If someone asked me whether or not they should sell their game in a bundle, I would be inclined to tell them not to. This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been a hypocrite: as we speak, indiegamestand.com has my newest game “Unfinished – An Artist’s Lament” in a PWYW deal until September 17, 2015. This is only about 40 days after its release on Steam. All the same, I probably won’t include “Unfinished” in any other game bundles like I did with “Drew and the Floating Labyrinth,” and here’s my reasoning why.
In general, putting your game in a bundle can be bad for customers who have bought your game early. They trusted you and gave you support. How are they supposed to feel when you offer later-comers a better deal weeks or months after they do? Buyers remorse stings like that, and doing it so soon after release isn’t a good sign.
To tackle this, the best advice I can think of is to steal what Steve Harvey tells women for relationships: wait 90 days. This arbitrary rule is just about right. Wait 90 days before allowing your game to be available anywhere and anyway for under 50% its asking price. This includes store sales, bundle deals, promotional and coupon offers. If you can wait that long, you show good faith to anyone who purchased your game before then. It makes your game seem worth the value.
Of course, indie game developers can’t afford this luxury most of the time. Most of them rely on these sales just to get the attention required to be on Steam. Even then, not all make the profit you would think. Extreme sales are sometimes the only way to break even. If you made a game that didn’t sell a single copy in its first week, would you panic? Would you want to put it on sale quicker?
That was the case with my first game. I literally did not sell a single copy at first. When the opportunity came to put it in a bundle, I gave it a try, and my game was included days after its release. It was included in other bundles and sales ever since. This and only this accounts for me being accepted through Steam Greenlight, and even including Steam, I would not have broken even if not for those bundles. If I hadn’t used them, I’d still be stuck with only a handful of copies sold.
Of course, that made the game I set at $7.99 easily bought many times at under $0.50. I’ve since reduced the retail price for “Drew” to $4.99. I know sales on Steam have suffered for it.
Even more than that, the reviews suffered. My games are full of problems and can be much better given more time and resources, but they are unique and special to a very specific type of audience. The average gamer would hate my games. I don’t personally know anyone who would honestly enjoy playing them, fans of Mario, Call of Duty or League of Legends probably won’t like what I make even if they were polished enough to bleed. I make games that I think are unique and fit what I want to see, not what others want. When gamers randomly find my game in their library of hundreds of titles from past bundles, they probably won’t like it. But had they been looking forward to it, made the conscious decision to purchase it, they probably know better what to expect and can appreciate it better. That’s why, even several months later when no new purchases have been made, bad reviews continue to pop up saying the game just isn’t fun. Of all the problems “Drew” has, I stand by the design behind it, and believe it to be a fun and challenging puzzle game.
“Unfinished” only further proves that reviews do stand to suffer. Yes, refunds are now allowed, but “Unfinished” also had the luck to not be in any bundles before being accepted into Steam. And the reviews are unusually kind. Anyone who looks at the Steam store page will get a different sense when looking at it because of this. And sales are ok, too. Without bundles, I’m on track to break-even on this game by the end of the year.
And yet, “Unfinished” is now on indiegamestand’s PWYW deal. Why? I feel a little comfort that I’ll most certainly make the remaining money I need to break even paid out by the end of next month, which fits with my schedule better. “Unfinished” is only a $5 game, so this deal is only a little less than half the retail price and does not feel as bad a deal to early buyers (the current average price is approximately $1.85, about the same I’d price it in a sale anyway). Mostly, I noticed that indiegamestand seems to be having trouble recruiting games to sign up for this deal, much more than they did only a year ago. I still like them as a Steam alternative for indie developers, and this deal is a great way to feature specific individual titles and see their appeal when offered on a (almost) free sample platter instead of a unknown side-dish in a larger meal.
I think I know I featured the game on this deal too soon, I should have waited at least another couple months. The excuses I just listed are stupid. I can say with some certainty that I do not plan to be in bundles with other games anywhere else, if it weren’t for indiegamestand’s featuring one game at a time, I might not have done it at all. Any further sales will be normal discounts on Steam’s page. With this, I’ve made back my money anyway, I can rest a little easier, any extra money made is just a tip jar for the next one.
(Maybe I’m being too hard on indie bundles… I have a couple emails from people who discovered my first game through bundles, who were pleasantly surprised enough to take the time to contact me. It’s hard to get attention for indie developers, and it’s hard to support the many indie artists as consumers with limited income, if bundles can make it a little easier on both parties, maybe they aren’t so bad.)