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Customers are worthless - Puppy Games

Dev says de-valuation of games has led to de-valuation of users, product support not worth doing for indies

"You are worthless to us."

That's a line from the latest blog post of Puppy Games co-founder Caspian Prince, titled "Because You're Worthless: The Dark Side of Indie PR." It's a sentiment directed at customers, and one Prince paints as the outcome of a handful of industry trends in the past decade or so.

When Puppy Games was founded in 2002, games from small developers could sell for around $20, Prince said, and there was money to be made there. There was a downside in that many customers required technical support from the developers to get games running on their particular computer, but that was offset by the game's initial asking price. (Prince joked that the studio charged $1 for the game and $19 for support.)

However, there was a series of "cataclysmically disruptive" events with the rise of Steam, Big Fish Games, and the Humble Indie Bundle. Prince puts the approximate value of an indie game in the market today much closer to $1. Puppy Games titles like Revenge of the Titans or Ultratron may carry a $10 price tag on Steam, but Prince said "nobody" buys them unless they're heavily discounted.

"Where once you were worth $20, and then you might have become a fan and bought another 4 games off of us for $20, you were worth $100," Prince said. "We only had to fix your computer for you once, as well, so the next four games amortised the cost of the initial support... Now you're worth $1 to us. If you buy every one of our games, you're worth $5. After Valve and the tax man and the bank take their cuts, you're not even worth half a cup of coffee."

Prince offered a bit more nuanced take on the value of customers a bit later on, and underscored one course of action for other indie developers to take in light of these trends.

"Customers all think they're worth everything in the entire world to us," Prince said. "The funny thing is, you are. Without customers, we're dead in the water, homeless and living in a cardboard box outside Berko sewage plant. But individually, you're like ants. And all of developers secretly know it and don't talk about it. You're not worth supporting. It's far, far better to completely, totally ignore support, if you want to make a living."

As for concerns about fallout from the blog, Prince doesn't seem to have any. Elsewhere in the post, he talked about the expected reaction to his sentiments.

"The more we argue, the more we bait the trolls, the more we seem to get into a death spiral of internet hate... the better it is for us," Prince said. "There is no such thing as bad publicity. Phil Fish may have turned in to a gibbering bearded recluse but now he's a famous gibbering bearded recluse. Phil Fish only has to tweet a fart and it'll be all over the internet. Given that discovery is the #1 problem for an indie developer (and always has been), you can see that the more infamous and terrible we are ... the more money we make."

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Latest comments (33)

Christopher Bowen Editor in Chief, Gaming Bus7 years ago
OK, so this guy's a dick. Next!

Seriously, if it's getting to the point where people have to be openly hostile to their customers to get attention and make sales, things are truly jacked up.
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Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext7 years ago
This is a sad reality in todays gaming market. The premium game market has some allowances for customer support. Todays more cuthroat market does not have such allowances.

The best approach is to always make your product as bug free and stable as possible. However, when things do not go as planned, you can only provide indirect support in the way of bug fixes/improvements as the cost of direct product support is more than the ARPPU of a customer.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Brian Lewis on 18th August 2014 5:55pm

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Andreia Quinta Photographer, Studio52 London7 years ago
I don't think doning the 'asshole' armor works as well as he thinks it works. Look at Fez, great game apparently, but the dev is a douche so I never picked it up really.
Then again I might be wrong, I'm just one ant.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Andreia Quinta on 18th August 2014 10:51pm

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Show all comments (33)
Steve Wetz Reviewer/Assistant Editor, Gamer's Glance7 years ago
No Andrea, your viewpoint is not only valid, it's very important for indie developers, many of whom develop personal relationships with their communities. When you are a four or five person indie game team, you are your own PR section, so to depth charge your own client base is nonsensical, much more than when a PR firm who isn't developing the game does it.

This guy just doesn't understand his own field. Sure, the economics of indie sales have changed. Welcome to business. New and fresh products the consumer hasn't seen have inherently higher profit margins, then recede over time. This is called "regression toward the mean," and it happens everywhere - the price/profit margin analysis of oil is a fantastic example, even if it isn't a creatively driven one. But note that no one argues that we should stop producing oil due to pricing or profit margin - all arguments against oil production are environmentally based.

