How Much Is That Game In The Window?

There is often discussion around the price of games. The new norm for indie titles is under $20 and depending on the quality of the game this can sometimes vary. In an interesting post on their steam community forum, the developers of the Early Access game Brigador have hit back at the criticism of their price point. It is interesting seeing the same debate from the developers side.

The developers were driven to write this post by the number of people stating that it is priced too high. The quality of the game has led many to state that it would be better priced at $10 or $15. While I have not played it myself I think that the post raises some fantastic points for discussion. First up:


Production time

We have spent 5 years making Brigador, if you include when we started building the engine.

5 years.

Much of that has been working full time, 6-7 days a week, 8+ hours a day. Even at a very conservative estimate that’s over 10,000 hours of work per person, and there are 4 of us. We did not do a kickstarter, we do not have a publisher. We have funded this entire project out of pocket.

Business plans are critical when it comes to embarking on a major project. They give you direction, they give you dates and they give you a projected quantity of effort required to deliver the product. When compiling all expected costs (both time and dollars) you will then be able to start making predictions for where you will need to price the game. If you would like a nice overview on how to start a business plan, My Top Business Ideas has a good summary of points.

So, while I can understand how these time factors contribute to the pricing of their game, I don’t think that it should be considered as important as it is. It we were to apply an extremely long development cycle to a consumer price, imagine what could happen to a game like Duke Nukem Forever. We might have seen it priced at $300. $20 for each year of development. This is of course an entirely unreasonable price. Still, it was priced at about $80 on release and was quickly discounted because people found that it was only mediocre; The price changed to reflect the popular opinion.


Content

Brigador was made almost entirely from scratch, and when it ships will contain 2 hours of original music (…), over 100 different enemy units (…), a story campaign, a free play mode, and a playable landmass of ~2 mi² (split between 20 maps) — roughly the size of downtown Chicago or the urban area in GTA III — hand detailed all the way down to street lamps, trash cans, stop signs, etc.

I consider it appropriate that games do take into account their production costs when setting price. The quantity and quality of content is definitely a fair place to start and it seems that Brigador is certainly heading in the right direction for what they are promising. From a consumers perspective, I do not think it is unfair to judge a game (and its price) on what is currently offered. When I talk about content I am not merely talking about assets or mechanics, but entertainment value. If someone was not interested in a FPS game you would have to reduce the price to attract them in. For those players an FPS game has less content and as such is worth less.

This is where personal preference really starts dictating prices. If people are interested in what you are offering then they will be more likely to part with their cash. Firewatch is a fantastic example of this, they offered something truly unique in a space which gets little high quality attention. They priced it modestly and have now sold close to half a million units.


Early Access

When it comes to games that are still in development, devs must be extremely cautious when using the term ‘will’. This implies that the content is not currently there. Price for a promise is a very dangerous path to walk. Of the many games that have released on Steam’s Early Access, few have successfully gone the distance. There have been some spectacular failures in the shape of games like Spacebase DF-9. They made promises, they used the term ‘will’ to justify their pricing and then all those promises fell through on release.

It is not bad form to talk about what you are going to do in the future, but developers have been too quick to forget that these beta and Early Access efforts can cause huge damage to a brand. Don’t over promise, communicate clearly, aim high and be realistic. People will buy games on Early Access and then treat them as fully released games. This makes it hard for devs to balance their priorities.

While it is expected that games released on Early Access will be completed, irrespective of sales generated, some developers have not been using it in this fashion. Instead they have been using it as a proving ground for game concepts. Development is pulled when they decide that there might not be the long term market. As a consequence of this risk, people expect the Early Access games to be priced lower than the full release price point.


Costs

$20 a copy, once you factor in Valve’s take and taxes, gets cut down to about $10 a copy (we live in Illinois which has the highest state income tax rate[wallethub.com] in the US at 5%). Pretending we don’t have to pay contractors or have any other development related expenses, to pay ourselves minimum wage for the time we’ve put in requires selling 25,000 copies of Brigador. Factoring in contractors and any kind of reasonable living and that number jumps up to ~50,000 copies. While not unheard of, that’s already getting into long-shot territory, especially for a new company that has no pre-existing ties to games media or the backing of a publisher. And people’s reticence to pay what amounts to a pint of beer more for the game means adding another 33% or 16,000 copies to see the same results. That increase alone amounts to more units than many independent releases ever sell.

