The Value of a 99c Player
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Last year, my brother and I released our first game, TownCraft. It's a fairly complex city-builder / management game designed for iPad. It is also a premium title - with no micro-transactions or in-app purchases of any kind - and after deciding on this model we then spent quite a while deliberating over a price for our game.
iPad games vary quite a bit in price, but in the end we decided on the $5 price bracket ($5.49 in our native Australian dollars). We felt it was both fair, and not going to cause too much pause before people bought it. Sure, we could have gone with the slightly higher $7.50 price point, but we found, after much reading and grilling almost every iPad gamer we met, that it seemed to be just a little bit too high - it crossed that magical threshold where an impulse purchase because something 'sounds cool' becomes a careful deliberation... which often means you lose the sale.
This is particularly important in our case, as there's no free version and no way to get more money out of dedicated players - once they have the game, they have the game.
It's hard to tell, of course, but we feel that our price selection was a good one. We saw and received no complaints about the price (and indeed were praised for the value it represented in many reviews) and have had a relatively steady stream of sales.
However, it is now some months later, and after much work, we are closing in on time to release our iPhone version. It's taken quite a while to do this port. Not for technical reasons, but for interface ones. Our game is complex, and condensing the UI for a strategy/management game to a screen a fraction the size without sacrificing usability is no easy feat.
This brings us to a problem: how much do we charge?
If we were simply releasing another edition of the game for iPhone, we would just do what we did with the iPad version - price it at what we think is fair for both the quantity & quality of content, and for the platform.
However, we don't think people who've bought our game for iPad should have to buy it again for iPhone. It'd annoy me if I had to buy the game a second time when it's all through the same store... why should I inflict that upon anyone else? So we're going universal. One purchase and you own the game on both platforms.
Which means this: either we update our game to be a Universal App with iPhone support as well as iPad and leave the price as is... or we reduce it.
On the one hand, reducing makes sense. Someone seeing the game on their iPhone won't know or care that it's for iPad as well, and probably worth the (not unreasonable) $5 instead of the more iPhone-friendly $3 price-point. They'll simply see it as "too expensive" and it might cost us the buck and a bit we'd otherwise have made if they'd bought it at the cheaper price.
On the other hand, it seems mildly insane that we suddenly end up with an iPad title with hours of gameplay that took two years to make... and we're charging even less for it than six months before! Especially when you consider that those six months were spent improving the game and producing new content for it.
In fact, if we do reduce the price, the buyer will be paying less for a game which has about 120% more content in terms of levels and about 25% more content in terms of recipes, resources and general content. Plus it's a more solid game with more testing, better UI design and even far superior art in many places.
It's not that I feel bitter about this - we wouldn't have spent six months building this new content and continuing to work on the game if we didn't like doing it - but it does sometimes feel like a bit of a head-scratcher that the climate for video games is such that people just expect prices to drop over time.
LESS MONEY? LESS VALUE.
Something else which has happened since our game was released is that we've occasionally had sales - temporarily reducing the cost of our game down for af few select events.
During the Black Friday sales, we decided to join in and drop our price to a mere 99c, and got ourselves listed on numerous "Black Friday iOS Sales" lists.
The result? Sales. Not huge amounts, but we still got a good few hundred more sales than we'd have gotten otherwise. Sure, we earned less per sale, but we still "moved units" (an odd term given the "units" are things we didn't actually have to pay for in any meaningful sense).
We did a similar thing over Christmas, reducing our price to a slightly less insane $3. This time, there weren't so many centralised "what's on sale" lists for us to appear on, and the sales figures spiked after Christmas... but not much. In fact, after careful analysis of the numbers and comparison with numbers other developers had released or hinted it... it seemed that our sales bump was probably just the result of people getting iTunes gift cards and iPads for Christmas and buying titles they'd pretty much already decided to spend money on anyway.
However, there was another effect when we reduced our prices, and it's one we'd suspected might be the case, but still found a bit dispiriting to be proven right over.
When we first debated price points, I wanted more, and my brother wanted less. His argument was logical - we'd sell more units (and probably make more money) if we made it a bit cheaper.
However, my concern was this:
I wanted people to play the game. Really play the game - give it a good go... and I had noticed something in my own behaviour which I felt was probably not out of the ordinary.
It was this: if I paid $110 for a game, I was desperate to enjoy it (otherwise, I'd return it if I was able). That meant I would really spend a lot of time to get into the game and find out if I was able to enjoy it or not.
By contrast, buying a 99c game on special... sometimes I wouldn't even play it. At least, not until a long time later, and even then I might only give it a few moments. Doesn't hook me straight away? I'd give it up.
When I spoke to other people about this, it seemed to not just be me.
And our game takes quite a bit to get into - the tutorial alone takes a good ten minutes if you don't know what you're doing. So if we priced it at 99c, people might not give it the attention it needed to have spent on it in order to actually get into the game.
The theory, in summary: the *perception* of the value of your game defines not only its perceived value before a sale, but how much time and energy people will grant it afterwards.
It's hard to prove this theory right or wrong, but we did find that our sales went a ways to showing that there's some merit to it when contrasted with other metrics
Firstly, there's analytics. We don't measure much, but we do measure enough to get an idea of player retention and the number of unique players per week.
Secondly... there's emails. We get emails quite frequently from people with questions, comments, praise, criticisms and bug reports - at a fairly consistent rate, too. If we sell 100 copies in a week, we can probably expect 1-2 emails, in our experience.
During predictably large sales spikes, analytics clearly showed that only about a third to a half of the number of sales we made were translating into actual new players; the number of support emails we got also supported this.
Yes, we sold more copies by a bit during the sale, but we also sold more copies that didn't actually get played - or at least, not enough for people to form solid opinions and want to tell us about them.
MORE GAME? MORE MONEY.
Which brings me to this interesting article.
Minecraft got away with charging more over time... and it makes sense. Much like our game, Minecraft is bigger, more solid, has more features and more to do now at its full $40 price point than it did at the beta and alpha stages, when it sold for $20 and $10 respectively.
And this makes sense.
The more I talk to other developers and take note, the more I think there's some merit to the controversial "buying a game before it's done" thing.
Well, sort of. I still feel that selling a game before it's playable is a bit unfair. Even Minecraft, when it was sold while still in 'alpha' and 'beta' probably didn't fit the traditional definitions of 'alpha' and 'beta' - it was a solid, completed game at almost every point, albeit a less polished one with less features.
So while we grapple with the question of "Do we reduce the price of TownCraft now before our iPhone release?" we also find ourselves grappling with a different question: "Do we increase the price of TownCraft before our iPhone release?"
We could sell more units by going on sale all the time and just generally selling cheap, but we don't just want units sold - we want *players*. We want to ensure that people give our game a fair go, and also that we get compensated reasonably for the time we spent developing the game.
A good idea, or not? We're not sure, but the more we talk to other indie developers and read articles like the one by Jason Rohrer linked above... the more we think it's worth giving it some very serious consideration.