(continued from previous post)Pricing
The most controversial aspect of Cogmind's alpha launch was the price. Charging for a traditional roguelike is already against the norm, much less launching an alpha at $30. However, the backlash was far
less severe than I expected, with complaints in the minority and even individuals outside the regular fan base coming to my defense.
A humorous comment in response to the alpha trailer serves as a backdrop for a discussion on roguelike pricing: "Why is this not unfairly cheap like all other roguelikes?
The roguelike community has long enjoyed the availability of sprawling highly replayable games with deep gameplay, all free of charge. These great games can be free because they're developed as hobby projects which can take as long as they need to reach maturity, while also having lighter asset requirements than most games.
Cogmind takes a different approach, reaching for a level of audiovisual polish never before seen in a traditional ASCII roguelike, at the same time shortening the "epic roguelike" development cycle from 6~10 years to "only" 3 years. Developing a quality game within a reasonable time frame requires a significant investment, one that members of an underserved niche community are apparently more than happy to support when a developer finally comes along to make the leap.
Thus it wasn't too surprising when a lot
of roguelike fans expressed their confidence in the value of Cogmind. Some examples:
- "Cogmind is the most beautiful and dynamic ASCII roguelike I have ever seen." --jason0320
- "I honestly believe this is one of the most fantastic games of any genre I have ever played." --biomatter
- "It's like seeing Doom the first time when everyone was stuck with Wolfenstein at best." --HRose
But among the dissenting voices I heard the comment "Only fanatics would pay a price like that." Fortunately...
Always know your target market demographics
In a genre traditionally dominated by free games, one would naturally question the wisdom of selling a roguelike at a premium, even a high-quality one. However, roguelike fans have formed a healthy tight-knit community, one that is all too happy to see the genre expanded with modern games which still lean heavily on traditional elements. Not long after Cogmind's launch, another roguelike developer on Reddit (/u/chiguireitor) posted a poll to the core roguelike players community there (/r/roguelikes), and among the questions was one regarding payment. The results are enlightening:
Payment tendencies among the roguelike community.
We can't know the reasoning behind the "already did" buyers, since they could fall into either the "reluctant" or "supportive" categories, but taken together there is a respectable portion of the community willing to pay for a good roguelike. In any case, this partially
explains the strong initial support for Cogmind despite the preponderance of free roguelikes.
Still, it's important to examine why
I chose the price that I did at this stage.
First of all, I had originally considered a Kickstarter campaign, but it was both logistically problematic (not available in my country) and for Cogmind in particular I don't like the common types of backer rewards that either give up some element of creative freedom by allowing backers to decide game content itself, or provide extras that drain time and resources which could otherwise be devoted to game development.
While I didn't take that route, Cogmind's alpha release was still built around a crowdfunding model for which there is a precedent that alpha access costs around $20~30 in exchange for some additional perks beyond what future purchasers will receive. (In this case mostly taking the form of in-game credit.)
games are also often priced in this range, and I believe Cogmind to be the epitome of both quality and niche. Certainly the price could start lower if the game appealed to a broader audience, but it's not the type of game that is likely to achieve broad popularity, nor does it strive to do that.
Games must be priced for their market, not some general "okay indie games average about $10 right now so this should be $10, too." Take a game like RimWorld, for example--a unique high-quality indie game that can afford to set a base price of $30 because no other game can offer the same experience.
Secondly, even if from an economic perspective we assume that a somewhat lower introductory price would result in greater total revenue (which at the right price point it almost certainly would), is that what we want right now, during alpha? Nope.
While the ultimate goal is to recover the full financial investment in Cogmind's development, and hopefully even generate profit that can be reinvested into future games, the current stage is more about interacting with the core community for whom the game is designed, not those who buy discounted games on a whim and may or may not ever even play them, or maybe play for a little while and probably complain that "it's too hard" (in the case of Cogmind, a punishing traditional roguelike) then give up, never to play again.
For the alpha I want quality players who are familiar with where Cogmind is coming from, who really care about Cogmind, or who've at least taken some time to educate themselves about the game given the wealth of information available online. Higher prices generally lead buyers to make an informed decision, and informed buyers are more often happy players.
