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Why I Want To Make Free Games
by Henry Smith on 06/23/14 07:55:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[This post is taken from a recent update to my Kickstarter campaignThe text is mostly a transcript of the video, with a couple of additional comments at the end...]

Hi, I’m Henry. I made the game Spaceteam. I want to keep making free games, and this is why:

Most of the games you can buy on your phone these days cost only 99 cents. And it looks like PC games are starting to head that way too.

This price does not in any way reflect the actual time and effort it takes to make a game. Some of these games are made by one person in a few weeks, but others take a team of people months or years to build.

In order to survive you either have to a huge advertising budget, or, you have to hope that somehow your game becomes a viral mega-hit. You can’t predict it, and you certainly can't rely on it. This system is broken.

Then we have so-called "free-to-play" games. Many of these claim to be free but actually require you to spend money on energy or coins to keep playing, sometimes sacrificing the actual game design in the process. They often use exploitative techniques and this brings up troubling questions of addiction. This system is broken.

You can try to survive using advertising, but ads distract you from the game, they take up part of the screen, you click on them by accident, and they’re not related to the experience of the game. You need thousands of people to see them in order to make money at all, and that money is coming from a third-party with no connection to the creator or the player. This system is broken.

Now let's say I get lucky, and manage to sell enough games to support myself. Some people will buy my game, play it once, and then delete it, never touching it again. I still have their money, but there’s no connection there, they don’t know who I am, or what I’m doing with that money, and they probably don’t care. Even when it works, I think the system could be better.

So what’s the alternative?

Well, there are many potential solutions, but the one I’m trying now is crowd-funding.

First, it’s a pay-what-you-can model, which makes a lot more sense to me. Some people are happy to pay more than that ubiquitous $1 price-tag. Everyone’s situation is different.

It’s also more than just an impulse purchase. You're making an investment, in a real person, because you believe in what they’re doing.

And finally, if the games themselves are free there’s no need to worry about clones or copy-protection or piracy. In fact it makes sense to share the games as widely as possible and to encourage others to copy them and share them as well. After all, digital games are essentially free to distribute anyway so all these artificial restrictions we’ve built up will continue to cause problems in the future.

I’m not trying to sell a product with my campaign, I’m trying to sell a vision.

In this vision, creators & artists are free to experiment, to innovate, and to share their creations with everyone, without worrying about how to pay rent.

Products are great, but they’re not as important as people. We need to help each other and create amazing new things by working together… as a spaceteam.

That's why I want my games to be free.

If this philosophy sounds intriguing to you, then please share the campaign as widely as you can. These broken systems affect all of us, and I can’t change them by myself. I need your help. And I’d love to hear what you think about all of this, so please join me in the forum or on Twitter and let’s talk about how we can make it happen.

Space out!

- Henry Smith (aka Captain Spaceteam)

Addendum #1: Someone mentioned that this doesn't address the problem of copyright and clones, and of course this is correct, clones will still get made. The difference is that you won't be losing any money if your game is free to start with. The two most notable recent cloning stories (Threes and Ridiculous Fishing) were both paid games that got hijacked by free clones. And in both these cases, the truth came out and the original authors kept their integrity and reputation.

If someone copies your idea without crediting you then that's still very uncool and it can be extremely frustrating. But if you let people copy and transform your idea and they're not jerks about it then it can lead to some wonderful new things.

I think ownership of ideas is becoming less important as more and more things are copied/hacked/remixed/repurposed, and I believe even the most original ideas are very much a product of culture/circumstance/upbringing/etc. We need to start supporting people instead of products.

Addendum #2: It's also been mentioned that this model isn't that different from F2P: give the game away for free and get supported by your biggest fans. The problem is that F2P design is full of psychological manipulation and systems that enable addictive behaviours. The people spending the most on F2P games can't necessarily afford it (see the many troubling articles on "whales"), whereas it's much more unlikely that you'll "accidentally" contribute large sums of money to a patronage campaign.

