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Why Connectrode costs $.99 (...and why it shouldn't have to)
by Shay Pierce on 07/06/11 08:23:00 am   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.

 

Over the weekend I released a game that represents many hours of work, most from my own spare time: an indie puzzle game for iOS titled Connectrode. The release of the game is a big moment for me and I could probably write 1,000 pages about its development...! But instead I'll restrain myself and just use the game as a springboard to blog about some related game development topics I've wanted to blog about. Today I'll talk about the business side of things... and especially the state of the iOS App Store.

I'm selling Connectrode for $.99... and though that price is a fact I've long accepted, that doesn't mean it's one I'm happy about. The fact is that the current state of the App Store left me no choice but to sell my game for $.99. Why is that the case, and how did the App Store get that way? Is the price erosion that's occurred there an inevitable fact of digital distribution, or could another system have prevented that phenomenon? Is my game really worth less than a pack of Altoids?

I absolutely believe that I've made a very high-quality puzzle game, worthy of comparison to classics of the genre such as Tetris and Dr. Mario, as well as modern gems like Drop7. I'm also very proud of what I've accomplished just in designing a fun abstract puzzle game: creating any type of gameplay that is truly "easy to learn, difficult to master" is a difficult feat. I'm also very proud of the work that my ragtag team of Austin-based indies has done in creating excellent art and audio for the game (I particularly love the music, by David Pencil, who did the soundtrack for Penny Arcade: The Series season two).

Yet the fact remains: I'm selling the game for less than the cost of a burrito! How did things come to this?

The current state of the iPhone market has been described well before, and it's been this way for a long time: read How to Price Your iPhone App Out of Existence from 2008, or this post from 2009 by Adam Saltsman about Canabalt pricing instead. (Small world: Connectrode uses the Flixel iOS engine that Adam's company used for Canabalt and which he was kind enough to later open-source.)

But the bottom line is that I have little choice but to release for $.99, and I feel a bit dirty about it... and not just because I'm giving away a quality product virtually for free. I see developers launching quality games at $.99 as increasingly damaging, not just to the iOS market, but to the entire games industry. Reggie of Nintendo raised these concerns, and I think that such statements are more than just Nintendo lashing out at its mobile-game competitors: it's the perspective of a company that's been in this business a long time, pointing out business practices that really are not only unsustainable, but actively damaging.

A big part of why this problem came about is simply that many small indie app and game developers are not very business-savvy. Their understanding of economics goes as far as "if I sell my game for less than this other guy, I'll probably sell more; and since it doesn't cost me anything more to make each copy, I can easily make up the difference in volume."

There's several flaws with this logic, and one of the big ones is that price sends a signal.

  • If game A is $5 and game B is $1, customers are going to take this alone as a sign that game A is of higher quality, and worth more, than game B.
  • Even taken alone, if game B costs $1, customers just aren't going to perceive it as valuable. We can't sell games for less than a pair of socks forever and expect people to treat what we're producing as works of real value (commercially or otherwise).

My concern (and Nintendo's) is that this perception is carrying over beyond the mobile app market; when polished games stuffed with dozens of hours of gameplay (such as Angry Birds) are being sold for less than a box of Kleenex, how long can we expect people to continue paying $60 for a AAA that provides dozens of hours of gameplay?

We're not just eroding prices, we're eroding the public perception of the value of what we do.

So what would a digital-distribution market look like where this decline wouldn't have happened?

A lot of people complain about the App Store being too much of a closed platform, and that it is too tightly controlled by Apple. But my contention is the opposite: Apple (who really does know better) should have controlled the market more, to prevent the classic "Tragedy of the Commons" which has run its course. The market could have been healthier for everyone if Apple had not let developers simply release their game for the minimum price. Instead they could have:

  1. Required developers to release their games for something close to the maximum price the market would bear, say $10 (depending on the scope and nature of the game).
  2. After a while, encourage the developer to put the game on sale for $5 briefly; and help the developer arrange for the game to be sold in "value bundles." Note that these are always couched as being a sale; this sends a completely different message to consumers that doesn't degrade perception of the game's value.
  3. Eventually, as time passes, the price on a game could be gradually dropped, until it reaches a "bargain bin" minimum price of $.99.

This is the strategy that 99% of businesses actually follow in pricing products, because 1) it actually captures the most money in the market and leaves the least money on the table; and 2) it maintains maximum public perception of what the products areworth. And guess what, one digital distribution market has done exactly this, to terrific success: Steam.

Unfortunately when it comes to business decisions, I have to be a realist, not an idealist; I decided to release my game for $.99 because that's the reality of the current App Store market, and because I believed I had a product whose quality gave it a chance of being one of the lucky few. Pricing my game higher wouldn't accomplish anything to stop this trend... But what I can do is try to draw attention to the problem; point out the alternative pricing strategies we developers could have followed; and hope that future digital distribution markets learn from the mistakes of the App Store.

