[When we finished our first game from Crocodile Entertainment, Zack Zero, and published it on PSN, we learnt some things the hard way: price, sales, demos, ...]
I remember in early January, shortly after Zack Zero was released on PSN, I sent a message on Twitter saying something like "Thinking of ways to promote our game." I noticed the response from a stranger who told me he had gone to buy our game but had seen the “January sales” offers and had ended up buying a marked-down game instead of ours.
These "January sales" included special offers that came out on the PS Store on the very same day our game was launched. This promotion appeared in big white letters over a red background. Several of the offers were platform games, like ours, with prices that were more attractive than ours. This sale offered several games with significant discounts every week from January 11 to the 31st.
Changing the subject: during a game party celebrated a few weeks ago I had the chance to talk with other people in the industry (mainly from the traditional “big publishers” ); there, some of them told me that releasing a product exclusively through download was the way to go, that “that was the future of distribution”.
My answer was always the same: “Are you sure?” Do lower sales in retail really imply that download sales are increasing in the same degree? And, above all, the question they always answered with an -“obviously the business model has to change”: - “Would you make a big release exclusively through an online store knowing that there is only one point of sale that you can’t control in any way and that can offer your competitor’s game the same day you launch yours, taking into account all the money you spent in your advertising campaign?”
The point of sale
On PS Store there is only one point of sale per region: one for the EMEA, another one for the Americas and a third one for the Asian market. When you release your product, you can’t reach a promotional agreement with the store, your game will be visible to the public during two or three weeks and then it will removed from the front page and added to a listing catalogued in alphabetical order (finding it won’t be easy, even if you know the name of the game and how to look for it). It is the same point of sale that releases products of the HW manufacturers themselves, who are also the owners of the store.
At a promotional level, if I were a big publisher or, even worse, an indie publisher, would I launch an advertising campaign or invest the little money I have in promoting my product just to send users to a store that can simultaneously promote games that belong to my competitors? Would I send users to a store where my game is hidden and where it’s the other games that are going to catch the attention of the people I send?
In tablets and smartphones, if I advertise or gain media coverage that takes users to my product’s web site, they will find a link to my game’s page in the App Store, where they will decide if they want to purchase it or not. That’s not how it works in the PS Store. If you’re not the owner of the store and of the items it offers, this is not your ideal business model.
Money invested in advertising and promoting your product will only send people to the store, where they will be sold whatever the store wants to promote, probably something other than your game. Where did promotion agreements with different retail stores go? Where did agreements to keep your game visible during a longer period of time end up? Why can’t I send a user interested in my game directly to my game’s webpage?
Currently, the visibility of a game like Zack Zero in the PS Store is so low that the average user that accesses the store less than once a month won’t even know of its existence, he simply won’t be aware of the games that have been released and then passed on to the alphabetical order list. These are potential sales that are lost and never recovered.
I’m not speaking of hard-core gamers who are aware of new releases, I’m speaking of the majority of game buyers: people who don’t read magazines or web pages about videogames, people who just buy and play. For example, some of my friends and relatives who own a PS3 have had to call or write me because they simply couldn’t find our game once they were in the Store.
We’ve even received messages in our webpage from users that have read a review of our game or seen a video and haven’t been able to figure out how to buy it. This contrasts with any retail store where you can continue to pick up and view games that were released over a year ago.
In my opinion, this is something that has to change or I put in doubt the viability of the console digital distribution platforms.
Another problem we have encountered, and one which I consider to be a mistake of the digital distribution business model, is that they have managed to teach users that, after a game is released, it will be priced down after just a few weeks. This is a common issue with all platforms and, in my opinion, it’s a big problem that is wreaking havoc in the game industry; if this doesn’t change, I envision a future with a reduced offer of merely 4 or 5 successful Triple A franchises. This problem is even worse for smartphones and tablets, where the “free app” model is leading most games to a situation where they don’t make any money.
