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Numbers from Week 1
by jasonrohrerTuesday, February 4, 2014 [7:11 pm]

Today is the last day of the 25% launch-week discount for The Castle Doctrine. As I explained elsewhere, the game will never go on sale again, after today.

This plan (where the price rises slowly over time instead of starting high and getting deeply discounted later) was widely discussed. For people who might want to buy the game, there are no surprises on the horizon. Amazingly, the Steam Store page even has a live counter going. It looks like the launch discount will end at precisely 9:45am PST on Wednesday, February 5.

http://thecastledoctrine.net/newsImages/numbersWeek1/ticker.png


And thinking about surprises and gotchas, such a counter clearly wouldn't be displayed in the hours before an upcoming sale. "Just 24 hours left until the discount price kicks in!" Can you imagine that? I feel much better about the kind of openness that rising prices allow. And I didn't even have to ask Valve to open up---they put that counter in place automatically.

Speaking of openness, I figured today was a good day to share the full numbers from not just the first week on Steam, but also from the full 11 months of paid alpha sales too. So, first of all, how did the game do outside of Steam, through my own website? First, the big picture. This graph shows all off-Steam sales ever, for a grand total of 8,919 accounts sold, and a gross revenue of $73,077:

http://thecastledoctrine.net/newsImages/numbersWeek1/offSteamFullGraph.png


Okay, so there are three big spikes in that graph. First, back in March, there was the biggest off-Steam sales day ever. That was the day that I launched my paid alpha. In July, you can see a small spike when I released a trailer for the game. There's also quite a lot of turbulence in the graph around that time, because there was quite a lot of turbulence in the video game world about the game's themes, my personal stances, and so on.

The last two big spikes come right at the end, less than a week before launch. The first one, highlighted above on Thursday, was the day that the STEAL REAL MONEY Contest was announced. The next one, after that, is the day of my launch, as people exercised their last chance to get the game at 50% off. Here's a close look at that end period in the graph. During these three weeks alone, 3,841 accounts were sold for a gross revenue of $32,576:

http://thecastledoctrine.net/newsImages/numbersWeek1/offSteamThreeWeekGraph.png


The first small spike in this graph comes from the announcement of my alternative pricing scheme and all the controversy that swirled around that plan. Then comes the contest spike, which was already labeled in the previous graph. Finally, launch day, which was the third-biggest off-Steam sales day in Castle Doctrine history. Clearly, "the price is going to rise soon" drives sales in the same way that "the price just dropped" can, but with none of the nasty side-effects.

Those pretty graphs are screen grabs directly from FastSpring, which has the best data backend for tracking this kind of stuff that I've ever seen. And, since they let me keep 91.1% of the money, my net through them so far as been $66,573. That's pretty good for an off-Steam game made by one person with a $0 PR budget.

Okay so on to Steam. Of course, only a week has passed, so there's much less data to share. This graph shows a total of 6,546 accounts sold for a gross revenue of $78,562:

http://thecastledoctrine.net/newsImages/numbersWeek1/steamHourlyGraph.png


The biggest spike occurred on the first hour after launch, with another smaller spike around the same time the following day. This graph shows the daily totals:

http://thecastledoctrine.net/newsImages/numbersWeek1/steamDailyGraph.png


After a sharp drop in the first two days, which brought in over $50,000 total, the descent has started to slow. The last available data point came from yesterday, when 342 accounts were sold for $4,107.

And, of course, I get to keep only 70% of this money, so my net so far from Steam is $54,993. Thus, between my own website and Steam, I've sold a total of 15,465 accounts for a net revenue of $121,566.

This might sound like a lot of money, but this is revenue from a project that took two full years to make. While $60K a year is way more than I could make doing a lot of things, it's probably way less than I would make as a programmer in the game industry. On the other hand, I only work half time (except during launch week!), eat three meals a day with my spouse and three children, and answer to no one.

Here, I've made an absolutely crazy, experimental game that is way off the beaten path for almost everyone who plays it---by far the most "out there" game that I've ever worked on---and it's not a commercial failure that will send me scrambling for a real job.

Well, success and failure are relative, of course. If I had a company of five other collaborators to support on this revenue, I'd be in serious trouble.

The full, eternal price of $16 will kick in tomorrow morning. Gasp! What will happen? Will I be crushed under the cruel black boot of the market and fade into obscurity as a result?

