You Lost Me at 'Buy'

Game development can really suck sometimes.

Let me set the (completely true) scene for you.  My wife and I are at an informal dinner with several other people, none of whom we had ever met before, except for my cousin (the only reason we were there).  At some point, while waiting for our meals, he started talking about our game, Demolish! Pairs, and when somebody wondered about it, he pulled out his iPhone and started demonstrating it.  One of his acquaintances showed interest in the game, so he told her, “You can buy it on the App Store.”  Then, to me, he asked, “How much is it, again?

She did not even wait for my reply before saying to him, “You lost me at ‘buy’.” 🙁

Although I was disappointed and slightly shocked at the direct rejection of Demolish! Pairs (or any game) on the basis of it not being free, it was not until days later until I realized exactly how much it was really bothering me.  This is truly a depressing sentiment for somebody who makes a living developing games.  I hope this rant exorcises that particular demon from my thoughts.

Point 1:  Games should NOT be free.  Worthwhile people are willing to pay for their games explicitly, rather than requiring coercive “free-to-play” schemes.

Shortly thereafter, we heard the common refrain about none of them really playing games anyway, followed again by the increasingly frequent mention that, ‘what I do play is this app called Candy Crush.’  Then, pretty much everybody admitted that they all play that game, and these “not real gamers” started discussing the game, including specifics of their approaches to winning and getting 3 stars on every level!

Point 2:  You DO play games; every interesting person does.  Playing a casual game is still playing a game.  In fact, that is the most common form of gamer.

It is gravely insulting to hear, repeatedly, that the games we develop somehow do not count as real games.  Just because a game does not involve a console and game controller, and shooting people on screen, does not make it any less of a game.  Lots of people play Call of Duty, but ridiculous numbers of people also play Candy Crush.  I do not like to segment people into hard-core/mid-core/casual/social/live/whatever gamers; they are all gamers.  Please enjoy Pretty Good MahJongg and Demolish! Pairs, but do not tell me that you are not playing a game while doing so.

Now, Candy Crush is the current flavor of the day, and that is a position it deserves.  It is a game based on a proven (addictive) mechanic, with a clear theme, nice artwork and audio to match the theme, and excellent execution of a good design.  For this effort, it currently earns more than $800,000 per day on iOS alone.  Puzzles and Dragons is reportedly earning $3.75 million per day!  By contrast, most games earn very little, and Forbes reports that the average iOS app earns only $4000 (lifetime), which is still far better than either Android or Windows Phone.  Needless to say, no proper game developer can make a living on an “average” iOS app.

Point 3:  Just because some games are reporting unbelievable revenue figures, it does not mean that the game industry, as a whole, is healthy.

Right now, more than ever before, we are seeing a huge influx of games on the market.  Lower barriers to entry have created a glut of content, much of it not very good, and this makes “discoverability” a serious problem.  Essentially every programmer I have ever met in my career has created a game at some point, usually while learning.  The difference, now, is that a much larger percentage (and total number) are taking these experiments and school projects and publishing them, either for free or on the off chance that they might make some “beer money”, while working a different job or living with their parents.

The result of all of this is that they are essentially peeing in the pool in which professional game developers have to swim.  Small (or “indie”, if you prefer) developers, in particular, have to deal with a ceiling of games with large development teams and huge marketing budgets, and a floor muddied by hundred of thousands of mediocre games (at best) that only serve to make our games harder to find and exposure much more difficult.  The current situation is unsustainable in the long run.

To be clear, I am very frustrated, but I am not about to “pull a Phil Fish“.  However, if our products do not find an audience to achieve significantly more than average sales, we will not be able to stay actively in business.  Sure we might be able to produce some games in our spare time while writing boring accounting software or designing web sites, but that would be barely acceptable after two decades as a full-time game developer.

To end on a positive note, however…  I overhead a conversation among some of the young people I know, and they were complaining about the IAP (in-app-purchases) in Plants vs Zombies 2, saying that they would much rather just pay for the game than being constantly bombarded with IAP (and not insisting that they were not gamers 🙂 ), so perhaps the pendulum is starting to swing back, away from “free-to-play”.


5 thoughts on “You Lost Me at 'Buy'

  1. Pingback: On Free Games, the “Gamer” Label, and the Health of the Game Industry | GBGames - Thoughts on Indie Game Development

  2. You’re right in that it’s pretty astonishing that people will balk at paying 0.99c to download a full game, but will play a “free” game in which they spend upwards of $8 (or more) over the life of the game, or else spend a cumulative half-hour watching ads, or spamming their friends. But people aren’t rational. Or maybe they are and we just don’t see the big picture.