The costs associated with selling games are often understated. There are a lot of costs at the point of sale. The two most important elements are mentioned, those of tax and commission. It is not uncommon for these to really add up. These are the most common variable factors which change the cost at various stores.

Also noted are things like contractors and development expenses. Developers must consider these factors when setting the price, but these should of have been included, and accounted for. in the business plan prior to even starting development. These should impact the expected price of the game. When these costs come as a surprise developers need to consider whether passing on the costs could actually reduce return. Simple economics observes that the higher something costs, the fewer that will be sold. Depending on the elasticity of your market (something that should be known from the business plan) this move could quite easily backfire.


Efficient Development

Are consumers responsible for picking up the additional costs of inefficient development? I will not say that this is the case for this specific game, I have not seen their business plan, but I do wonder that for a game to have been in full time development for 5 years and for it to still be in early access that there must have been some oversights. There have got to be places where they could have saved a year or two and more than a few dollars. For example, I suspect that it would have saved much money, and a lot of time to work with an existing game engine. There are many quite flexible game engines out there, I find it hard to believe that building a new engine was the best business move. I think that the cost of choosing to develop it in house may have added in extra costs which may have caused the price to inflate. I would be hesitant passing these costs through to consumers.

As a small developer, the first few games that you release are critical to how you move forward in the future. They not only establish a brand but give you room to expand into larger future projects. Early on especially, working in an efficient and clear manner means that you are able to reduce the overhead costs of production. When these costs start to spiral out of control consumers should not be expected to pick up the pieces.


Charity

We’re not asking for pity or charity, nor are we saying you should buy a game just because people worked hard on it– it’s possible to struggle valiantly and still make poo. But quality, depth, innovation all require time, and projects of this scope demand full-time work. If Brigador is not worth $20 to you, that’s fine, by all means wait until it goes on sale. But understand that you’re making an already extremely difficult job that much harder. Brigador took so long to make because we wanted to take a risk on building something unique rather than just reskinning an existing game. We wrote an engine from scratch so that we could create fully destructible environments and still have good control over performance. Iterating on design, creating something even only partially new takes a tremendous amount of time, and if people are unwilling to pay a price commensurate with the labor involved in creating games like this then fewer people will take those risks, and many of the ones who do will get starved out the industry.

There is a huge range of games out there. Many more than someone will ever be able to play (although I like to think I am making headway through my steam library). Because of this huge supply, and the consumers limited amount of money, there is a constant need to balance one game against another. Players want to spend their money as efficiently as possible. It is becoming increasingly common that deep and highly detailed games are being released at the $20 price point. Cities: Skylines is $20 and I would think it is fair to say that there is a huge quantity of content.

I think that the statement stating that they are not a charity is delivered in the same way as someone who says “no offence, but”. Yes, It is going to offend, and yes, you are asking for charity.

The attempt by the developer to shame people into paying $20 by claiming that those who pay less are making the dev’s life harder is poor form. I can sympathise that the dev’s want to charge $20 and that they don’t like the flack that they are getting for it. In a retail environment it is the consumers who have the power. If they don’t think that the game is worth $20, then they won’t part with their cash. Sales are tools that allow consumers to pay a price closer to what they think is fair. A purchase made at a sale price is at least a sale. A purchase made a sale price is not a sale lost at a higher price point. If someone does not want to pay $20 then they will not. You have to show them why the game is worth that cash.


Summary

In the end it is not the time taken to develop a game that matters, it is how good the game actually is when it is released. It is elements like the attention to detail, story and scale that are important. Developers who quote time in development and handmade engines to justify a price are missing the point.

Consumers only see one thing, and that is the game itself. They see the gameplay, they see the assets, they see the story and the see the detail. While the engine may drive it, while it took time to make it, in the end you must sell your product to the people. Do not ask for charity based on development costs, instead show us what makes the game worth that money.

For $20 I could buy:

  • Renowned Explorers: International Society
  • Sunless Sea
  • The Banner Saga
  • Cities: Skylines
  • The Stanley Parable
  • Rocket League

Julian has been involved in the games industry for more than a couple of years now, from working in retail to developing board games to judging Magic: the Gathering tournaments Australia wide. Now as a writer for OK Games he likes to explore niche titles that try to approach gaming from a different perspective. Now all he needs to do is start finishing all those games in his Steam Library...