Are indie games too cheap?

(…) if Machinarium sold for just $10 more, a price I would still pay for the game, many gamers would instantly be turned off of the title. Not because they don’t feel the title is worth their money, or even because they don’t think it’s worth $30, but, rather, because they are accustomed to getting indie games at super cheap prices, despite how much money, effort, love, and creativity was put into the title.

Geoff Gibson, DIY Gamer

John Jackson responds to this that the problem is not that indie games are under-priced but that AAA games are over-priced. And to some extent, he is right. He just doesn’t seem to realize, however, that what you’re actually paying more for when buying a AAA game in a store is not the game itself but the wages of the shop attendant and the truck driver, the heating of the store, the bribes to get shelf space, the advertising and marketing, and in some places additional taxes. If you subtract all of this, you are indeed only giving $20 out of the $60 you paid to the developer and publisher of the game, the same amount as you pay to an indie developer who sells their games via digital download from their own website. This sounds fair (as long as the customers can accept that most of their money goes to other things than the actual production of the game).

If AAA games would be sold online, and not through expensive retail, their price could be the same as that of indie games.

But what should that price be?

The $10 that we charge for The Path will probably not be sufficient to cover its production cost, in the end. But if we had charged more, in the current climate, a lot less people would have bought it, likely resulting in an even lower return on investment. Many independent games suffer from this problem. Gamers are only prepared to pay a small amount of money for an indie game. But because the games are very niche (the very reason to buy them in the first place), they often don’t sell enough copies to fund their own production. As a result, quality levels drop (iPhone, I’m looking at you) which makes high prices even more difficult to justify.

For a consumer, of course, low prices are nice. And it would be possible to keep prices low while retaining the quality of the products, if games would sell in higher amounts. This means increasing the size of the audience. Given that the audience for games is currently a sort of mega-niche, there’s definitely potential for expansion.

But expanding the audience seems to be very difficult.

For games to attract new audiences, they have to become different (new controls, new themes, new formats, etc). But the core market of gamers is extremely reluctant to accept innovation. They love their hobby and they don’t want anything to change. And if games are not successful with the core market, the chances are slim that they will ever reach an audience beyond it. As a result, ironically, only mega-corporations like Nintendo can afford to innovate. Because their massive marketing budget makes them independent of core market success.

So, ironically, the desire of gamers to preserve their hobby, will ultimately destroy it. By refusing to pay higher prices for their games and simultaneously resisting change in the medium (which would lead to expansion of the market and thus justification of low prices), they are effectively destroying the thing they love.

The solution?

Buy more indie games. Indie games serve both the function of retaining the traditional qualities of games as well as expanding the format to appeal to new audiences. And pay more for indie games. So they can afford to be as niche and special as you want them to be. And don’t whine about a few Dollars more or less. The survival of a species is at stake!

38 thoughts on “Are indie games too cheap?”

  1. I use to pay cheap prices not just for indie, but for any kind of game. Between 5 and 15 pounds is the right price for me, I dont like to pay more.

    But I understand that there is a difference between a game developed by 5 people and a game developed by 50 people.
    And there is a difference as well between games that give me weeks or months (or years!) of fun, and games like Machinarium which can be finished in just two days…

    Sorry, I love indie, but I will no pay more than 10 pounds for something like that. At least I pay for my games, many of the people who I know prefer to download for free, so dont blame me!

  2. It’s a vicious circle, though, Ricardo. Because if you refuse to pay more for an indie game, indie developers will never have enough money to make a bigger, longer, more polished game that you would like to pay more for. Indie developers currently have to take this attitude into account. So they are basically forced to make short, simple games. You could consider your indie purchase as an investment in the future of games, instead of as a simple purchase of a bit of fun.

  3. And that is two reasons why I buy Tale of Tales games. One, because I enjoy them. And two because I want you guys to make more.

