Farmville is just a Skinner box

29Sep11

This post was originally written and posted on 13th September 2011. 

On drawing lines in the sand and why indie game makers are stupid.

According to wikipedia, the official term for a Skinner box is Operant Conditioning Chamber, which is a much cooler name. It’s a place that they (scientists probably, like from Half Life) put rats in and make them learn how to pull levers to get stuff. It’s also used to describe social casual games on iOS and Facebook, generally in a derogatory way by ‘real’ or traditional gamers and game makers. 

Free me and weep

The majority of iOS game revenue comes from freemium now. The split between traditional ‘pay up front’ and the newer ‘get hooked and perhaps some people will buy something in game’ model was about 40/60 last year and it’s about 60/40 now. I’d imagine it’d settle at around the same percentage ratio as there are iOS platform owners to iOS platform owners that are traditional gamers. What I’m saying is that traditional game makers making traditional games aren’t in immediate danger of losing sales to casual freemium gamers because those people want to play Smurfs and Sims social, and always have done, except you never paid any attention to them because they were playing plastic Tetris games and handheld crossword consoles and completing puzzles in Take a Break magazines and maybe even playing PC games rather than actually being in the same (app) store as you.It seems to be a fairly commonly held stance amongst traditional indie game developers that they don’t want to include IAPs, (in app purchases). Wait, no, they don’t want to include bad IAPs and cheapen their pure creative vision through shortcuts and other cynical money grabbing efforts which are in fact likely to turn off the audience they are trying to reach. Good for them, I mean it. Getting that breakout hit on the iOS marketplace is hard, like a lottery. In order to have a successful game release on iOS you perhaps don’t even need a ‘good’ game, but if you do have a good game it may well be not enough, it probably isn’t. I bet there are a several dozen very good iOS games that you have never played or heard of. That’s a risk inherent to the platform unfortunately and it’s up to indie game designers to be a bit more savvy about how they approach making and releasing games.

Our Tune

I will tell you a sad story: A talented designer really wanted to make a game of his own. He hired a developer with his own money and together they worked long and hard making a neat little puzzle game (which happened to have an excellent original chiptune soundtrack). He released the game on iOS at the base price and sat back and waited. Time passed. A handful of copies were sold mostly to friends and the power of social networking didn’t reach all that far. Defeated, the designer cursed his luck and walked off into the sunset, his dream of iOS success shattered. However, that guy had: no update plan, no Plan B, had given no thought to monetising the game in other ways. He wasn’t a stupid person, just unprepared for the iOS market. He’d given himself one shot at success, one roll of the dice. He’d minimised his chances to be successful and to make money. By the way that game is called Trainer Drop and is now free.

Good/good Good/Bad Bad/Good Bad/Bad

An inferior product from an inferior producer/creator can make more money than a superior one, it happens all the time across many industries. Unless you’re in a Miyamoto type position where you can dedicate your time and effort purely into the game and not worry at all about how you package and deliver and market and inform people about your product, then you need to worry about it. Even some of the makers who follow all the ‘rules’ and good practice are still finding they don’t get the coverage they hope for or expect. The marketplace on iOS is tough, but people are there, (a lot of people!) the potential upside is huge and that’s one of the main reasons so many people have been and are flocking to create games for iOS devices.
Take it how you wanna take it

The figures in the iOS market show that freemium gamers are willing to spend money on stuff, and far more than they would up front. I believe as a game developer on iOS it’s crucial you take this into account. I completely understand that you don’t want to ‘cheapen’ your game, and that’s cool, it’s up to you to make it work well. Look at Angry Birds, that has an excellent example of IAP in the Mighty Eagle. It doesn’t affect people who don’t purchase it, it does serve as a shortcut but also functions as an entirely new way of playing through the game. Now look at Let’s Golf 3, which requires you to pay money to play after you’ve used up your ‘power’ which equates to playing a few holes a day. This is currently seen as a very negative thing, so the reaction has naturally been pretty critical This is a shame because Let’s Golf is a pretty decent traditional videogame experience that people in the past have liked and this may have turned off their audience. I don’t know their figures but I’d say that’s a pretty poor example of IAP. There are many poor examples of IAP out there, although it is interesting that paying for credits to play mobile games in Japan has been pretty popular, perhaps it has more of a link with playing arcade games?

Why you suck:

By dismissing all forms of IAP you are potentially taking away opportunities for your players to express their pleasure with and allegiance to the game and refusing to provide something that may be wanted and even expected by your audience. It’s up to you as a game designer and maker to judge how you’ll monetise your game and what you’ll offer. The chance of releasing something and hoping to make money purely from sales at the base price point are getting smaller. I think there will be a market for the slightly more expensive, higher quality ‘purer’ type game on iOS (look at Kairosoft and Cave games). Selling a game at 69p/79c/99c makes it very difficult for you to make money in a crowded marketplace. Allowing your audience to give you more money in return for stuff they want is important. It’s about pitching your proposition just right so that there’s a mutual understanding where your players see your IAP as fair (ideally great value and highly appealing) rather than a poor value, forced or underhand purchase. That has to be done with a good understanding of your own game and the people buying it.

I prefer the term ‘videogame auteur’

I don’t think small indies are finding it hard to make money because Skinner boxes are ‘stealing their lootz’, I think it’s because there is a combination of tough to penetrate, crowded market, inability to deal with and understand monetising their game through other methods than one time purchase, insular thinking regarding games and the game market in general and a misunderstanding of what the role of indie games developer is. You need to be an entrepreneur, not just a craftsman. If you aren’t prepared to accept the business reality and prefer to imagine that if you build something special enough the somehow people will come and you’ll get lots of money and adulation and critical acclaim then you’re probably going to struggle and you are minimising your chances of success. You are a chef that has created the most fantastic dish, but insists that people travel down a long country road for miles and miles in order to experience it. This kind of approach does occasionally work and is romanticised when it is, but it does require a great deal of good fortune, not to mention the walk to back up the talk. If you’re making or intending to make a living from indie games then it’s up to you how much you choose to leave in the lap of lady luck. There are already quite a few factors out of your control.

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