Stay tuned for next week's numbers to find out.


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Responding to the Sale Debate
by jasonrohrerFriday, January 17, 2014 [3:48 pm]

Hey folks! As you can imagine, the response to this article, both positive and negative, has been enormous and beyond my wildest expectations. I'm having a bit of trouble keeping up with all of it.

You've all posted some very thoughtful things here and elsewhere, and I'd love to respond to each one of you. But, given that I'm in my last 12 days before launch and that I'm a one-person show, I simply don't have the time to do that right now.

To summarize a bit of a response: what I'm proposing DOES clearly fly in the face of psychology. Marketers have used psychological tricks over the years to convince loads of people to spend money on things that they don't actually want or need. "SALE!" is a big part of that psychological bag of tricks.

If you go to Hollywood, you'll find the "$10 store, where everything is on sale for 50% today for $5." But if you return next week, next month, or next year, you'll find that the same sale is still happening. And you'll notice that the signs they are holding look a bit worn out. Still, some people are tricked by this and go into that store, thinking they are getting a deal.

It WORKS. I get it.

But I want no part of it. I don't want to trick anyone, not a single person, into buying my game when they really don't want it, at any price. I don't want a SINGLE person to pay for my game and not play it.

Yesterday, because of all this buzz, 142 people bought my game. Guess how many new people played the game yesterday? About 140.

These are people who heard about the game, watched the trailer, and said, "Yeah, that looks like a game I really want to play." Those are the people that I want spending money on my game.

I know that my game is not for everyone. It's weird and hard and disturbing. I have absolutely NO disdain for the people who don't like my game or aren't excited about it when they hear about it or watch the trailer. But I really want those people to save their money for other things and NOT waste it on my game, at any price.


All that said, the economic argument against rampant sales is stronger than many people claim for one simple reason: near the bottom, there IS a crossover point where you stop making more money if you keep increasing the discounts. The existence proof of that point is simple: if you put your game on sale for a 100% discount, you will make $0. What about a 99% discount? Or 95%? Where is the crossover point? It lies somewhere between a 0% discount and a 100% discount.

The only way to know for sure is to A/B test prices simultaneously, without your audience being aware that you're doing that. And as far as I'm aware, no one has done that (and I don't want to do it). So, we have no idea where the crossover point is, though we are clearly locked into a race to the bottom, as discounts get bigger and bigger, and sales become more frequent.

WHICH MEANS THAT:

We may already be beneath the crossover point without realizing it.


At the end of the day (or year, in this case), I will have my sales data. But sadly, it will tell me nothing. Would I have made more or less money if I had put my game on sale?

Even during the alpha test, I have no idea: did I gain or lose money by giving a 50% discount during that period?

But that's not the point. Giving a discount was the right thing to do, because I'm a one-person team, and it took me 10 months and 30 revisions to work through all of the issues that arose in the community. It was only fair to give people a price break in exchange for them putting up with that process. If I cut my revenue in half by doing the right thing, so be it.


Read the original article

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Why Rampant Sales are Bad for Players
by jasonrohrerWednesday, January 15, 2014 [7:09 pm]

First, a bit of news: the Castle Doctrine has a confirmed Steam release date of January 29, 2014. The alpha will end at that point, along with the 50% discount.

Over the years that I've worked on this game, I've done a lot of thinking about game pricing. I've been inspired by the way Minecraft pricing worked. Essentially, the price just kept rising over time.

Of course, this flies in the face of the modern trends, from the race to the bottom in app stores, to the back-to-back Steam sales, to the super-lucrative bundles. Games generally start out expensive at release time, then get cheaper when they go on sale, and eventually become effectively free when they are put in a name-your-price bundle.

And I totally get it. As a Steam developer, I've made much of my Inside a Star-filled Sky money during Steam sales. Sure, I made 25% of my lifetime Steam revenue during my launch week, but I made an additional 10% during my first sale, which happened only a few weeks after my launch. After that initial taste of extra, no-effort money, I participated in sale after sale. I was hooked. In the long tail, my daily revenue dwindled down to almost nothing, except during the sales, when there would be another big spike. I mean, making $3K over a few days, and a full year after launch? Hard to resist.

http://thecastledoctrine.net/newsImages/cultureOfSales/skyGraph.png

(As you can see in this graph, in 2013, I stopped participating in Steam sales. Oops!)