This doesn't mean that your business is doomed to fail - it just means that your business needs to be more efficient. Reuse art assets and generic audio. Use these "bundles" you hate so much by packaging in a demo for your next product. Evaluate your costs and manpower. And understand that business cycles are often cyclical in their innovation - before the indie explosion, the main complaint of developers was that game budgets were climbing too quickly and games were taking longer to produce. Then the indie boom happened and suddenly a game with signicantly less investment was nearly as valuable as a 50 million dollar budget game. Now we're on the other end where market saturation of indies and the advent of Early Access have lowered the percieved value of an indie game. This doesn't mean that it will always be so - we're just primed for the next innovation.
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Eyal Teler Programmer 7 years ago
@Andreia Quinta. the blog post specifically mentioned Phil Fish (the developer of Fez) and how what he said didn't hurt him one bit, and in fact he's one of the most successful indies. Which just goes to prove that you're indeed just one ant.
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David Canela Game & Audio Designer 7 years ago
the correlation between fish's dickishness and his success is flimsy, at best. we don't know how succesful fez would have been if he'd been nice. furthermore, fez was critf2fically acclaimed way before his twitter spats. I'm playing it right now, it's simply a great game.

Also, while saying inflammatory things will get you lots of media attention and name recognition, keep in mind that publicly dickish people have suffered in other ways (apart from Fish, Orth comes to mind ) , so even if you sell a few more copies, it might not be worth it on a personal level.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany7 years ago
Well, from now on I'm going to be Worthless to Puppy games. Both to their actual projects and any future ones. Because you know... customers do not like to be insulted.
Now I don't feel like paying that 1$. Quite the PR work right there!

Pro tip: Do A game I want to play and I even pay over 20€
Pro tip 2: The Forest, Rogue Legacy, Plague Inc. get it?

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Alfonso Sexto on 19th August 2014 12:50pm

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Saehoon Lee Founder & CEO, Pixellore7 years ago
By replying here. I have already contributed to his scheme. Oh wait i fell for it.. darn.
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Roberto Bruno Curious Person 7 years ago
"Good old Phil is sitting pretty on a giant mound of cash the likes of which you will probably not even be able to comprehend, let alone earn in your lifetime. For every one of you that enjoyed denigrating him and thrilled at insulting him, there are now another thousand people who listen to every word he says. When he walks into the restaurant where you pitifully scrub the floor like a servile wretch in order to pay for DLC in DOTA2, you’ll call him sir."
Well, way to show off how much of a miserable, arrogant classist you can be.

I'm sorry but given this premise i don't even want to argue about how much merit your complaints could or couldn't have.
Maybe if developing games isn't working out so well for you, you should consider going to scrub floors for a living as well, because people surely don't own you money as a divine right.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Roberto Bruno on 19th August 2014 4:39pm

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I'll spend $20 on an indie game if I perceive it to be both innovative and substantial enough to be worth the price (e.g., World of Goo, Little Inferno, Braid, Bastion). I won't pay $20 for a game that is, at best, an old format repackaged as a new game and/or a casual game.

For example, Revenge of the Titans was, essentially, little more than a hybrid tower defense/RTS game. It had no plot to speak of, the graphics were casual game quality, and I have absolutely no memory of the soundtrack. If you're selling a game that could easily work as an app on a smartphone, a game that I will most likely play when I'm on the can, then I'm not going to pay premium for it.

