Out of Your Hands
But while PSN is fairly flexible, giving developers a lot of freedom with deciding at what price point they want to sell their game, Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade is much more rigid. Though, according to Michael Wilford, CEO of Twisted Pixel Games, this isn't necessarily a bad thing.
"Xbox Live Arcade games are priced by Microsoft," Wilford explained. "We get to make a suggestion, but ultimately it's their call. When making our suggestions, we mainly consider the amount of content on offer relative to other comparable games. We try very hard to offer more content than is expected for a given price point, and so far we feel like we've done a pretty good job, especially considering the free gamerpics, premium themes, and avatar awards we give to our players."
According to Wilford, putting the pricing decision in the hands of Microsoft can be "a good thing given their knowledge of the unreleased portfolio."
Both of Twisted Pixel's games, The Maw and Splosion Man, were priced at 800 Microsoft Points, the equivalent of $10. However, Wilford doesn't believe that this has put the developer in a box, forced to release only $10 games in the future.
"I don't think the majority of our audience knows or cares what we priced our previous games at," he explained. "And the ones that do have a positive attitude towards us and know that our goal is to one-up ourselves with every game we make.
"I think, and hope, that we've earned their trust enough that if we released a $15 game, or even a $20 game, there would be a high expectation of quality, and a high degree of faith that we would continue to over-deliver."
And in the digital space, where potential customers are often much more fickle, finding the right balance between paying the bills and not being over-priced can be tough to find.
"As your price goes up, you start losing potential buyers, so you can't just assume a higher price will yield more revenue -- you need to figure out if that buyer drop-off is proportional to the price increase or not," Wilford says. "And sometimes, even if you think a higher price point will be more profitable, it may be best to go lower anyway in order to get a bigger group of people playing your games, recognizing your brand, and remembering your name."
Vella agrees, saying "For us, it's a combination of what we feel the game is worth, and what we feel is fair to gamers. For example, pricing Critter Crunch at $15 just wouldn't feel right to us, and I don't think it would be fair to gamers. I think some games, many of them retail, are overvalued and overpriced.
"And on the flip side, I think there's a push on the iPhone side to undervalue and under-price. Pricing isn't easy, it isn't really fun, and there are so many repercussions that it sort of makes your brain bleed. In the end, we just try to make decisions that best serve our studio and try to be as fair as possible for gamers."
One of the most important things is to understand what you're getting into in the early stages of production, so that you can get an idea of how much to charge for a title even before it's finished.
"We started prototyping knowing that, while everything else may change, we are not aiming for a really big game," Vella said of Capybara's upcoming WiiWare title Heartbeat. "That knowledge helps us get an approximate price, so we can figure out, internally, how best to budget the development -- where we break even, those sort of business-related calculations that you have to do for every game."
While there seems to be little consensus on how to price a game, speaking to Vella, Downie, and Wilford has revealed a few universal truths when it comes to putting a price tag on an independent, digitally released game.
1. Know what you're getting into. Though you may not settle on a price until the very end, it's important to think about a range early on in the development process. Factors like platform choice and the scope of the project are important things to consider and allow you to budget accordingly, and should have a strong affect on the final pricing decision.
2. Be Fair. Whether it's a free-to-play iPhone game or a $10 XBLA title, keeping your price in line with what consumers expect is vital. Not only will it ensure more buyers of that particular game, but it creates goodwill and a consumer who knows they won't get ripped off with your next title.
3. Stay Flexible. One of the benefits of a digital release is that it allows for flexibility in terms of pricing, discounting certain platforms. If you have the ability to experiment with price, do so, and pay attention, as it will teach you a great deal about how consumers react to different price points.
Settling on a profitable price is neither easy nor fun, but for independent developers it's crucial. Being prepared, doing your research, and listening to consumers can alleviate the frustration that is generally associated with the experience and make pricing less painful.