Addendum #3: Because it's a frequently asked question: yes, I do know about Patreon! I love Patreon, I already support several creators, and I'm planning to use it myself for longer-term sustainability. The reason I chose the all-or-nothing Kickstarter approach to start with is that I need to be sure that I can afford to make these games for free before committing to them. Otherwise it will put me in an awkward situation and won't be fair to the backers.

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Alan Barton
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Looking at your figures, in the Rough Schedule & Budget section on Kickstarter, they look ok to finish your game. (Assuming you can achieve your pledge goal, and finish your game on time, so you don't burn more money in scheduling overrun time).

But when you talk about making Kickstarter style crowd funding your way of funding future games, it doesn't look like you'll have much money left over at the end, after you finish your game. So how will you fund developing another game enough to then get that crowd source funded?

You talk about giving your game away for free after you're Kickstarted it. That isn't planning for your future. You'll need money after this game to keep going. (You can hope to get more than your Kickstarter pledge and you may well do, but that's a hope, not a business plan).

Your income figures and lack of sales after completion also assumes every game you develop enough to put onto Kickstarter will earn you your next amount of money to live on. Your business plan collapses as soon as you have one game that doesn't earn enough because then you won't have the money and time to develop yet another game to try to get that to sell on Kickstarter. (And you are selling your product on Kickstarter as much as you want to think of it as an artistic vision, it is a process of pitching a product to potential investors).

Anyway good luck with your current game, but going forward you need to consider having games on sale after you've finished your game, to help you fund your next game.

Eddie Corlew
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This is a good point but I think the idea is, if you build a reputation of making games people want to play they will keep funding you. There's a lot of trust required for something like this to work, on Henry's part, trust that he will continue to have ideas/motivation over the years and won't need to rely on one game to sustain him. And on the consumers part, trust that Henry will deliver.

Henry Smith
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Kickstarter isn't going to necessarily work for me long-term, and in fact I think Patreon might be better for long-term sustainability. This is just the first step in experimenting with a new funding model. If it works, then I can explore the idea further.
But the whole point is that I don't think individual games *should* be sold to players, I think it's a bad model. The Kickstarter also isn't for one specific game, which is part of what makes it different, it's for *one year* of game development. The game(s) that I work on and their scope and schedule are flexible, which is important. Having said that, I'm pretty confident that I'll be making the two games I mentioned.

And the way I've been planning for my future is by spending the last year and a half gradually building a community of supporters around Spaceteam, instead of working on new games. Even if the crowdfunding route doesn't work out, I'll still have this audience and so I can try more traditional approaches (in-app purchases, paid version).

Alan Barton
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@"one year of game development." & "The game(s) that I work on and their scope and schedule are flexible".

So your idea is to keep asking for hand outs?!, where you hope to keep making games.

Imagine thousands of developers trying that same pitch for hand outs!.

Hey, give me some money, I want to keep making games. Its my vision.


I've got a guy near me who lurks in a road underpass, trying that same business model with an old guitar and cup! ... (He doesn't live there, he goes there to work. As I live near, I often get to see the pattern in his behaviour. He plays the same part of the same tune every time I hear him, because I suspect he doesn't know any other part of any other tune!).

... and that is your business model! Churn out a few simple games a year and keep asking for hand outs?!

Well you maybe able to get some press coverage the first time you try this frankly PR stunt, like you've got on Gamasutra, but it won't last and can your imagine thousands of developers trying this same "business model". If anything will help kill crowd funding, this kind of thinking will.

I don't know why you are so anti-selling something? Why are you so unconformable with asking people for money for your creations?

Has the race to zero really come to the point where the only way to keep going, is to keep asking for hand outs to keep going?! What a depressing idea.

Its mind-boggling the more I think about it.

I thought the figures were bad enough before, but this, where do I begin.

