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The long tail
A recent letter requesting an order for one of my old shareware games from 1994 brings some perspective to the current indie game status quo.
November 29, 2012
5 Min Read
This article originally appeared in November 2011 on the Pixels on Toast blog.
Last week I received a letter through the post forwarded from my parents’ house. I haven’t lived there for seventeen years, and the envelope was hand-written, so I was quite intrigued to see who still had my address from all that time ago.
The envelope contained an order form, and a cheque for £7.50. It was, in fact, an order for a shareware game I had written in 1994! It had been so long since I last processed an order for this game that it took a moment for me to realise what it was.
A little back story. I put out three shareware titles between 1993 and 1994 for the PC. I was in the middle of studying for the GCSEs. This was before the days of DirectX. Its predecessor, WinG was still trying to grab a foothold, since games mostly ran under MS-DOS these days rather than Windows. Windows 3.1 was the flavour of the day, and the base spec of PCs back then was such that I could expect a fixed palette of 16 colours to play with. 256 colours was a luxury that I could simply not rely on. The three games, “WormWorld”, “Laserstrike”, and “Lunacy”, were distributed primarily on the cover of PC Plus magazine. Each was released as a demo version, with a fully spec’ed version available for those who wished to make a purchase.
Somewhere near the start of the century, I stopped selling the games and made them available as freeware. They are kindly hosted by Topher’s Castle, and you can find them right here, along with other versions of the games (ports and extensions) made by other people over the years.
Back to the present. The letter got me reminiscing, and I booted up DOSBox to play the old games. I hadn’t seen these games in quite a while. Good times! But playing these games and remembering those shareware days did get me thinking about how much has changed since then in the work I do.
Price points have… shifted…
Receiving that cheque for £7.50, it struck me what a large amount of money that is compared to the $0.99 offerings which are common today. The proliferation of games on the App Store and other such services, together with the fact that distribution costs are near-zero, has driven prices down to the bottom. The perception of value has deteriorated so badly that it is not uncommon to see a review of a $1.99 game decrying the heavy price tag that the game carries!
It’s all about the C++ (and Java too)
Within the games industry, C++ has been the dominant force for some time now. It wasn’t always that way. My shareware games were written in Turbo Pascal and its successor Borland Pascal. If I were sixteen years old again today, I’d probably be writing in C++, Objective C, or Java. Pascal would not be on the agenda.
It’s much harder to get visibility
One of the hidden advantages of having your games released on 3.5” floppy disk on the cover of magazines was that there was so little space on them. Typically, you would get 4-5 programs on each disk. Therefore, a large percentage of readers would probably play your game.
It’s fair to say things have changed substantially. Just a couple of years later, I bemoaned the shift from floppy disk to cover-mounted CD-ROM, as there were now hundreds of programs vying for the reader’s attention. Little did I know how things would move on in the Internet era, and then recently, the app era.
There are now over 72000 games on the App Store.
Audiences have grown enormously
Back in 1993, PCs were complicated beasts requiring a mastery of such things as Extended RAM, autoexec.bat and config.sys, and where exactly you could cram MSCDEX.EXE to give you enough base memory to run the latest game. It’s fair to say that the audience for my shareware games was more niche that it is today. Now, with tablets and smartphones, computing is easily accessible to all, and together with other platforms such as Facebook, more and more people are playing games in some way or other.
Small games are back
So all these changes. Where does that leave the independent game developer? With reduced visibility and a vanishing price point, how does the independent developer survive?
Luckily, this is all balanced by the phenomenally huge increase in audience. It’s entirely possible for a developer with a reasonably successful portfolio of games to earn their keep. You may not have the luxury of a salary, but you get to keep the spoils of your hard work. In any case, in these days of mass redundancies and “annual culls”, a salaried industry job is not as safe as it once was. And if you can keep the core of your business ticking along enough to earn your way, then anything you earn in excess is a nice windfall. An opportunity which you rarely get working for a huge developer / publisher.
It’s fair to say that small games are back, and that’s a great thing for the independent developer.
I’ve now been in touch with the customer who sent me the cheque, to tell him the game is now free. Turns out he’s an 83 year old gamer. Now that’s a long tail.
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