This is a response to Puppy Games Blog Post by Caspian Prince, 'Because You're Worthless: The Dark Side of Indie PR'
Let me start by saying that I think that Puppy Games is an amazing company, and if I ever sell half the number of games that they have, I will be very lucky. I'm not saying that in a conceding or sarcastic manner either; the last game I released sold 3 copies, so I'm guessing they might be 1000x to 10000x more successful than me! Please keep that in mind while you read this post, and understand that in no way am I more 'qualified' to speak on the subject of indie marketing than they are. What I am going to describe is simply what I believe and what I am trying to do now. No doubt I make countless marketing and development mistakes, but my hope is that this alternate viewpoint might encourage other struggling indie developers.
Let's talk about customers. Caspian says that "you are worthless to us", and goes on to show how after sales, bundles, Steam and the tax man, a $20 product goes to on to sell for mere pennies to the dev. I'm not going to debate the math - at that rate, it's really hard to make a profit. It is not enough to just make a great game in the age of bundles, Steam and Big Fish Games. Games themselves are being commoditized, sold in virtual bargain bins for dimes on the dozen. What I'm going to suggest is not changing the math on customers, but changing those customers into fans.
There are two ways to influence human behavior - manipulation and inspiration (Simon Sinek, Start With Why). Steam Sales, Bundles, any price cut - all fall into the manipulation category. There is no doubt that price manipulation is highly effective. But there is a heavy cost to this - your customers start expecting it as the norm. And suddenly we're routinely selling $20 products for pennies on the dollar and wondering why people are unwilling to pay more. The fault does not lie with one person or company, but with all of us. We sacrifice our long term profitability to drive more business. We get more customers, but we don't get any loyalty. The only way to beat the game is to quit playing.
Turning someone who pays $0.25 for a finished product to someone who pledges $100 on Kickstarter for your idea is long process of giving, giving and giving until it hurts (Gary Vaynerchuk, Jab, Jab, Jab Right Hook). Here is a secret: as human beings, we have a wired weak spot to respond to kindness (something that allows us to survive as a tribe instead of killing each other). A little genuine kindness goes a long way in creating loyalty. Loyalty is also generated by the other side of the manipulation coin, inspiration. Inspiration is creating a cause, an idea, a WHY strong enough that people want to represent that idea in their own lives. And when you have loyalty, everything changes. Loyalty frees you from the gatekeepers - you get around splitting sales w/Steam if all your customers buy your product straight on your website. Loyalty makes Lets Play videos and markets you on Facebook and Twitter for free. Loyalty doesn't care about price and won't wait to buy your game on sale; it buys it on early access for 20% extra.
It sounds like PuppyGames were great in supporting their customers in technical support. That's the kind of thing that should be talked about more, the kind of thing that earns retweets and likes - I'm surprised it has not earned them a more loyal fan base. So maybe loyalty can't be 100% effective - I can't give you concrete statistics on the math of kindness. But doesn't it make more sense to fight for customer loyalty than try to manipulate our way to profitability? We can't control what the market does or the tricks our competitors use; we can inspire our fans and be kind to our customers. I can't say if the inspiration approach will ever be profitable for me, but it fits the WHY of my company (Better Games, Better Lives, To share with the world) so it is what I'm going try to do.
Finally, let me acknowledge that being an indie developer out on the internet can be pretty awful. You pour your time, effort and hope into your project only to have it trashed by random strangers. Why does it hurt so much? Why do we let it keep us up a night? I understand Caspian Prince when he talks about dark corners of the internet, the negativity that pulls down every indie developer brave enough to publish their work. It is a fight to stay positive. I try to keep this quote from 'Ratatouille' in mind:
"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so."
If there's any solace to seek, it is the knowledge that you have the opportunity to be an artist in a world of critics. Maybe that's enough.
So to PuppyGames and to all the Indie devs who may see an increasingly bleak market and a hostile and unforgiving world: I would just encourage you to keep doing great work, keep being kind to your customers, and continue to inspire your loyal fans; I know you have inspired me.