Lately I've been thinking a lot about user reviews. As a small studio without a giant marketing budget, I rely on positive word-of-mouth to help my games get noticed in the crowded marketplaces they are released into. It's fascinating how many factors outside of core gameplay can affect an indie game's critical reception. From bugs, to release timing, to competition, to platform, there is a laundry list of things that have an impact on how players perceive our games - not the least of which is your game's price.
The first choice most players make when evaluating your game is whether or not the price is worth paying to play. As I'm learning, the choice of what to charge for your game goes beyond considering what you think it's worth. In this article, I want to talk through a few common indie pricing strategies out there, the pros and cons of each, and particularly how price impacts player ratings.
Strategy 1: Price High, Sale Often
In this scenario, you price the game at a premium level, in the hope of maximizing revenue from your early adopters. The thinking goes that the people who love your game enough to buy it on launch day are probably not going to be price sensitive.
After launch, you put the game on sale regularly, reducing your sale percentage over time until you're offering the game on a mega-sale for 90 percent off, capturing all remaining buyers.
- Maximizes revenue at launch from early-adopters.
- Sends a premium "quality signal" that sets player expectation high.
- Enables you to net more at each sale percentage. i.e. 50 percent off of $19.99 nets you more than 50 percent off $9.99.
- Fewer players at launch, so your word-of-mouth potential is low.
- Short-term review impact: beyond early-adopters, players will knock you in reviews because the value proposition is off. "For the money, I expected more..." is a common complaint.
- Long-term review impact: Those low reviews lower your aggregate score.
- Long-term revenue impact: A lower review score impacts your chance of getting featured later in your lifecycle. It also reduces your visibility in metric-driven discovery systems, like the one used on the Steam store.
- Damages your relationship with early adopters, who may regret buying early when they could have waited and bought the game for less.
Examples: Most Steam Indie and AAA games, niche strategy titles such as the Civilization series.
Strategy 2: Price Fair, Never Sale
Another common strategy is to price the game at a level you think is fair for the quality of game you have made. After launch, you rarely put the game on sale, or wait until much later in your lifecycle to do a discount (likely stating this upfront).
- Instills trust in buyers, and earns you long-term goodwill with early adopters.
- Consistent, sustainable revenue stream. Game value percentage remains high late in lifecycle.
- Reviews trend higher thanks to a match between price and player perceived value. Consistent, predictable aggregate review score.
- Miss out on additional revenue and/or featuring that would come from sales events.
- Smaller customer base to resell future games to; do not capture the bargain customer.
Strategy 3: Bargain Price
A third strategy is to price your game below the fair value, and remove price as a meaningful barrier for players.
- Friendlier reviews. "Amazing what you get for the price."
- Long -erm positive relationship with customers.
- Larger customer base early in your lifecycle. More players to fill up your matchmaking queues, and more players that can be evangelists for word-of-mouth growth.
- Lower short-term revenue.
- Harder to drop the price meaningfully later in the lifecycle.
- Sends a mixed "quality signal" that sets player expectation low. Players may think, "What's wrong with it that it's priced so low?"
- Lots of customers who aren't necessarily your target audience become players earlier, and may skew your view of what your core customers actually care about.
Examples: The Binding of Isaac, many mobile indie games, free-to-play games.
Strategy 4: Early Access, Raise Price Over Time
The early access model is all the rage, and it's worth considering. In this model, you offer paid access to early versions of the game, usually at a discounted price that matches the state of quality of the game. As you improve the quality of the game over time, you raise the price to match. Crowd-funded games usually fall into this category, but crowd-funding is not necessary to make this model work.
- Large invested community early in development that can help promote the game at launch.
- Incentivizes early purchases, as players know waiting means paying more.
- Reviews are less influenced by price, as price is usually in-step with quality.
- Potential to cannibalize full price launch sales.
- Potential for lower long-term review scores if final version does not live up to expectations set during early access.
Examples: Minecraft, Besiege, Don't Starve.
So which option is best? The answer of course depends on your game, and your goals. Figuring out what is most important for you, your game, and your company in the long and short term is worth exploring before you make a decision on price.
Some questions to ask:
- What kind of game have you made, and who is your audience? What are the expectations around price for those players?
- Do you need money now?
- Are you trying to build a customer base? Are you building a long-term brand?
As an example, for my most recent game Hero Generations, I chose to combine strategies No.4 (early access via Kickstarter) and No.1 (sales over time post-release on Steam). These strategies aligned with my goals of building a community while generating revenue earlier in our lifecycle to support development. For future games, our priorities are more geared towards building a strong long-term brand supported by strong user reviews and word-of-mouth. Those different priorities will likely require us to experiment with different pricing models.
It's worth noting some of the differences you might encounter when pricing a game across different platforms.
PC and console platforms have a tolerance for higher prices, and certain genre fans are used to paying a premium for popular games. For example, strategy games on PC can generally be priced higher than elsewhere without taking a review hit.
"Pricing has a significant influence on long-term player perception, and can be a powerful tool for achieving other goals beyond making money"
Mobile platforms of course have long been plagued by a race to the bottom, and have more of a boundary on how much you can ask for. There are also many more sources of revenue that need to be considered, and may take more of your development time to get right. Free-to-play, incentivized ads, etc. are all topics of their own, and their meaningful impact on your game's user reviews require you put them under similar scrutiny.
Finally, for multi-platform releases, the platform order you choose to release in can also have an impact on player perception. Releasing on mobile first with a lower price and then releasing on PC later may meaningfully damage the value perception of your title there. In practice, these audiences actually don't pay attention to each other, and you can usually price your game appropriately for each platform. However, a game that is perceived as being "a mobile port" on PC is likely to take a user review score hit.
Two interesting case studies on the topic of release order are FTL (Faster Than Light) and Hero Academy. FTL and Hero Academy are both high-quality strategy games that blend casual and hardcore game elements. FTL was first released on PC at $9.99, and then much later as an enhanced iOS version at $9.99 as well. In contrast, Hero Academy first released on mobile as a free-to-play title with a finite set of $1.99 in-app purchases, then much later released on Steam, settling on a pay-upfront $4.99 bundle. I am not privy to the exact sales numbers for each game, and the two games are different enough that a direct comparison isn't entirely useful. However it is worth noting that because FTL released on PC first, it was able to be priced higher on both platforms without hurting reviews, thanks to the higher value perception of games developed for PC first. As well, Hero Academy, which was one of my favorite mobile games at the time of its release, has a less than appropriate user rating of 7/10 on PC.
At first glance, pricing can be mistaken as a simple exercise in assigning a cost to the value in your game. But pricing has a significant influence on long-term player perception, and can be a powerful tool for achieving other goals beyond making money. So I urge you to think about the full lifecycle of your game, and how review scores and price play a role.
Scott Brodie is the Founder & Creative Director at independent studio Heart Shaped Games. He is the designer and programmer of IndieCade Finalist Hero Generations and online CCG Highgrounds. Prior to Heart Shaped Games he was an XBLA Producer for Microsoft Game Studios on 20+ titles, and a Designer and Programmer on a variety of AAA PC and Console titles.