    Which is also why I bought Samorost 2 after Machinarium. I hope that that if everyone does similar, that even an extra 5 dollars can help out in some way. Think of it as my own kind of ‘bribe’, I want to help persuade indie developers into making more games.

  4. I don’t think indie games are too cheap. I think retail games are way too expensive, and that’s why I (almost) always buy them second-hand.

  5. Machinarium is a bad example, it’s not an innovate game.
    It’s just a game like old adventure game with only better graphism. And if people like it, it’s precisely because there are no innovation (and because he was beautiful with a good naration of course), it’s a pure point and click with nothing more. No strange controls like tales of monkey island, no 3d, etc… We like it because he was conservative. (:

  6. Not all independent games are innovative. In fact very few are. But they serve another function: to preserve old game genres that would otherwise disappear as the audience for games expands. It’s the combination of conservation and innovation that makes indie games an good candidate in expanding the audience. The innovators appeal to new players and the conservators keep the core market happy.

  7. From my point of view, independent games are those made by a guy, or a very little number of people. This person or persons have a idea for a game, they love games and they want to do just the kind of game that they will love to play. The point is the idea, not the graphics or the super-production. That is the point.

    Games from big companies are more focused about being a commercial successful and make money, and are designed buy many different people, sadly some of they never play games or understand about games but about business.

    That is the difference, it is nothing about to be more original or innovative, it is more about to do a personal protect instead a big blockbuster.

    It is true as well that many times independent games are more original, but not allways. And there is nothing wrong about a game with traditional gameplay.

  8. Meh!
    Everything is worth what it’s purchaser will pay for it.

    There is no such thing as ALL consumers doing something wrong, if game developers can’t survive, it’s because they fail at business.

    If you expect your games to be financially successful, try to make them appealing for a wider audience.
    If you expect them to be works of art, totally independent from business considerations, accept that niche games will probably lose money.

    Popcap, 2DBoy, and similar developers managed to be highly profitable, and as innovative as it is required by their audience. Anyone who can’t be that successful is simply worse at business than them.
    In the end, “the survival of a species”, is depending on the survival of the fittest.

  9. Alterego, I’m not an economist. But I don’t think this is entirely correct. It’s a short-sighted attitude that may work for a short amount of time for a small group of individuals or companies. But survival it is not, and survival of an entire species by no means.

    Also, this is not about business. It’s about people and culture. Who cares about business? Let’s never forget that economy is a means to an end! It’s not a game. 😉

  10. Haha, Ilya, as you know we ourselves have no problem calling our work games. But if other people object, we have no problem calling them something else either. It doesn’t matter much.

  11. Some big companies DO sell their games online, and when they do the price can drop to $10-$20. (Or even less for hand held systems and phone games.) I generally don’t buy indie games for the price, but because they tend to have a lot more unique elements; cutting out the publisher does wonders for a creative work, it seems, and I’ve read too many interviews of mainstream games having their story and vision taken down a notch so marketers and publishers could have something “safe” to sell.

    Still, I enjoy both markets, and I wouldn’t mind seeing the mainstream market gravitate even more to online selling. Maybe their inflated budgets could be turned to other elements than publication that way.

  12. Really? In my experience, developers publish independently because the mainstream doesn’t want to deal with the kind of work they are making (or the process required to make it). You don’t become more creative without a publisher. You just can’t find a publisher if you’re creative. At least that’s been my experience. I don’t believe commercial designers when they complain about their publishers harming their vision. I think they are comfortable with the protection publishers offer and the excuse not to have to be creative.

    That being said, crafting a game that sells to millions is an admirable skill onto itself, of course.

    In the end, though, I think we would all be better off with smaller games for dedicated audiences. But that requires the active participation of the players in the economic process. They have the power to break the vicious circle of consumerism.

  13. Well, if you are selling stuff for costumers, it is about business.
    You might not consider business that important, but in this case, don’t expect to be successful in business.

    While your “solution” is an obscure, utopian dream,: “people should care more about art, be supportive, and generally be better,” I actually proposed a realistic solution: indie developers should study business, how the big companies got big, and why some new indies are more successful than others, and follow the success formula.