In 2009, Steam had its first big sale. I'm guessing that they were blown away by how much money they made, because they followed that sale with three more sales the next year. These days, they have 5 gigantic sales each year, which means that a sale is pretty much always just around the corner. And even better, in between the sales, there are publisher sales and weekend sales and deals-of-the-day and so on. Something is always on sale.

On its face, this seems like an obvious win for game developers: they get to revive their dwindling long-tail numbers with a big revenue boost, and a sale will bring more latecomer players into their games too. This also seems like a win for players: people who can't afford to buy a game at full price get a chance to play it later, for cheaper. The audience grows, and more people get to experience the game. Good stuff.

But I suspect that something different is happening. Something that is arguably bad for players, and possibly bad for developers as well.

To put it bluntly: sales screw your fans.

Your fans love your games and eagerly await your next release. They want to get your game as soon as it comes out, at full price. But they are foolish to do that, because a sale is right around the corner. Even in economic terms, the extra utility of playing the game early, at release, is not big enough to offset the extra cost for most people . It makes more sense to wait, unless they love you and your work so much that they're willing to throw economic reason out the window. It's nice to have fans that love your work that much. And these are the fans that you kick in the teeth when you put your game on sale.

But forget the fans for a moment. A culture of rampant sales is a culture of waiting. "I'll buy it later, during a sale." Launch weeks become weak, and developers grow to depend on sales for financial survival. Even in my example from above, 25% is a pretty sad launch week. In my case, that represented something like $23K. I made more selling the game through my own website. Pathetic. Of course, sale after sale, later on, pumped my revenue up to way more than what I made on my website.

This waiting game is likely decimating your player base and critical mass at launch by spreading new players out over time. And your fans, who are silly enough to buy the game at launch and waste money, get to participate in a weaker, smaller player community.

Finally, there's the possibility that the culture of sales actually reduces developer revenue over the long term. If just half of the players who buy the game during a 50%-off sale would have bought the game at full price if that was their only option, we'd already have a wash. What fraction of sale-waiting players fall into this category? I suspect way more than half. The picture gets even worse for 75%-off sales.

To balance this out, we would need a whole lot of people who will buy random games just because they are on sale---games that they had no intention of buying otherwise. Maybe there are enough of these people, and I've certainly met some of them: people who have a backlog of 50 unplayed games in their Steam library. Maybe they'll never play them. But even if there are enough people doing this, it's not a good thing. It's just people being tricked into wasting money on stuff they don't want or need. Better that they spent that money on one full-price game that they really want rather than four 75%-off impulse buys to add to their backlog.

http://thecastledoctrine.net/newsImages/cultureOfSales/hugeBacklog.png

All that said, I get why a culture of sales has blossomed, and I also get that it's impossible to escape from it now. To Valve's credit, they never force developers to put their games on sale. Of course, when most developers are putting their games on sale, it becomes harder for the remaining developers to make sufficient revenue without joining the sales, which means even more developers will put their game on sale, which means that players will know that pretty much every game will be available at a deep discount sooner or later, which means that more players avoid buying games at full price, and so on.

And to be fair, selling older games at a deep discount isn't something that modern developers invented. It's in our blood from way back:

http://thecastledoctrine.net/newsImages/cultureOfSales/bargainBin.jpg

But a bargain rack for physical retail makes perfect sense and is actually pretty great for everyone. Shelf space is limited, as are the number of available copies of a given game, and retailers need to eventually liquidate old games to make room for new ones. But the temptation for players to wait until it's on sale is weaker, because there's a good chance that an awesome game will sell out before it ever hits the bin. Just try finding a copy of Rez, Ico, or Rock Band 3 in the bargain bin. Some games even sell used for more than their original retail price. Other old games are almost impossible to find.

When we're talking about digital games, the potential full-price lifetime is pretty much eternal. There is no shelf space. Even the long tail isn't a hard-and-fast rule anymore. As the game's audience grows, revenue can actually climb over time, sometimes even making launch week look like an insignificant blip. Consider Gary's Mod, which has been selling steadily, at an increasing rate, for seven years:

http://thecastledoctrine.net/newsImages/cultureOfSales/growingSales.png

Yes, there are some big, thin spikes there during the sales, but they are insignificant compared to the day-to-day full price volume. And how much thicker would that daily volume be if players weren't waiting for sales?