Henry Smith
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Thanks for your comment Alan. I think a lot of people are going to have this reaction which is why we need to have these discussions.
It's worth noting that I'm absolutely not *anti* selling-something. I'm not trying to devalue creative works, I'm trying to REvalue the people who create them. I'm trying to put the focus back on the creators' time and effort, which is what we should be selling. I'm doing this as a reaction to the market which seems to be anti *buying*.
I think we should instead be asking why people are so uncomfortable buying iPhone games and digital music and movies. Maybe it's because these things are basically free to copy and distribute so it doesn't make sense to sell individual copies?
Maybe it's better to work alongside the "race to zero" rather than to fight against it?

sean lindskog
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You're either mad, or a genius. Either way, I tip my admiral's hat to you.

Lance Thornblad
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You beat me to it! I was about to say "crazy like a fox, or just crazy!" :)

Henry Smith
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Thanks! But I'm no genius. This isn't a new concept (Patreon has built a whole system & community on this idea) I just think it's time we made it more mainstream and had some serious discussions about it. I'm just adding my voice.

TC Weidner
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I agree with you 100%, thanks for taking the time to share.

Jonathan MacAlpine
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Amanda Palmer gave an interesting and relevant TED talk that really stuck with me.

Henry Smith
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Yes! I love that video. Thanks for linking it.

Robert Boyd
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I actually strongly considered doing just this but figured that we'd be hard pressed raising the kind of money we needed if everyone was going to get the game for free.

Ian Griffiths
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That a system doesn't work specifically for you or another individual doesn't mean it's broken as a whole.

This is just capitalism, barriers to entry have dropped significantly and as a result the market has become saturated. Games now succeed based on merit, luck and a bit of ad spend.

Henry Smith
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Actually these systems *did* work for me. I worked in the industry making big games for 10 years, which allowed me to save up enough to quit my job and go indie.
Then I released Spaceteam which had a lot of success by all measures except financial. It might have been a financial success too if I had charged money for it, but I chose not to.

Equally important is the fact that just because a system *does* work for some people doesn't mean it's *not* broken. I think it's important to ask critical questions about a system whether it works for us or not. My campaign is about finding ways to make it work for *more* people :)

Curtiss Murphy
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I've tried this. And, it works, to an extent, with the right content (~1.5% conversion). It is however, a REALLY tough idea to re-use, from product to product. After releasing six products, using every monetization model I know (including yours), I'm now closer to a monetization model I'm comfortable with. I think Extra Credits said it best in their video, Doing Free To Play Wrong, in which they assert the correct way to pursue Free To Play is: "The Player Should Enjoy Spending Money In Game".

Albert Thornton
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"In this vision, creators & artists are free to experiment, to innovate, and to share their creations with everyone, without worrying about how to pay rent.

Products are great, but they’re not as important as people. We need to help each other and create amazing new things by working together… as a spaceteam."

I am saddened, but not particularly surprised, that something like this is front-paged on a website supposedly about the 'business' of games.

You're talking about some weird hippie commune. Let me know how that works out. But I will state with pretty solid conviction that this model is much more 'broken' than the ones you decry.

And I know (from the above comments and past experience) that people will coo and clap and say how courageous this is ... but it's just naive. Rewarding naivete with praise just encourages more naivete.

Reminds me of that blog Gamasutra posted a few years back from a just-graduated artist who was just gutted that, in the real world, people just wanted him to ... work! For a salary! No chances to 'change the world'! He couldn't even find a company that was committed to 'social justice'! Unbelievable!

We're seeing one business model end, and several new business models struggle to take its place. I would rather see serious discussions of these phenomena than this continuous pie-in-the-sky nonsense.

Henry Smith
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It's not for everyone, but a lot of people are finding success on Patreon, which shares the same philosophy ( and they just got $15 million in VC funding, so I wouldn't call it pie-in-the-sky nonsense.

Colin Sullivan
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This is a big part of why I think crowdfunding has the potential to be much more important than just another funding source. Getting paid before you make something changes the dynamics so much, and free culture is one great result.