    Again, it is perfectly reasonable if you don’t want to be a part of the industry, and rather make art what YOU want instead of following trends and demographics, but in this case, don’t use business terms, whining why the bigger audiences don’t play your games, just accept that you will always have to fund your projects from other sources.

  14. I believe, Alterego, that the internet offers us a way out of the collapsing capitalist system. I agree that it sounds utopian. Maybe it is and everything will simply implode.

    But this is not about business versus non-business. It’s about doing business in a different way. About sustainability versus short-term success, about removing the necessity for destructive growth, about an economic system that does not rely on the majority of the world living in misery.

  15. Demon’s Souls, an innovative and polished action-RPG for the PS3 costs $60, and takes 50 hours to fully explore.
    I’d like you to explain to me why I should invest money and time on your game, when the same investment on another product is going to provide me with more satisfaction.
    The games market is the same as any other market. People decide what they’re going to buy taking into consideration which other products are available.
    Judging by the polish, innovation and aesthetic impact of your games, and juxtaposing that with the competition’s, do you think your games deserve a greater price tag?
    I am in no shape or form being judgmental. I ‘d just like some answers.

  16. I have not played Demon’s Souls myself. But that’s irrelevant. If you consider it to be more interesting than anything else, then you are a lucky person. And that’s the end of it. My “call to arms” only applies to people who are not satisfied with the current state of the art. We may be a small minority. In which case we should just lay down and die. Or find a way to survive. We can do both without you.

  17. @bigbossSNK Of course, If I’d spend $60 on Deamon’s Souls and not be able to finish it because I don’t HAVE 50 hours to spend on a game, that is money wasted. And that is something that happens to a lot of people. There are other benchmarks by which to measure a game’s quality than how long it takes to finish. What Michael is trying to say is that people need to look at the various ways they enjoy a game, if they decide they’d like something that isn’t dungeon crawling, typical puzzling and the like, maybe an alternative game making scene is worth having. No one would say that an download indie title should cost more than something in a box necessarily. But one cannot have the scene, alive and thriving, if game makers cannot sell their game at the price they are worth rather than catering to what gamers feel is their “divine right” to have cheap games.”divine right”… That is really how the climate feels right now. The portals know it, so they mark down already underpriced games.

    As a developer, you just want as many people as possible to try what you offer. We gave away our work for years… and still do. But we couldn’t continue to do that. Contrary to what Michael says above, I don’t think it is necessary to do without (people like) you, who are also satisfied with what is out there. You should think differently about games too, if you weren’t interested to do so, you probably wouldn’t be here commenting on our blog.

    A suggestion is to not think of independent games just as a “product” you are buying but as a support for the future of the entire industry. Diversity, ideas, meaningful software made with love because they are ideas worth communicating. Not mere toys made with slaveships full of industry hands but crafted objects whose imperfections may be a gateway to understanding something never put in such a form before.

  18. I never claimed Demon’s Souls is the penultimate game.
    Simply put, as someone who hasn’t played any Tale of Tales games, but has experience with mainstream titles and knows what to expect from them in terms of value to satisfaction, where do your games stand?
    Do they deliver some sort of artistic experience I won’t find elsewhere, are they esoteric and deeper than other games, is the gameplay innovative?
    I can see you’re passionate about what you do, and that it fulfills some deeper need for you. But at the same time I, as a consumer of products and ideas, need to be fairly certain that my patronage corresponds to a benefit for me, similar to that of other venues.

  19. @bigbossSNK reasonable question. and the answer may just be that you need to try what we make to find out. afterall, what would you expect, we the makers, to say other than what we make has utmost value. And at the moment, everything we have is cheaper than a movie ticket.

    We are advocating not only our own work but the work of all indie developers. What we are talking about is a very real issue for everyone making games independently today, really. So, if you don’t feel the need to support our work, if you care about this issue, maybe look a little deeper at what is out there and buy, encourage others to buy, donate etc to indie game projects.