Other indie developers have become incredibly successful because they offered high-quality, innovative games at a reasonable price point. In this day and age, you can't release a fun, but forgettable little game for $20 when I can go on the app store and buy 20 similar little games for the exact same price, if not for free.
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I hadn't heard of them before today. But now there's an email in my inbox from with a link to an article about their blog post which II clicked and I read the article and even clicked the link to their website. I'd say the job of the blog post was pretty much a giant success!
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David Canela Game & Audio Designer 7 years ago
@Barrie Tingle
you see, that's something that really annoys me and it happens a lot: some guy is very vocal, rude and insulting. Maybe there's also a sliver of something true in his statements.
He gets called out on it.
Then tons of people idolize him as a martyr for "telling it like it is" and just "being brutally honest".

sorry, that is bullshit. that one little uncomfortable truth hidden between all the insults is not what he's being critizised for, it's all the unnecessary crap around it.

Beware of people who proudly wear the "I'm just brutally honest, deal with it" cap; they're usually just too lazy to be polite and don't care about other people's feelings and try to spin that fact into something positive..
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Sasha Yelesin Student 7 years ago
"The more we argue, the more we bait the trolls, the more we seem to get into a death spiral of internet hate... the better it is for us," Prince said. "There is no such thing as bad publicity."
That's funny, I remember Microsoft backpedaling after their horrible E3 2013 conference. If one of the biggest companies in the world realized telling customers to "shove it and buy" isn't sustainable, Puppy Games should straighten themselves out, and quick.
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Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief7 years ago
Of course, his fundamental argument is that the life time value of a user is $1 (or perhaps $5) because he sells them whole games for an upfront price point of $1 a go. If only there was a way of making games that allowed you to offer variable pricing to your customers and have a higher life time value...
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Nélio Codices Co-Founder and Managing Partner, Battlesheep7 years ago
Welcome to business.
Yes, this perfectly sustainable business where everyone is doing great.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 7 years ago
What he should have said is this: "customers are only worth heavily discounted prices to us, averaging around a $1"

I think that would have gone over much better.....or not.
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Paolo Giunti Narrative Designer 7 years ago
What he says might be true, but his wording just sucks.
There's "we can't afford to provide proper customer support because of this situation, please bear with us", which gets fans to sympathize, and then there's "You're worthless to us 'cause you buy our games discounted."
Very well, sir. I'll see to it that i don't buy them then..

As for the media attention, that will be short-lived (people will soon forget when the next drama comes up). Those who will remember him in the long run are those he alienated with his hostility.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paolo Giunti on 20th August 2014 10:41am

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 7 years ago
Look at his argument in detail.

He sold a $20 game, but part of the revenue went to employing a person who made sure that customers were given support, which they required to make the game run properly. Typical Windows PC insanity.

Games can no longer be sold at $20, meaning people need to be cut in order for the developer to stay operational. Obviously you can't cut the people making the games, so you need to find ways to cut the person supporting them with their installation problems. Being able to install a game without help from a trained PC game installation specialist is a good thing, a necessity one might even say. If that tragically leads to lower prices instead of higher profit margins for the dev, then cry me a river.

After being too dumb to install a game, video publishers "fixed" my computer which then made me buy more games from the same publisher, at which point they no longer had to fix my computer, which is why revenue for support instead started feeding profits?

"Ahh, hello EA tech support, you see, my computer broke down, but I bought Titanfall in the past and I really am looking to buy Fifa 15 on Origin, so I figured you should fix my PC, maybe dispatch a tech support guy to my house, repair the parts, or help me order replacements online. Hello? .... Hello... EA tech support?"
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David Canela Game & Audio Designer 7 years ago
@Barrie Tingle
I actually am currently playing Fez :). Honestly, I don't tend to care that much about internet celebrities one way or the other, as I'm well aware of how arguments can get out of hand online and internet personas only represent a small aspect of the real person behind them. All I am saying is that there's a bunch of people who tend to get involved in flamewars and catch a lot of flak and then somehow get this huge underdog bonus merely thanks to numbers, when their behaviour equals that of every single troll in the internet masses that they're fighting with.

In german there's a saying "the way you shout into the woods is the manner it will echo out of them".
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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent7 years ago
"This guy's a dick"
You know, the truth is no less true just because we don't want to hear it. It's braver to consider the whole than to isolate the soundbite that sticks most in the throat and wave it about like a contextless shitty stick.
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Caspian Prince CEO, Puppy Games7 years ago
I haven't been here in a while but it should maybe come as no surprise I do actually read the news...