Authors and musicians have already done this for a while through alternative revenue streams, although crowdfunding makes it much easier for them. Game development and other capital intensive creative mediums, like film, are likely to make a lot more free culture output as people use crowdfunding like this.

Hopefully the relaunch is a success, I supported both of the campaigns.

Dave Bleja
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So, you're asking for $80,000 to make a 'free' game. And in doing so, you're removing the burden of risk off yourself and onto your backers.

So, there's zero financial risk for you, you get paid a ton of money before you even begin, AND you get to bask in the glory of selling a bold new vision of 'free' games. You even offer extra features that will only be available to paying customers, just like free-to-play games do. Hats off to you for some mighty creative marketing spin, my friend.

Don't get me wrong. I wish you well, and hope that your game is successful. There's nothing wrong with making money from games. But the way you've framed it all just seems like Newspeak.

Henry Smith
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It's a different way of thinking, for sure. But I think it's clear that I'm not trying to trick anyone. It's very unlikely that I'll get rich off these free games. And I'm not sure why you put 'free' in quotes, the games *will* be free, for everyone (not just backers). All free products have to get funding from somewhere. In this case it's my supporters. If you want you can think of it like a tax-payer funded arts grant but people get to choose where their money is going.

I don't think of it in terms of risk, either for myself or my backers. If I fund the development of a free game myself then how is that a risk? I spend money and in exchange I get to work on a fulfilling creative project that I can share with the world. There's a lot of value there, the money has not been lost or wasted.
In this case I can't afford to fund it myself so I'm asking for help.

It's also worth noting that the extra features available to supporters all have to do with participating in the creation process: customizing word lists, designing a character, naming things, etc. The results of their efforts will also be available to everyone, like the games themselves.

Dave Bleja
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I think it definitely is clear that you're not trying to trick anyone. And even though there are some parallels between free-to-play and your free-to-end-consumers model, your game will clearly avoid the many unethical or crappy pitfalls that some free-to-play games employ. No problem there.

Of course there's a risk. If a game takes you x months to make, that's x months that you spend not earning money elsewhere. If you don't manage to recoup that, then you're stuffed. In your case, the risk is so high that you actually consider it prohibitively high: you say you can't afford it....which really is another way of saying "I'm not prepared to spend all my life savings and/or go into debt for this game".

But because of kickstarter, you've pushed that risk onto backers. There's no risk for you, because you get money upfront. But there's a [small] risk for backers, because you might not make the game, or it mightn't be what they expect, or you might get hit by a bus. That's fine, since backers go into it knowing there's a risk.

The reason I put 'free' in quotation marks is because it deserves them: *You're getting other people to pay you for this game*. Yes, it'll be free for people in a year, but right now, you are actively asking for my money. For me, it will not be free.

If I walk into a fee-less state-run art gallery, I don't think to myself "this is free", I think to myself "this shit better be good, because my tax dollars are paying for it". And I *definitely* don't think to myself "this is free" during tax time when those funds are actively being taken from me.

Thanks for clarifying about the extra features being only about the creation process - I had misunderstood.

I don't think there's anything wrong with what you're doing, but I'm just telling you how it comes across. To me, it has a whiff of sly PR to it. You're making a game that is *for-profit*, yet you make it out to be almost a philanthropic act. You talk about how it's going to be free, as if this is a charitable act, but that's only because you're going to be sitting on 80,000 big ones before the game even hits the app stores. You've just taken the money from a slightly different group of people.

When I read your article, I don't see anything particularly novel or different. I just see the same old story: guy does a kickstarter, guy gets money, guy makes game. Ok, so the game is free eventually, but so what? Loads of mobile games are free. Nothing new here.

As far as I can see, you're the main winner in this, rather than the backers or the end consumers.

For the backers, it's just yet another kickstarter: a small financial outlay for a hopefully cool game and some perks. Business as usual.

For the consumer, it's just another free mobile game. As the potential consumer, why on Earth would I care whether your game will cost 99c or 0c? I couldn't care less about such a trivial difference.