Further reading:

[Shay Pierce is a professional AAA game programmer who made the leap to mobile and social games in 2010. He blogs about game design and side projects at http://www.DeepPlaid.com.]


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Comments


Carlo Delallana
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.99 will not be the dominant business model in the app store. Games will be given away for free and will be supported by in-app purchase/premium items. Destroy the (price) barrier of entry altogether and engage with the smaller percent of dedicated players.



Lets use Tiny Towers as an example. Played it for free during the first week and found it very charming and full of character. I enjoyed the free experience so much that I've plunked down $10 to speed up the construction of a few floors.



This is what we call a disruption of the things we've come to hold as normal. During these moments of upheaval we've got to figure out a way to adapt and thrive. That player who downloaded your game for free can be valuable as long as they are engaged. These same players will get notification badges for new content you release keeping your game from being deleted off the device. The right kind of content can turn them into paying players.

Nick Harris
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I like your advice better than mine - which I started writing before your comment appeared.



Anyway, best of luck with Connectrode.



I'm side-stepping the whole issue and making my game Open-Source, but then its my hobby.

Ardney Carter
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This advice is fine for games that can support the freemium model. Not all games can or should however. Which brings up an interesting thought: Since not all games will support freemium and since the games that don't likely cant survive by pricing above the other apps on the app store, is it actualyl worth the investment to release there? In other words, should the mobile phone market be left entirely to those looking to do freemium while developers of fire and forget software stick to dedicated gaming devices?

Carlo Delallana
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You're right. It depends on the game. I look to games like SuperBrothers: Sword and Sworcery as the other end of the spectrum. There was a serious developer-led effort to market the game and that's the "savvy" that indies need to develop. The marketing campaign for that was really clever and spoke to the audience.



Note to Shay - I didn't even know the game was released until i read this Gamasutra post. It has now been purchased and is sitting nicely on my iPhone. Have you reached out to any of the mobile-specific sites for some coverage about your game?

Nick Harris
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At first I thought this was tainted with sour grapes and you were regretting leaving your previous AAA job, but then as I read on I was pleased to discover a good analysis of the App Store's malaise. Unfortunately, Apple couldn't change its policies to suit its "starving" third-party developers without upsetting a consumer base that comprise drunk guys downloading apps that will let you set lenses on pictures so accelerometer movement makes an image of a bikini clad girl's breasts jiggle. Would this sub-section of the market pay £10 for the Ultimate Fart App - what features would it have to have in it to justify that price, actual samples of famous Celebrities as part of a "guess who?" mode?



As a consumer things have changed since the days of Tetris. I would have needed to buy a Gameboy for that cartridge to work in and, like Patrick Stewart, I may not have used it for anything else. So it is wrong to compare your game download to a system-seller with a full marketing campaign and celebrity endorsement. I've never been into puzzle games, but even if I were (and this applies to other genres) I have little to zero confidence that one of a myriad of superficially similar puzzle Apps has, as you assert the quality of a classic such as Tetris. Nothing about the App Store tells me whether I would "love it", whether it was fully-polished past the initial levels, if it had difficulty spikes so sharp as to cause me to give up in utter frustration cursing the purchase (which isn't alleviated by it being cheap as I value my time which the promise of quality made me foolishly commit to), like the last puzzle game I bought...



It really doesn't help that there are too many games. I don't know who is expected to be playing them all even if they had the money to buy all the ones that were of interest to them. I fear it may be a "bubble".



All I can constructively suggest is that you try putting Connectrode on the Mac as well as the Games section of its App Store is below pathetic. About the only decent thing on there is Galcon Fusion which is about the only App I play with on my iPod Touch, with the aid of my WACOM tablet.



Without Nintendo's marketing behind your product your own faith in its quality will never be converted to sales, especially with a genre as "opaque" as puzzles. Even Angry Birds developer Rovio Mobile have a lot of trouble getting their many other Apps noticed.



Perhaps, Apple could support an "Also by this developer" or Amazon style recommendation site retrofit?

Gerald Belman
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Doom 3 is selling for 4 dollars on amazon. Please don't give me this spiel about unfairness to game designers in prices. How many man hours went into Doom 3. (alot more than 4 times as much as angry birds, that is for sure). And yet (sadly) people don't value it for the technological achievement that it was and still is(to some degree).



It is supply and demand my friend. (I know you know this. I am not trying to be condescending)



On the supply side: there are ALOT of game designers who are so obsessed with their craft that they don't really value very much how much money they make. They just want people to play their games.



On the Demand side: I agree with you in general that people just do not value games enough in our society. But saying that we should all just increase our prices is flying in the face of simple economics. Also take into account the state of the economy.