    But don’t take for granted what you buy today. It may not be here tomorrow.

  20. Thanks, I’ll download The Graveyard today, and gateway into Fatale if I like it.
    As for you guys not being here later on, I think the odds are against it. You are after all, one of the few indie developers to break into mainstream sites like Eurogamer, even if the Path ends up not covering its costs.
    As for other people in the indie community disappearing, I’m of the opinion that the market will eventually work as a meritocracy (Pixel and Nigoro spring to mind).

  21. The problem with the meritocracy concept is that the “merit” of commercial games is as much -if not more- in their ability to market themselves as in the intrinsic value of the game. So, you would essentially be paying for good marketing, not necessarily for a good game.

  22. I can believe that for mainstream titles, less so for indie projects and in no way for the examples of Cave Story or La Mulana. Both games stem from Japan, reached an audience in the US and are now being ported to the Wii.
    Indie games can’t compete with a multi-million dollar project in terms of marketing, but they can stand toe to toe with them in terms of gameplay riches, and eventually word of mouth.
    Heh, maybe your next game should be based on David and Goliath 😉

  23. But to say only things that get a lot of word of mouth deserve to exist is really ruling out a lot! I think you mistakenly believe we are only referring to what we make. While we aren’t Goliath ourselves we are far from being David. Absolutely agree with you on the ways that indie games can compete. its why we wrote our manifesto.
    We are hoping for a bigger spectrum of games in general. To break the whole thing open. As in film where there is something for everyone, regardless if it got big word of mouth or distributed by a big studio, those movies can still be made and are out there waiting for you. Presently, what is going on in games is far too defined by “what gamers expect” than by artistic intent. I think thats a shame. Meritocracy isn’t going to solve that. Cave Story is a perfect example in a way because its being ported by developers who simply loved it too much to not see it spread to the Wii. A labour of love, not completely of business. If we are discussing love as a form of merit then many more things can survive than if we are talking about gameplay. 😉 Will the love lead to money…?

  24. Protip, bra: Don’t tell people to pay you more money just because you want more money. It makes you look like an ass.

    If you’re failing to cover production costs, it’s not a failing of the market, it’s bad business on your part. Either make a more appealing game or reduce production costs (or keep failing to cover costs and go out of business). All three are the market not failing and punishing unsound investment.

    And before you go all anti-corporate and imply that games, as art, should have no connection to finances, please consider that you’re the one asking for money from thousands or millions of people. Shouldn’t your art be worth that much if you’re going to ask for it?

  25. bra?
    YES the game should be worth it.
    The problem is this pesky definition of “worth”.

    Again, don’t think of this as an opportunity to _just insult us. This is not about us covering our costs. Expand your mind a bit to the entire wonderful world of indie games, and i guess… insult us all. ha!

  26. Yeah, bra.

    Worth (or at least observable worth) is defined quite simply by economists, and I think you may find it useful. Worth is just what someone will pay for something. So if I’m not willing to shell out more than $3 for your game, but I would be willing to pay that much, the game is worth $3 to me. This may, of course, vary by person.

    Of course, some people may be willing to pay $7 for Salome before they’ve played it, and less after they’re bought and played it (either because they enjoyed it but it’s not worth repeating, or because they did not enjoy it as much as they expected), which might make them upset.

    This means that an economist would be likely to tell you that your games are not worth as much as you seem to think they are, since you are not meeting production costs.

    And no, I am not here to insult you. I am here to insult the concept that art entitles you to financial success. I am here to insult the concept that you can twist people’s artistic arms by crying about the future of the medium and receive payment. I am here to insult the idea that whining is the key to expanding your consumer base.

  27. Wait, I didn’t really insult those last three. They’re retarded ideas that have no basis in the operation of the world and are more likely to doom an art studio than guide it successfully.