But for you, it's win-win-win. You get lots of money, immediately, whether the game is successful or not. You won't have to go through the stress of expensive marketing. You won't be obligated to provide as much support if there are bugs as you would a paid game. And you win over the goodwill of people who see you as offering a more ethical model.

It's a pretty sweet deal for you, and a pretty standard one for everyone else. Yet you frame it as if somehow we're the beneficiaries of your generosity. Sorry, but that just doesn't sit well with me, no matter how much I trust that your intentions are pure (and I do). It kind of reminds me of a TV evangelist who gets rich while preaching selflessness.

I know you have the best of intentions, but at first glance it just comes across like a clever PR gimmick that you've conjured up to get you more pledges.

Henry Smith
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You bring up some really interesting points here, thanks for taking the time to discuss them!

I guess I need to work on the pitch to make it seem less gimmicky, but I am trying to change the way people think about some fundamental things so it's tricky to get right.

You're right about the risk, I am asking lots of people to share small amounts of risk with me instead of taking it all on myself. But that's how all crowdfunding works. On top of this, I already *did* release a free game that I funded entirely myself, Spaceteam. I took on a ton of risk when I did that. So if you prefer to think of each pledge as a regular pay-what-you-want purchase (albeit delayed) for Spaceteam, then that works too.

Usually backing a KS *feels* like a transaction for a product but it's not really. If I back a regular (paid) game project for $50 that money is being directly used to pay people's salaries, equipment, office space, etc. it has real value. The game you get at the end is essentially a free reward for your help. In contrast, if I buy a game at a store for $50, then ostensibly the company will use the money to recoup costs, but of course they're free to spend it on whatever they want, potentially something you don't approve of. There's a very similar trust/risk system at work there.

The truth is if the crowdfunding doesn't work out I *am* planning to dig into my savings to keep working on these games because it's what I want to do. I'd just much rather do it with help instead so I'm running this experiment to see if it's possible.

And while the difference between 99c and 0c might be trivial for you, it's certainly not trivial for a lot of people and there's also a psychological effect at play.

As a side note: the psychology of taxes is pretty weird too. It feels like money is being taken from us when we fill out our tax return, but by living in a civilized society we're agreeing that some of what we earn should go to the government in exchange for services. In other places where it's handled behind the scenes people don't care about it as much (eg. sales tax being built into the sticker price in the UK).

Dave Bleja
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You make some good points.

I guess what I meant by the 0c vs 99c thing was that I don't think it lowers the barrier of entry in a meaningful way. If Assassins' Creed 5 is free, then that would dramatically change the demographics of who is willing or able to buy it. But if a 99c game becomes free, that doesn't affect the barrier of entry, since anyone who owns a smartphone can afford 99c.

But as you say, there are significant psychological differencecs. Actually, if I'm honest, difference between 0c and 99c is very important for me, but in the sense that I almost always ignore free games. With free games, I just flat out assume that either they've got annoying hidden monetisation mechanics, or that the author doesn't believe in the game enough to charge for it. I'm also more likely to feel affection for a game that I've paid for, because it feels like something I've made a commitment to.

I guess that's another reason your model doesn't really sit with where I'm at as a user. It disguises two of the key strengths of the game: that it's a serious, commited labour of love that took you a long time and is worth $80,000, and that it's devoid of free-to-play shenanigans.

RE: Taxes. I actually enjoy paying taxes. Though sales tax is included in the sticker price where Ilive, for most of my 20s I was too poor to pay income tax. When I finally did, I was proud to finally contribute to society. So maybe I'm particularly mindful of where my money goes.

Anyway, there's one thing I think you should address ASAP about your kickstarter page. Star Control 2 is one of my favourite all-time games, so I was intrigued by your game. But I skimmed the entire page twice, and I couldn't see whether it would be available for Android or not (only that your previous game was). I'm not going to back a game if I don't know for certain I'll be able to play it. I also didn't get a sense of an expected delivery date. I think you should make these things clearer, either up top in the intial description, or in the FAQ.