If the entire country is willing to pay 200 dollars to go to a nascar event or a baseball game then that is the way it will work. If they are only willing to pay 4 dollars(Doom 3 amazon price) for a game that revolutionized computer graphics, then no "pricing strategy" is going to change that.



Apple is benefiting tremendously by having all this awesome software on their devices for low prices.(so don't look to them to change anything)



So in conclusion, Don't blame Apple, Don't blame designer's pricing strategys.



Blame society. Blame anti-intellectualism. Blame Anti-Nerd. Blame Conservatives.(had to throw a little republican bash on the end there, sorry).



p.s. - I know consultants who get paid 900 dollars an hour to review legal documents. Extremely boring and unsatisfying work. But it makes alot of money. And (for some inexplicable reason) you can only do it if your father is extremely wealthy or a senator.

james sadler
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I am of the same mind as you. People want disposable content (music, games, news, etc) and don't want to pay for it, and the distributors have met the need at the cost of this whole situation. The idea of making a game free and then micro transactioning the player just seems wrong to me. Yes it is an easy way to get people into playing a game, and making a good amount of money on top of that, but the game becomes a hierarchy of players who paid enough money to experience what the game was meant to be and those that who didn't. It is just like an MMO where the casual player is no match for those that play it morning noon and night. I really don't think it is the way all games will become because people can see through the scheme.



I give games value, and value acts as a filter. I don't mind paying 60 bucks for a good game and I don't mind paying 40 bucks for a so-so game. I hate paying 60 bucks for a bad game as I am sure everyone does. I bought "Deadly Premonition" for $20 about a month ago after reading how amazing it was, though with its issues, and I have to say that it was in the right price point. That is the thing though; people realized that the game wasn't worth $60 so it slowly went down in price as people didn't buy it at a given price. When games are flooding the marketplace, like they are on the app store, and everything pretty much has to sell for a buck then the filter is gone and replaced by the filter of the newest games page. This is why I wont develop games for the iOS. Yes there are a few break out games here and there, but how many good games get left behind and bad games get pushed to the top.



Lets face it, with how easy it is to make games now it gets even harder for us indie devs to make our games stand out. If we are in a bubble, which I think we are, then we have to look at what makes a lasting game and not something disposable. This way whenever this bubble does burst we wont be one of those left in its wake. That might mean moving away from a platform like the iOS and it is just something each developer has to contemplate on their own.

Jean-Michel Vilain
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Now you can even play Team Fortress 2 entirely for free. Something is definetly happening.

Jamie Mann
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I think the point is being missed a bit here - I'll agree that the race-to-the-bottom on the iStore is worrying (and I've argued several times that it's having a wider impact) but equally, there's evidence to show that quality games can support a higher price point. If nothing else, having a slightly higher price point can act as a market differentiator ("hey it must be good - it's more expensive") and (assuming fixed costs) you need to sell fewer units to earn the same profit.



I also seem to recall an indie developer experimented with raising prices on the App store - and people still bought it when the price was considerably above the average (e.g. $50). Sadly, I don't have time to track this back down ;)



Finally, I think it's dangerous to try and directly compare Steam and the App Store. Steam is a vetted service: Valve reviews the games before they're published and has a significant level control over game pricing and bundling. Conversely, the App Store is an unvetted service: Apple does not vet the games and has little or no control over individual titles. Fundamentally, they're very different, so you can't directly compare their economic systems.

Travis Jones
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I believe you're thinking of Zits & Giggles:

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/27628/GDC_Refenes__Saltsmans_B
affling_350_App_Store_Success.php

Robert Clegg
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Hey Shay,



Ever think of reskinning the game? My absolute first reaction was I didn't like the graphics. I prefer technical stuff, non-cartoony. I can't fathom playing Farmville, but I would play that game mechanic if it were done in a different style.



You could sell additional units, maybe find a niche that's willing to pay more. or it's an in app upgrade...?

William Volk
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As a contrary point of view, while it's nice to idealize the classic video game era, when people payed $40 or more for a ROM in a plastic box ... I recall just how closed that system was to the independent developer. I flew to Kyoto more than once to plea for "Cartridge Allocations."



The other side of this is that the App Store has opened up the game industry to independents in a way that was simply inconceivable a decade ago. A "low friction" market by its very nature is going to drive prices down.



There's been more innovation on the iPhone than we have seen in years. People are trying all sorts of crazy ideas out and they all get a shot at the big time.

Brian Tsukerman
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Personally, I don't really consider it to be price erosion when you can play games of roughly equivalent quality, replay value, and production value on various flash game sites (e.g. Kongregate, Newgrounds, MochiGames, etc). In fact, with tablets and mobile phones becoming steadily more capable at dealing with Flash and varying control schemes, browser games seems to be the market that these "dollar games" are competing with. With browser games being largely free though, it's probably going to become even more difficult for mobile game developers to turn a profit.


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