  28. And many people pay $7 and wonder why we didn’t charge more. I don’t get why you have this negative view that no one likes what we make. It’s mysterious and part of what we are talking about. “How much someone is willing to pay” is not something written in stone and is influenced by many factors. It was different last month than is is today than it will be in the future.

    There is absolutely no feeling of entitlement coming from us. The impression that you have is incorrect.

    Talking about problems is what we are here to do. It is a reality. Just one reality among many. Again, you think we just talk about ourselves but many developers feel this (not saying all do) And it is worth discussion.

    No need to get aggressive about it. Its words on a blog. It can’t hurt you. You are safe behind your nickname and your bra.

  29. For your information, Mr Neckbeard, in case you’re worrying about our well-being, we are perfectly fine, financially. We don’t need to be only concerned with economy. Because we live in a part of the world where people care about other things than money too.

    But we are aware of the fact that this isn’t the case elsewhere. Or might not be the case in the future here. So we’re doing a theoretical exercise. And asking ourselves the question whether there is a model in which the audience can support experimental work.

    We actually know the answer to this question: it is yes.

    This has very little to do with business, really. It’s about treating people as human beings and not as markets or factories.

  30. Wonderful article, and I agree with the overall idea. As with all articles good and bad, I do have some words to say about it, though.

    In the article, it’s referenced that those who buy these indie games are the “core” gamers, the ones with which this ability to create these games resides. It’s said that despite the trait of being reluctant to change, the consumer should pay more for the titles since the consumer base is small (proportionate to the genre) in the hopes that as a possible result the independent developer can innovate to reach a larger audience.

    I wonder if it is the independent developers who are willing to pay more of some of what created their ideology in order to become a decently profitable organization. Nintendo did innovate, and for most of the core community, they feel as if they may have went in the wrong direction and abandoned the focus of what made them Nintendo. Even so, if it were possible for the independent scene to grow larger and more profitable as whole, it isn’t a guarantee that smaller individuals (like indie developers are to more commercial operations) in a similar situation won’t suffer the same strife. Creates the same situation again.

    That doesn’t necessarily say something like that is even possible. It just appears that the reason why these niche indie genres exist is because the companies out there who were small independent devs wanted larger profit margins for their games to keep their business alive, once-upon-a-time, and grew up, became less independent, and turned a profit. It feels like a lead-in to the same cycle that put independent developers here in the first place. It’s a sort of push-pull in between doing what one wants and what one can without sacrificing what keeps the idea from being lost. A decision between sacrifices.

    Again, it absolutely does not equal that the core audience will be abandoned in the same manner. It’s just speculation on my part. I’m also very sorry this is so long.

  31. Wow, this is quite an interesting discussion about indie game developer justifying to charge more for their works. My point is due to the current global economic scenario of which people are used to pay cheap price for indie games, I think this scenario would not change in the future. This is something indie game developer have to accept and have to adapt such as break up the games to smaller installments and such.

    The only way indie game developer can charge more for their games is when they have build themselves a reputation of becoming developer who produces lots of quality stuff over the years. This is the reason why I think Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software and Cliff Harris of Positech has THE RIGHT to charge more for their games. They have build quite a reputation of becoming a developer who produces lots of quality stuff over the years that people don’t mind paying more for their games. You can’t get this power if you are a new developer or you just produce a few games even though your games are hot.

    Until developer can reach the status of what Jeff and Cliff has achieved, I guess indie game developer have to settle for some measly price. Who said becoming indie game developer is going to be easy? Build up reputation over the years and then you can start charging more for your games. REPUTATION = MONEY. That’s a nice formula to remember.

  32. I actually like low prices. So I’d prefer to see the public grow instead of the prices rise. And there’s a lot of potential for growth given that most people on this planet don’t play games. It’s just difficult for independent developers to reach people outside of the well organized gamers niche.

  33. We don’t have euro/dollars, we earn much less in numbers, and Internet Currency is 3-4 times ours. So even 10$ is much.

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