There’s not much I could have done about this one. I would love for Digitanks to be on Steam but I’m not quite ready to submit it yet. And other than Digitanks there were four other non-Steam games in the bundle. Even so, I think I lost a lot of sales due to the Steam-centric nature of the average core gamer. It doesn’t matter that I think that our collective addiction to Steam is an unhealthy one. It’s not my job to be proselytizer of Steam alternatives and also sell my bundle. The next time I do a bundle I’ll be putting a larger focus on getting Steam support for all of the games.
Mac/Linux is a huge audience.
If more of our games supported Mac and Linux, I think I would have doubled our sales, easily. Many people asked if the games had Linux and Mac support. Many people expressed their disinclination to purchase the bundle without it. During the sale I toyed around in a virtual machine and got a Linux port of Digitanks halfway working. When I announced this on my twitter, two separate Linux-specific websites announced that the game would soon have a Linux port. (That kind of coverage is odd for me. I’m no Markus Persson, things I say don’t usually get reposted as news.)
Linux and Mac users also seem to be a better audience to sell a game to. They are in general more willing to pay for things, and they have a lower quality expectation, which I think is actually to their credit. Linux and Mac users aren’t inundated with a flood of games every week, and they paid almost twice as much as Windows users on average during the Humble Bundle. Plus, I love Linux and Mac, I don’t see why there shouldn’t be a port at this point. I’m making it a primary goal to support those platforms for future versions of Digitanks.
That brings this rather lengthy article to its conclusion. If you have questions or you want to talk about just about anything (especially video games!) I’d love to hear from you. Comment on this article or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org