    My first reaction to f2p games was similar to yours. But the industry is like anything else. The only constant is change. Sure you can design “evil” mechanics like Puzzles and Dragons like “pay $99c or lose all the loot you earned over the last 3 levels…” But you don’t have to. If you approach it responsibly then f2p can be a win/win for players and developers. Here’s why:

    – Pay-as-you-go. If you don’t enjoy a f2p game, you don’t have to keep playing. If you purchase a 99c game and it’s terrible, you’re out a buck. If I play a game for a few hours a week, and spend a few dollars a week on it, I’m ok with that, that’s much better value than a lot of my other entertainment choices.

    – Pay with time, evangelism or money. Some people (teens especially — a big part of the gaming audience) don’t have a lot of money, or don’t even have a credit card attached to their itunes acct. These people are happy to support the developer by watching ads or evangelizing the game to their friends (assuming they truly like the game they will want to do this already).

    – Pay for status. In consumer cultures, we don’t look down on too much on people for buying luxury items in real life to boost their perceived status. Why is it different if people want to do this in a video game?

    If you balance the game right, it doesn’t have to be “pay to win”.

    I think the 99c (or $5.99, or $14.99) “premium” skus are the unsustainable model. Freemium is sustainable, and indie devs are in a great position. “Big” freemium companies have to rely on sneaky tactics that approach outright manipulation and gambling to support their large infrastructures. Indie game devs are in a position where they can design game mechanics that are actually fun and not so grindy. We don’t need to squeeze every last cent out of their users like a more exploitive mechanic, but we have to stop being so afraid of asking people to pay for anything. Most freemium indie games (look at early “Gasketball”) try to hide the in-app-purchase away and practically apologize for even including it, and then they’re surprised when they don’t pull in clash-of-clans levels of cash.

    In shareware eco-systems, we didn’t have any qualms about free demos. The “pure free” gameplay of a freemium game should be similar to a demo: it should be fun, engaging, and give you a good taste of the gameplay. The “free” game is there to convince the player that if they play to unlock more, that more gameplay will be worth it.

    I think the NimbleBit games are a good example of how to do freemium in a way that’s profitable and still respectful of the players. Also, even big studios are getting wise to this, this article ( is a great read about how to monetize a game in a player-positive way. A lot of this hate for freemium is simple momentum — the underlying model is changing. Dan Cook has a great little bit of satire about this in this article (

    Right now I think the biggest obstacle for indies with freemium is the limited discovery. Big publishers have to spend a lot of money to acquire initial users and boost their app store rank so that they can get their monetization engines rolling. But I still have enough optimism that I believe that good gameplay, supported with a reasonable amount promotion on social media, will eventually catch on. One of the problems indies devs have is they only “promote” themselves to other indie devs, instead of to their actual customers, creating an indie “echo chamber”. Get out there and talk to your players.

    Listen to your customers. Listen to your friend at dinner, when she said, “You lost me at buy”. My guess is that she’s probably bought a bunch of apps that turned out to be shovelware. She wants to try out the game, and if she likes it and if the game gives her the opportunity to buy more gameplay, I bet she would be happy to pay a little to unlock some more gameplay. Or maybe she feels guilty about spending money on games, but doesn’t mind (or even enjoys) watching a few ads. We don’t get to decide the shape the market takes, but we can do our best to make positive, respectful and non-exploitive products within it. And I believe, in the long run, those are the products that are going to endure.

  3. Fantastic comment! Great points all, and it actually gives me a perspective that I had not considered previously (which is unusual for comments 🙂 ).

    I will note, of course, that this was a rant, and in the real (‘I have to make money to survive’) world, I am (and was) already developing the free-to-play version of Demolish! Pairs. I just wish it were not necessary…

  4. Thanks, yours was a good rant, not just ranty but thought out and a nice articulation of something I hear a lot from a lot of game devs, so it was worth responding to.

    It’s interesting that we both used PvZ2 as an example, for opposite viewpoints. I’ve played that game for about two hours total so far and haven’t felt any pressure to buy IAP at all. But then again, there are reviews all over the internet complaining vocally about it. I’m very curious to see if they stick with the current model, or if EA feels pressured to add more “hard sell” mechanics to it.

    If you’re working on a F2P version of your game, check out the book “Free2Play” by Will Luton. It contains a lot of good practical info, and good discussion about how to include f2p mechanics in responsible, ethical ways.

    Also, I checked out your game, it’s fun and a clever mechanic, but to succeed as f2p you need to work on the presentation and theming. The “free” section of the app store is incredibly crowded, and you need an icon that draws people to your screenshots, and then screenshots that draw people to download from there. Angry Birds, Tiny Wings and even Candy Crush all had predecessors with very similar gameplay that didn’t catch on because they lacked the delightful theming that these titles have.

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