Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Progressive Pre-Order Pricing

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 16, 2010

I’ve noticed a trend among indie game devs towards this whole pre-release “Buy now at reduced price, and we’ll let you play the version in development” thing.  (Sorry, Craig, your announcement was what triggered this post.)

I’m not saying this is bad or anything. If anything, I find it praiseworthy. And I’ve pre-ordered a couple of games myself, and played the early development versions.  Indie game developers need to always consider different ways of monetizing what they do, because it’s dang hard to make any money at it as it is.  Just breaking even on out-of-pocket expenses can be tough enough, but compared to the opportunity cost of putting those hours into a minimum-wage job… Yeah. Any ethical innovation to give indies a better chance of surviving to make more games is okay in my book.

Plus, it gets people to pay to be beta testers, which is a totally bizarro concept in my mind, but one I’d happily get behind. It’s tough enough to get people to beta test for free…

But it’s kind of amusing how this trend is catching on. I first became aware of it with the release of Mount & Blade.  As the game came closer to release, the “pre-release” price gradually increased.

And it worked. There’s a weird cultural effect (that maybe isn’t so weird, if I analyzed it enough, but to my brain it seems weird) of how hype for a game can build for months – even years – before it is released, and then disappear quickly after its release. Even when the game is being consistently maintained and improved post-release.

It also seems to me that the idea works better for certain games than others. For a game like Frayed Knights, which is pretty story-heavy with a clear ending, lacks tons of replayability, I don’t know that it would work out so well. My concern would be that people would play through the buggy, broken version a couple of times, but then never bother to experience the game in all it’s cleaned-up final-release glory. Whereas, in a game like Minecraft — well, that game never really comes to a conclusion. It’s okay for someone to keep playing the game as it evolves. No biggy.

(TANGENT ALERT: This is one more reason why story-based RPGs are an an absolutely terrible genre for indies to make. We’re pretty much screwed no matter what we do, so we may as well just enjoy the ride, right? :) Actually, I do think we have some aces in the hole we could pull out. But that’s another story. )

Another issue with the progressive pricing model is that I don’t see it working for everybody. Unless a developer has a track record I can trust (which usually means a history of released games I liked), I won’t throw money at an unfinished game. I am painfully aware of the failure rate of first-time indies. If the game is fully playable and worth the price RIGHT NOW, then okay. Fine. But I won’t spend money on the promise of an unproven stranger.

There are a couple  other concerns I’d have with the model, too. First off,  I really do not have a clue how much pre-orders might rob from release purchases. Secondly, I would worry that broken pre-release versions could generate some negativity from the core base of gamers that would have been your first, most vocal fans. I’m sure most gamers willing to fork over the cash to play a pre-release version, but there’s always that worry.

There’s also the pain of supporting what is effectively a public release – making sure it is distribution-ready, etc. But that’s a headache you are going to have sooner or later anyway, assuming you intend to support your game post-release (and DUH! You’d better be!). So that’s not a big headache.

So do the benefits outweigh the problems? Considering how popular this is becoming, I can only assume so.


Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 8 Comments to Read



  • Califer said,

    “story-based RPGs … I do think we have some aces in the hole we could pull out. But that’s another story.”

    I’d like to hear this other story! Mind, I’m not making a story-based RPG yet, but it’s planned!

  • Craig Stern said,

    You may be interested to know that I was spurred on to do this by fans on my forums. They were bummed out that they couldn’t experience all the new content I was making, and I was leery about making everything available in the free demo as the game gets closer to completion. It was a compromise that I think will leave everyone pretty happy.

    Incidentally, my fans have somehow managed to enjoy playing the in-development demo of TSoG for roughly 3 years now, with no end in sight. I don’t know if I’ve just managed to cram the game with enough interesting choices that it’s highly replayable, or if they’re just going for Disgaea-style leveling on the randomly generated battles, but so far I haven’t had too much of a problem with content fatigue.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    That IS fascinating to learn, Craig, thanks! It may be something unique in the wiring of the truly hardcore fans, for which I’d be tremendously grateful. I know there are a few folks who suffered through endless releases with the Frayed Knights pilot with a level of intestinal fortitude I can only dream of… These guys are amazing.