For example, my younger brother, who has more than 300 apps on his iPhone (the most of which are games) hasn’t paid for any of them. He has specific apps that tell him what products are on sale that day and will only download those that are free and catch his attention. And that’s good enough for him. Developers release their game at a specific price, and it turns out that sales at that price are usually very low.
That’s when developers get nervous and start turning to desperate measures: lower prices, promotions where the game is free for several days in order to trigger word of mouth advertising, giving a gazillion levels for free… All of this without taking into account the many developers that make games in their spare time, while they’re studying in the university, and who search for fame more than income and offer their game for free straight from the start.
In the console and PC download models it’s almost the same deal: games are never free, but those that sell at $9.99 one day can cost $3.99 the next. And users already know how this works.
So when we released Zack Zero we read some messages in forums, or even in some reviews, stating that the game looks really good and that they’re planning on waiting until it goes on sale to buy it. The problem is that, when a game is on sale, the income per copy for the developer is very low, and both novelty and impulse buying are gone forever.
My brother used to buy games for the console; he doesn’t anymore. Now, between the free apps on his phone and the demos that come out on the platform, his appetite is satisfied. My brother is just an example of something that is happening on a larger scale. A person that used to buy an average of 10 console games a year now buys just one… or none at all.
This takes us to another problem: demos. As a player, I appreciate demos because I have purchased many games based on videos or reviews, games that ultimately have let me down. However, the problem with demos is that sometimes they’re not used to evaluate the game, they’re just used to play for a couple of hours.
Keeping in mind the amount of games that are out there these days, these hours are often enough to keep the player entertained until he turns to the next demo. In fact, as my brother told me the other day, there are so many demos that he still has a bunch of them downloaded that he hasn’t had the chance to play yet.
In both the GDC and different websites you can find conferences and articles written by developers, marketing experts or journalists that explain how to approach the press, how they are just ordinary people, and how it is better to reach out to them on an individual level. This is true and not true. I can speak of this issue from both sides of the story. Those conferences and articles are usually given by well-known developers who get an answer by just saying “hi”.
Here in Spain, I am the developer of one of the best selling franchises ever sold, with over one million copies sold in our country alone. When we released Zack Zero, the press was all over us: we’ve been on major print magazines, on the main TV channels, in newspapers, videogame webs and blogs; we’ve given interviews, written articles, given conferences…
But, outside of Spain, nobody knows who we are; we’ve sent thousands of emails, both with press releases and personal messages, and have received few responses. We even wrote to personal email addresses given to us by friends, writing personal emails, saying hi and telling them our story. They didn’t answer either. We also wrote to contacts we made at previous GDCs, and they didn’t reply either.
When you’re a small company, getting to be known is a difficult task. Personal emails don’t accomplish much, they’re far from being the panacea. In my opinion, what works best is going to conferences and meeting with people; showing them that you are also a person who’s putting all of their faith, hope and work into a project. But that’s not easy either, especially if your income is low.
Ten years ago, making a quality game like Zack Zero ‘guaranteed’ the developer the necessary income to make money and develop the next game. Speaking with other developers that have chosen to sell their game with the download model in consoles, they all seem to agree that in recent months things have changed drastically and they seem to doubt the feasibility of exclusive development for download platforms.
I totally agree with them. There is not much we can do within a model where “free-for-all” reigns, where promoting your game means promoting a store in which the owner sells what he wants to sell and with no option to improve your product’s visibility.
My personal opinion is that both Sony and Microsoft will turn their online stores, and are in fact turning them already, into a mirror of what can be purchased in retail stores: similar content at a similar price. Their last steps certainly seem headed in that direction. Somewhere where indie developers can’t find their place… or their place is marginal.
This will only lead us to another age where indie belongs to a marginal niche and where companies that manage to find a publisher are the only ones that end up releasing their game. And as we all know, this is not a pretty picture for developers.