Players who pay more are also much more likely to dig deeper into a game to discover what it has to offer, and like the roguelike classics before it Cogmind is a rewarding game to delve into...
In a general sense, when pricing a game with a fairly long open development cycle and plenty of room to grow, it makes sense to start at the higher end of what is acceptable to the target audience (assuming the initial state is a game already worth the price to that audience!). You can always lower the price over time, but raising it won't go over nearly as well.
During the alpha access campaign, because a number of visitors to the website are undoubtedly interested in Cogmind but turned off by the current price, they have the option to leave their email address instead. Prominently displaying this sign-up information on the Buy page both lets these potential players know Cogmind will be available for less next year and gives me a way to notify them when that happens--everyone wins! This was an excellent suggestion received shortly after launch, exemplifying another benefit of getting out there and engaging the potential audience and acting on their feedback where it makes sense.
My decisions here were all based on an analysis of current market conditions, my own objectives, and most importantly the characteristics of the game I'm selling. Every game must find its own price reasoning based on numerous relevant factors. Overall it took a couple months to settle on a model, and this after more than a year of observing the performance of other games.Tiers
Another obvious influence from the KS crowdfunding model is the idea of multiple "tiers."
Cogmind Alpha Access Tiers
I didn't originally plan on having tiers, but prior to launch some fans expressed a desire to buy multiple copies which they could then gift to others, and naturally they'd appreciate a discount. So I decided to add a couple extra tiers, also throwing in a shirt I'd designed at the highest tier. (At first I intended to offer the t-shirt with a copy of the game for an extra fee, but the payment processor said I couldn't sell physical products that didn't ship immediately, so I got creative and instead made it a "free bonus" at the highest tier.)
The package tier approach turned out to have some unexpected benefits.
Some players not interested enough to support Cogmind at the $30 alpha price saw the buy-three-for-the-price-of-two intermediate tier as a way to get alpha access at 33% off--all they needed was to find two other buyers. Many of these groups formed organically via their forum/social media of choice, i.e. free marketing. (Even as I write this post, two separate individuals on Twitter are introducing the game to their followers and asking if anyone wants to join them.)Alpha?
Part of the problem with Cogmind's introductory price is that I call it an early access "alpha," eliciting understandable knee-jerk reactions of "Alpha =/= $30."
Fortunately long-time followers are well aware of the years of open development behind the game already, and know it to be far more complete than what might normally be dubbed an alpha.
At launch Cogmind could easily have been considered a beta release, but then I don't want players to judge it as nearing completion because the goal is much more epic. In roguelike tradition there's plenty of game to enjoy already, and it's fun with an extremely low bug-to-content ratio, but development will continue for up to a year.
At the same time, while I will always stay true to my vision for Cogmind, there's no doubt that current players will help define some aspects of the final game, either directly or indirectly, and that, too, is meaningful and valuable to them as early access participants.Performance
Given the somewhat controversial price and low external exposure, the most important question is: Did it work? The answer is yes
, so far.
I remember thinking before launch... okay, we currently have about 650 items that can be claimed via the alpha access campaign tiers--I'll be happy if those trickle away throughout the remainder of alpha development.
Gone in a week and a half.
I was pretty shocked. It's an "alpha," after all, and my first commercial release.
Impressive, but taking a serious look at the numbers we still have quite a ways to go. Since picking up the Cogmind prototype in June 2013, I've invested approximately $43k USD into development (all costs included). After taxes and fees about half of that has been recovered so far, and now we already find ourselves heading into the infamous long tail
, which will likely (hopefully) transform into the stegosaurus tail
at some point, especially once we reach 1.0 with a much bigger launch and broader marketing effort.
The good news is, thanks to generous alpha supporters I'm confident we can expand the total budget and reinvest this initial sum to realize the best version of my complete vision for Cogmind! A huge thanks to everyone who's made this possible :D.
Cogmind's recalculated total budget from zero to 1.0 now lies somewhere around $70k. We'll see how accurate that is next year...
In summary, is this performance good for an indie traditional roguelike? Hell yeah!