    But maybe it’s something else. I’ll be interested in hearing more as things progress.

  • Ichiro Lambe said,

    > It also seems to me that the idea works better for certain games than others.

    Yes! I think the game (or sections of the game) would need be replayable. To put a metric on it: can a player go through an experience a dozen times and truly want to play it again? Nethack, Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space, Quake III, and M.U.L.E.: yes.

    > There’s also the pain of supporting what is effectively a public release… But that’s a headache you are going to have sooner or later anyway…

    A counterargument is that you’re having to spend time supporting a community (versus developing the final product). I’m not sure how much effort that needs to be, though.

    > First off, I really do not have a clue how much pre-orders might rob from release purchases

    Yeah, especially since indies charge so little to begin with. I wonder how much you’d get back with post-release DLC?

    > I would worry that broken pre-release versions could generate some negativity from the core base of gamers that would have been your first, most vocal fans.

    What seems to have worked for M&B and Minecraft are a working core with additional content promised. So: you can play the game through and repeat a subset of the final gameplay tasks.

    A timely topic for me, as we want to launch a 3-9 month playable pre-order this month. Why am I posting comments when I should be working? :)

  • Greg Squire said,

    I wonder if something called “endowed progress” is in effect here? (see this recent blog for an explanation of that http://www.psychologyofgames.com/2010/11/16/endowed-progress-effect-and-game-quests/)

    Once someone pays for a game, they are more invested in finishing it (or testing it in this case). Also if someone has played the first episode, they would be more “invested” in buying and finishing the series out.

    I agree that pre-orders won’t work for a developer’s first game; this would only work after the developer has established a track record (so the customer trust is there).

  • d3dfa said,

    Actually, it’s not a bad deal, even if it cannibalizes higher future revenue, so long as the price is reasonably high. Lower-revenue presales allow rationalization of the developer’s income stream, which gives the developer the option to pay expenses (capex, opex and liabilities) and provides a possible proxy for judging overall interest in the product. Since indie devs don’t usually have access to decent credit options, the mobvestment model is potentially quite reasonable, considering that the presale liabilities are to be paid off in software.

  • Calibrator said,

    > Once someone pays for a game, they are more invested in finishing it (or testing it in this case). Also if someone has played the first episode, they would be more “invested” in buying and finishing the series out.

    Perhaps, but according to some people most gamers don’t actually finish games (if there is a “final chapter”) or play on harder difficult levels.
    What you people here call “core gamers” are a different bunch, especially those so hyped up that they can’t await the final product and not only accept incomplete games but will even pay for it.

    Personally, I’m probably too old to get this excited anymore but I never liked the idea of pre-ordering software. A product that is inherently *not* scarce.

    The thought of having to pay for me beta-testing something that later buyers/consuments will enjoy without trouble and in complete form would make me physically sick if I weren’t so accustomed to it thanks to Microsoft…

    Still, a discussion about using it to maximize sales is perfectly legitimate. No customer is forced to buy it, after all.

  • skavenhorde said,

    I’m a beta tester for Elemental :D Too bad they didn’t mention that little nugget when I bought the “official” release.

    At least I’ll get a few free expansions since I didn’t send back my collectors edition. They did do the CE right, btw. Cool miniature and other assorted goodies that went into my room of geekdom.

    Too bad they didn’t spend as much quality time with the game as they did with the CE package.

    As for story based games not being replayable well I must be odd because I replay those as well. Hell, I do Let’s Plays of them. If you want to see my first and only Let’s Play of Space Quest go here: http://www.rpgwatch.com/forums/showthread.php?t=8070&highlight=space+quest

    Forgive the humor. I do try to be funny, but my girlfriend says I should keep my day job :D

    Seriously though I do replay story based RPGs all the time. It might be a year or two down the line, but it is fun to revisit some of them from time to time.

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