A potted and not entirely accurate history of indie game pricing.
For a time when indie as we know it was gathering momentum, the price of an indie videogame was considered to be around the twenty dollar mark. For a lot of people upon seeing this now or for some people that were around at the time they assume that we’ve hopped on some crazy race to the bottom choo choo train and within a few years we’ll be unable to sell videogames for more than twenty Earth pence. THE HORROR. We’re all going to die, obviously. In fact, most of us are probably already dead and no-one told us.
This is, of course, not entirely the case.
At the time of the twenty dollar price tag, there were fewer indie games. Hang on. Were there?. There’s this misconception that there were, like, six or something? There’s those Introversion guys over there. Pompom over there. Cliffski over there. Puppygames just over there. HELLO YOU AT THE BACK. That’s only four isn’t it? Bollocks. I dunno but it invariable fails to account for the hundreds of games churned out to portals in the name of casual because they don’t count.
There were a smaller amount of people making money from the stuff we’d now class as indie games (except what we now class as indie games encompasses casual games too but ssshhh) but the download game space was already filling up super speedy with videogames. Just that y’know, most of them were what we liked to call casual games and sold on casual portals to casual people. Like your mum. Or your nan. Or your dog. Your dog loved casual games.
In the main, portals held up their prices too. But of course, they had no interest in what the games were beyond whether they were “too thinky” for their audience. They just wanted lots and lots of videogames and whilst the money was there, people were only too happy to give them lots and lots of videogames.
“What’s in this week?”
“Hat themed Match 3, I believe”
Then along came Amazon who bought out Reflexive and dropped the price of casual videogames and oh dear. Portals were mainly competing on catalogues and offers, “Get all the Match 3′s at Portal O’ Doom. We’ve got seventy zillion! New games every Friday!” and your run of the mill coupon codes, buy one get one free and you know the drill, right? Then along came Amazon and shat all that up and things would never be the same again there.
Which is a massive simplification and it’s easy to point the finger at Amazon but really, Amazon weren’t the ones who were turning a subset of games into a commodity. They just took massive advantage of a market that dealt in commodities. Amazon weren’t responsible for writing and putting to market all the masses of casual videogames that sat on the portals after all.
But anyway, overnight, the arse sort of dropped out of the casual market in a way. Sure there was still money to be made out there and in some cases plenty of it too. In dropping the prices overnight, Amazon changed how people thought of pricing for commodity gaming because other portals changed how they dealt with pricing soon after Amazon announced that from now on all the things would be cheaper.
If it wasn’t Amazon it would have been someone else, an inevitable consequence of handing over the power to a few people who don’t have the interests of the people who make videogames at heart.
Interestingly, having taken control of one of the largest portals, Amazon didn’t manage to absorb Reflexive’s business well into theirs and keep a powerful foothold in the casual games industry despite now owning one of the biggest portals around. But maybe that was never the point? Maybe they managed to do what they set out to do and maybe we can come back to all this years later? Who knows and what’s done is done all the same. All the people who sat there and said CAREFUL NOW got to say I TOLD YOU SO and we all woke up and it was a new day.
Outside of casual, things were changing elsewhere but digital distribution was slow to catch on for the hardcore gamer who’s always ahead of the technological curve except when they’re usurped by your mum, your nan and your dog. Microsoft made massive inroads with the second iteration of Xbox Live now for the 360, no longer a small amount of people tinkering with multiplayer or playing Mutant Storm, XBLA brought with it a living room acceptance of downloading things straight to your device. Valve’s Steam had gone from “a thing wot you play Counterstrike with when WON is shut” to “that thing that updates every time you try and play a Valve videogame” post Half Life 2. Oh, and a thing that was necessary in order to play Half Life 2, obviously.
At some point later, the Steam store would become massive but that took a bit and all that.
XBLA brought with it portal styled fixed pricing but rather than one price to rule them all, XBLA started from cheap all the way up to still cheap actually except in moonpoints but we don’t talk about moonpoints. Other consoles would follow suit. Selling digital was now, officially, a thing. We caught up with the mums, nans and dogs. Well done, us!
But something else bigger was happening outside of these stores. Videogames were getting easier to make and people were making videogames with ease. Whereas once the commercial end of indie resided around Steve Pavlina’s old forum for people who will definitely be an indie game success no doubt about it and we also need another argument about casual games because it’s been at least 30 seconds since the last one, communities elsewhere found themselves just as able to sell videogames and in the wake of all this, a new community appeared too. That’ll be TIGSource and the press did like this new thing, this new source of videogames. They liked it a lot. Look at all these amazing people being all amazing and creative! Look at them. LOOK AT THEM. OK, you can stop looking now. Prod them a bit if you must but let’s move on.
So with digital stores now deemed acceptable, press easier to get than ever before for indies and a few big hitter projects, off we all went. After a rocky start, the old guard of indie became as much a part of the new guard of indie as the new guard who set themselves up in opposition to the old ways and all the things done by the old guard. Indie grew. And as these independent videogames grew larger in number and with more variety, the old idea of all games must cost this went to the wall. You couldn’t realistically charge $19.99 for a ten minute experience, that was never going to fly. We needed more prices! Let’s get some more prices! Huzzah! We have some more prices!
In part, larger console portals set the new pricing norms and how we perceived value for an indie game, especially when a group of indie developers found money in them thar console hills for a brief period. In others, people were throwing any old price at the wall and watching to see what happened and outside of consoles, the most sensible way to do this was to sell direct. So payment providers, paypal donate buttons, whatever it took. Pricing indie games was never going to be twenty dollars or bust again. There was simply too much variety, too many games, too many people pulling in different directions wanting different things from their games, wanting different ways to sell their games that fit their comfort zones nicely.
This all seems like ancient history now. I mean, we’re talking a time when Valve barely looked at indies never mind sold their wares, there were just communities, websites, the odd remaining portal here and there and platform holders. We still called things games not apps because no-one had tried to redefine language at that point because why would we? That’d be weird..
It’s strange to think that such a time existed and it wasn’t that long ago. It’s strange to think now that once upon a time bundling a bunch of digital indie games together was a new and untested thing not a thing that happens three times a week. It’s strange to think just how far we’ve come over ten years, how fast we’ve progressed. How much we treat what we have as if it’s always been like this, always been there when most of it is a construct of the past ten years, most of what we take for granted less than that, three, four or five years.
It’s no wonder with the rate of progress that some people still get married to the idea that indie games should be twenty dollars even though it was only a brief aberration in the grand scheme of indie pricing. It all happened so fast. Yet before indie-as-we-know-it, we sold games over BBS, through mail order at all manner of prices. Outside of a small community of developers, out there on the internet games cost different things too. The time of twenty dollars was a brief one. It wasn’t forever and it wasn’t to be forever.
That’s not to say that people shouldn’t try and charge twenty dollars for videogames. YES, THEY SHOULD. Sure, pricing is complicated now but higher prices aren’t doomed. The folks who tell us everything is trending towards free don’t necessarily have our best interests at heart when trying to make this happen. We’ve let videogames become a commodity before and it took so little to shake that little tree and have all the indie apples fall off in a terrible, terrible analogy. They all went rotten and we all died. The end? I dunno. Ask me in a few years when we’ve had time to really assess the impact of the app store on things or something. In the meantime, APPLE PIE ALL ROUND!
More people are making more of a living from videogames than ever before. We should look at where we’ve been. We should look at where we’re going. We should try and course correct if we feel we’re steering off in a really weird direction but we should all take a moment to appreciate that right now, it’s the best time to sell games out of all the times and we don’t have to fix the price at twenty dollars to do so.
That’s pretty cool.