"This guy's a dick" Coming from an editor-in-chief - really, what more is there to be said of Christopher Bowen's opinions with ingenious and insightful commentary like that.

It's rather a shame that the actual message of the article has been lost under the petulant rantings of angry internet men wanting to be insulted to get a fight. A careful re-reading might actually reveal the real message to you, but I shall spell it out.

Firstly, we're not broke, or anywhere near going bankrupty. Nor are we unsuccessful, with 679,254 units shipped on Steam in the last four years. I'm afraid this renders a lot of the "make a game I want to play, you know, something good" and "make a game worth €20 not €1" arguments rather irrelevant and you'll have to rethink your entire counterargument.

Secondly, the post was not actually about Puppygames. It was not about our customers. It was about all developers and everyone's customers. Nowhere did it state that we hated customers. Nowhere did it say that we don't value customers. What it does state is that customers are worthless. They are worth pennies. Their repeat business is worth pennies. Not for us. For everyone. And the ramifications of this are that support is fucked. For everyone. We'll see support on Steam (and indeed the Steam store itself) fairly rapidly over the course of the next 12 months or so degenerate into something rather similar to the App Store and Google Play. Consoles to follow not too long after I suspect.

We're escaping the whole sorry mess by reinventing our business once we've got Basingstoke out of the way and moving to the much-maligned free-to-play model which Nicholas has probably quite rightly identified as one of the very few viable models that will survive the forthcoming extinction level event fomented by Steam, bundles and consumer behaviour.

You are welcome to shoot the messenger, and indeed, I will sleep soundly without your dollar. It cost some people more in time to write in anger that they won't give us a dollar than the dollar itself. Staggering.

I'd love to talk in depth about the analysis and ramifications of the article with anyone who'd like to discuss it though.

Cas :)
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Brendan Sinclair Managing Editor, GamesIndustry.biz7 years ago
Hey Cas, I don't have your direct email but have reached out through your website and Quarter 2 Three account so we could have that in-depth talk about the ramifications. Get back to me if you're up for an interview.
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Caspian Prince CEO, Puppy Games7 years ago
Hi Brendan - I'll be in touch in a sec.
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Justin Biddle Software Developer 7 years ago

Regardless of your underlying message which I did get and understand it is true that the way you presented will alienate people and therefore bury your message. The very fact people have reacted the way they have proves this and shows that the valid point you were making has unfortunately been lost. Think for a second of the reaction on this site. It consists mainly of those who work in the same area as you. So they are more willing to listen to the underlying message. And there reaction has for a large part been unimpressed. Now imagine how your customers who do not have actual experience working with the industry will read it. It's hardly going to endear them towards you neither will it effectively get the message you wanted to across to them
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Caspian Prince CEO, Puppy Games7 years ago
Hi Justin, that's almost exactly the opposite of what has happened. The cataclysmically shocking presentation ensured the post went viral by goading just enough Angry Internet Men into trying to pick a fight, in turn bringing in people with half a brain cell who understood the meaning of the post to argue on my behalf. It was an absolute success.

My actual customers couldn't give a shit about the article, and reading between the lines, it barely matters if they do or don't. They're worth 10 pence each, after all. Fortunately most of the intellectual debate occurring is between developers, aspiring developers, and generally intelligent people with a grasp of comprehension.

Graphic proof of how it all works is in the giant sales spike we've had since. The long term effects are likely to be measured in the tens of thousands of dollars over the years (if not hundreds).

In any case... we'll be out of paid soon enough, and in to free-to-play, as Nicholas describes. Then we'll have some really properly valuable customers to look after.
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Caspian Prince CEO, Puppy Games7 years ago
Statistically speaking, almost all of our customers are "new" customers. Almost none of them have any "brand loyalty" whatsoever. We have a 100k newsletter subscriber base that we can announce new products on which attains approximately 20% open rate and some smallish proportion thereof buy new things that we announce on it (30% perhaps?) but if you work out the percentages, even for a "full price" (ho ho) release at $10, it amounts to just a couple of months money for a studio.