Is it a lot of money? Well, no
. It's a pittance for two years of full-time work--a regular day job would blow this away, but there is hope and it's rewarding to (for now) be able to continue creating something that myself and others love! Let's hope this becomes a sustainable trend. Traditional roguelikes require so much work that I don't know how smart it is to do this as a commercial endeavor, but at least the result is a high-quality game that can be delivered in a relatively
Now let's look at a few graphs.
Cogmind Alpha Launch Sales Data, Month 1.
For the alpha launch, since there were two primary sources of buyers as discussed earlier, we're in an interesting position to compare the reaction to the game between the core audience (long-time fans and roguelike enthusiasts) vs. a general indie PC audience (RPS etc.).
Notice the sales peaks are reversed compared to the trailer/website peaks.
The first spike is an immediate rush by fans to get Cogmind on day one. Yay! Conversion rates are impressive here, but don't mean much there when you have a pool of people waiting to watch the trailer and jump on the website solely to buy the game. Incredibly steep slopes on that first sales spike reflect the fact that it was mostly composed of dedicated followers. Cogmind wasn't even announced anywhere else in those first few days.
Then RPS published their announcement (and a few smaller sites naturally pick up the news from there), followed by another surge in sales, surprising considering a large portion of RPS readers had never heard of Cogmind or were not necessarily interested in traditional roguelikes. Judging based purely on the first two days of sales from each source, the ratio of buys by RPS readers visiting the site and/or watching the trailer was nearly half that of the core fans, despite the high price. This bodes well for when Cogmind is completed and launched on a larger scale.Note: More stats specific to trailer views can be seen in the trailer post-mortem.In Retrospect...
Every post-mortem needs a section like this. The old "What would I do differently?"
Here I'm happy to say almost nothing
Certainly I would want a more clearly designed Buy page, kinda like what it started out as on day one, instead of the hodgepodge of notices and even flashing text (yep, I went that far) that it became after days of tweaks to address different issues.
I would've also liked to have that "email notification sign-up" ready from day one as well--adding it only after a day or so missed the initial surge of visitors, some of whom would've signed up. At least I know that most of those visitors are roguelike community regulars, so they'll probably hear about Cogmind through regular channels, anyway.
Unrealistically, releasing six months to a year earlier would've been nicer since the advent of VAT in 2015 had a pretty huge effect on prices for European players--there would've been more, and they would've been happier, if the high price wasn't pushed yet higher by such a massive tax rate.
All said I think the launch went really well, and the main reason for that is everything was planned out well in advance. It was hectic, but only in terms of there always being more to do than I had time for, so I repeatedly adjusted my TODO list as necessary to make sure any high-priority items were taken care of. I lived with that list in my face for two weeks, and interestingly, some things I'd planned to do "later on launch day" were literally pushed back more than a week as more pressing issues were inserted.
Anyway, the point is make a list, frequently skim it to ensure it's prioritized, and knock things off the top one by one.The Future of Cogmind
Having successfully transitioned from private development to a public launch with an engaged and satisfied community, it's time to look towards the real beta/1.0. Up to a year of additional work will yield the full story and cast of NPCs, many more maps and some new parts and mechanics, more ambient sound effects, music... While I could crank out 1.0 by the end of the year on my own, having an active community in the foreground will slow that down a bit, and the final version will be better for it. No sense in rushing it as long as we have steady progress and (generally) a new release every month.
In terms of the business plan, while I aim to eventually put Cogmind on Steam for access to a broader market, that time is not now. Aside from that being a different audience for which the game is not quite ready, financially speaking it's nice to start off with as many direct sales as possible so that most of the funding makes it to me--money that can go into development rather than fattening the coffers at some corporation. Think of the money that would have been lost from those charts above (and all the sales since) if I'd started out in Steam. Yes volume will more than make up for it, but that's for a later time. In related news, five weeks after launch GOG contacted me about releasing through them... No rush, but it's nice to be recognized.
I hope you enjoyed this bit of inside data. Expect another post-mortem with many more figures and comparative analysis after we launch 1.0. Since the beginning of development I've also been collecting detailed time management stats that will explain where I've allocated that most valuable of resources, but that's for a separate future analysis.