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On doubling your price out of Early Access

Kenny Backus talks about why the procedurally generated flight sim SkyRogue costs $20 now and the power of mod support

Earlier this month, GamesIndustry.biz ran an interview with a developer who lowered her game's price coming out of Early Access. Today we're doing the same with a developer that took the opposite approach. SkyRogue officially launched in August, and increased its price in the process from $10 to $20. It's not entirely uncommon for Early Access games to see a price hike when they hit a 1.0 release, but a full doubling of the asking price is more unusual.

While one might expect such a move to be met with a bit of consumer backlash, Kenny Backus of developer Fractal Phase said there was no such problem.

"Some people said, like, 'Oh, that's really bad news.' It sounded like they didn't think it was an intentional decision, like I was forced to bring up the price to the point I chose because it would lead to less sales," Backus said. "And technically it does lead to less sales, but not necessarily less revenue."

Backus figured that would be the case going in, and he gave a few reasons for why he and the game's artist Charles Blanchard settled on that price point in spite of the effect on sales.

First of all, SkyRogue is more or less a flight simulator. It's a fairly accessible flight simulator, more concerned with blowing up enemy planes, ground forces, and naval units in procedurally generated stages than flipping a dozen switches to prepare for take-off, but a flight simulator nonetheless.

"The non-linearity creates this environment where it's more of a playground or a sandbox, and not so much a theme park. So the dissonant elements just seem to fit better."

"There are so many games where you run around as a character and I see the ways they're more accessible than a flying game," Backus said. "So it just seems like a somewhat small-ish niche. I'm not even sure quite how big it is. And niche players will generally accept higher prices more easily."

The second element that pushed Fractal Phase to embrace $20 was the game's Steam Workshop support for user mods.

"I grew up with modded games, playing a ton of Counter-Strike, for example," Backus said. "When I bought the original Half-Life, I bought it specifically to play mods. I didn't really care about the single-player campaign or anything for that buying decision. So it seemed very natural to have a moddable game."

Backus got confirmation that other people felt the same way while the game was in Early Access. He started a SkyRogue Tumblr page for .gifs from the game, and began including clips of some of the game's more interesting user-created mods. A .gif of SkyRogue would appeal to a certain audience, but a .gif of SkyRogue where the player's ship had been replaced with iconic creations from Star Wars, Transformers, Gundam, or Galaga would appeal to another audience. (It's unclear what audience exists for .gifs of SkyRogue where players control a sensible Geo Metro hatchback or a non-descript IKEA-styled table, but these things exist and are dutifully chronicled on the blog as well.)

The .gif mods were a significant part of the game's marketing push, Backus said, and drew plenty of reactions from people interested in buying the game because one specific mod appealed to them. At the moment, there are more than 300 player-made mods on SkyRogue's Steam Workshop page.

While Backus is wary of giving one-size-fits-all advice, he did encourage developers to consider whether their game would lend itself well to mods. Games with a heavy narrative context may suffer when player-made non-sequiturs pop up in gameplay, but Backus said games like SkyRogue have more tolerance for such aberrations.

"The non-linearity, the fact the islands and missions are procedurally generated, creates this environment where it's more of a playground or a sandbox, and not so much a theme park," Backus said. "So the dissonant elements just seem to fit better."

Another key reason for opting to double the price was simply that Backus was in a position where he was comfortable doing so. Backus has a day job at Uken Games, and an agreement with the company that lets him work on his own projects in his spare time. That arrangement meant he didn't need to worry about being open with his co-workers about his game on the side, he didn't have the stress of needing the game to sell to put food on the table, and he didn't have a set timeframe or cutoff date to finish the game by.

"Of course the other side of that coin is you really have to make up some deadlines at some point or else the project would go on forever," Backus said. "Because that financial pressure isn't there, you need to add other forms of pressure to get the game out and have it in the state you need it for release."

"I really believe players don't see [development time] when it comes to opening their wallet and buying a game."

He estimates he spent roughly 10 hours a week over four years on SkyRogue, but that number was prone to great variation. Some weeks SkyRogue didn't get that much attention. At other times--like when he was asked to take a month of accrued vacation rather than cash it out--he was able to work on SkyRogue essentially full-time. While he was more productive during that month of focused work, the weeks where it was more spaced out let him more deeply consider the game and the decisions he was making. Put simply, how the hours were spaced out was as impactful on the game's development as the total number of hours worked.

"It's really hard to get any sort of math around that because there are two opposing forces right there, where getting a batch of time would be really useful most of the time, but being able to reflect is useful in its own way," Backus said.

However that math would work out, Backus was insistent that it didn't impact the decision to set the game's price at $20.

"It had nothing to do with the amount of development time or anything like that," Backus said. "I really believe players don't see any of that and don't understand any of that when it comes to opening their wallet and buying a game."

SkyRogue currently has a "Very Positive" review score average on Steam, with 92% of user reviews giving the game a thumbs up. As for the negative reviews, Backus said he's seen nothing in them that suggests a $15 price point would have made those people any happier with the game than a $20 price.

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