Wresting existing f2p players onto our own game is of course the big challenge but everyone eventually moves on (WoW is now in steady and rapid decline according to Blizzard themselves) and new customers spring up at approximately the same rate as babies are born. So the market is still pretty lush and ripe, but not in the paid games arena - you're absolutely right that it's quite saturated now.
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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent7 years ago
I agree with Caspian. On all counts.

Getting caught up on the words 'our customers are worthless' is missing a veracious and commendable criticism of the swirling, overbrimming toilets that masquerade as digital vendors. Gamers are too busy picking through the poo to acknowledge the giant hand reaching for the flush, let alone what they stand to lose once it gets there.

Bravo, I say. Bravo.
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Well I think Caspian misses something here.
. I agree with his point of the limited returns thanks to the race to the zero price point makes it seem as if, customers really arent worth spending time and money on since they are only worth potentially 5 bucks. BUT is that really the case? The point I think Caspian missed here is this, Indie customers are not only your customers but they are also your PR department. We indies dont have huge or any PR and/or advertising budgets. Games get sold via word of mouth, via actual social media interaction and so on. To get your customers to be good PR people we have to engage, and invest time with them. They have to like you, root for you, and in return they just may bring a whole new slew of customers with them, and so on and so on.

So really in the indie world a customer isnt just a customer, he/she is a potental big component to our PR team and should be treated accordingly IMHO.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 21st August 2014 5:45pm

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Caspian Prince CEO, Puppy Games7 years ago
No-one has ever said that you can't talk to customers, just that it's now fundamentally a net loss, even if you consider any supposed viral effect of friend networks.

The reason you indies don't have PR or advertising budgets is because you haven't yet realised that you actually need to pay for these things if you want them. Word of mouth happens whether your customers are worth 10p or £100 each. And it all pales into irrelevance next to the power of being featured on Steam in any way at all.

It's too easy to get bogged down fooling ourselves into thinking that individual customers make a difference. They do not. Once upon a time they did. Now there is only one strategy which is to acquire thousands and thousands of customers and leave them to it.

I do wish I was wrong but this is the actual reality of today, not a dystopian near-future.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Caspian Prince on 21st August 2014 8:54pm

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even if you consider any supposed viral effect of friend networks. supposed? there is nothing supposed about the power of "word of mouth" advertising and recommendation. It is without a doubt the most powerful and influential advertising there is. Nothing can or does make someone decide to purchase more than a friend/family/colleague/associate recommendation.

But sure go ahead and think that you can just sell and ignore, watch where it will get you in a few years.
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Caspian Prince CEO, Puppy Games7 years ago
I think I may have not emphasised enough that this conclusion is not about treating all customers as worthless, but understanding that you can afford to ditch marginal, irritating, broken or abusive customers with relative impunity in the new market economy.

Very much like how App Store developers treat customers. Have you had a productive and useful relationship with developers on the App Store lately? No! You probably don't even know how to contact them. Well, that's my personal experience, but I have a feeling that's the way of things to come in the "Steam paid" games category.
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Caspian Prince CEO, Puppy Games7 years ago
(Actually this is why the article starts out by telling gamers they're not very nice people: because, by and large, the ones that waste your time are not)

Cas :)
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but understanding that you can afford to ditch marginal, irritating, broken or abusive customers with relative impunity in the new market economy.
this has always been true however, you just reply to their crap with a over nice form reply that "their opinions and thoughts are important" and you thank them for contacting you, and you ignore them.

But to be honest, I do agree with you that this latest monetization scheming and race for the dollar price point will indeed come back and bite the industry in the ass. Its short sighted and it not even remotely practical long term.

I based my career around two incredibly important words uttered to me years ago about how to make money in software ... Reoccurring revenue.

Customers matter, but to work to acquire them and get them to purchase, but then only charge them a buck, my god, we might as well put games in the gumball machines outside of supermarkets.
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