Okay, but what are the alternatives? More importantly, how am I going to price The Castle Doctrine? If you buy it at launch, are you going to be screwed a few weeks later by a sale? Am I going to make you wish that you waited?

Let's consider the implications of the Minecraft pricing model. What if, instead of inevitable sales as a game ages, the price rises over time instead?

For the fans, this is a great thing, because their die hard fanhood is rewarded with a lower price, almost like a secret deal for those who knew about the game before anyone else. When the price goes up later, they feel smart. Most importantly, they don't feel torn between supporting their favorite developer at launch and saving money. They can do both.

For people who find out about the game later, after the price has gone up a bit, they may regret not buying the game before the increase (a lesson learned for next time), but they can still feel smart buying the game now, before it goes up again.

For the people who buy the game the latest, after the final, permanent price has been reached, they had the chance to wait to hear more about the game before buying. They had less to lose at that point, because the game has been vetted and the community established.

But in general, people who missed lower prices in the past may not even be aware of what they missed. They come to buy the game now, and see the current price now. On the other hand, when your game goes on sale later, everyone who bought it at full price remembers what they paid and feels the sting. Being unaware of what you're missing has a different psychological impact than having what you missed thrown right in your face.

Indeed, people gripe openly when they buy a game only to see it discounted next week. They even email developers and ask for refunds. Who complained when the price of Minecraft went up?

No one, because the Minecraft pricing model also permits total openness about future pricing plans. You can safely announce, "The price will go up next week. This is the last week to get the lower price." This will create a huge revenue spike as people race to get the game---no problem there.

However, if you're planning to put the game on sale next week, you can't announce it, because you will cannibalize this week's full-price revenues. Even worse, people who would decide to wait upon news of a forthcoming sale may forget to come back and buy the game later. They're at your website now, and you can't afford to scare them away now. So, you have to keep the forthcoming sale secret. You have to surprise people. And burn people. The worst case here is pretty awful: the sorry person who buys the game one minute before the surprise sale price kicks in. You're going to get an email from that person.

So, the rising price model is really just an inversion of the sales model. You get revenue spikes later in the life of the game, right before announced price hikes, which are very similar to the spikes induced by putting a game on sale. But there are no surprises, so no one feels screwed by the process.


In the case of The Castle Doctrine, the "ever rising" price model was a perfect fit for other reasons. As a massively-multiplayer server-based game, it required extensive testing before launch. I could reward those early testers with the biggest discount. Also, as a server-based game, each additional "copy" sold is not without cost to me: it's one more player logging into the server, and potentially one more player who will need tech support during an outage. I can't just pepper the ground with cheap or free download codes, because download codes are actually lifetime accounts.

So, here's how it is going to work:

The final price of the game will be $16. During alpha testing, up through launch, the game has a 50% discount for $8. During launch week, the game will have a 25% discount for $12. After launch week, the game will rise to full price.

http://thecastledoctrine.net/newsImages/cultureOfSales/pricePlan.png

In other words, this is the last two weeks to get the game at 50% off (ending January 28). If you want to wait until launch on Steam, you can get it for 25% off if you buy it during the first week (ending February 4). Otherwise, the game will be full price at $16 forever after that.

Anyone feel burned by that plan?



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Version 29 Released
by jasonrohrerTuesday, January 14, 2014 [9:23 pm]

This release further improves the visibility shroud. It also contains loads of little fixes that improve honor-system security between the client and the server and also thwart various potentially harmful player behaviors.

The biggest visible change in this release is the addition of a 10-minute maximum timer for each robbery. You can no longer monopolize a house for hours by robbing it slowly.

A full list of changes can be found here:

The Castle Doctrine Change Log



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Version 28 Released
by jasonrohrerThursday, January 2, 2014 [9:24 pm]

This release further refines the new visibility system in the game, correcting various visual inconsistencies that arose when non-visible objects are not drawn.

A Sell All button has also been added to the backpack screen.

A full list of changes can be found here:

The Castle Doctrine Change Log



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Version 26 Released
by jasonrohrerWednesday, December 25, 2013 [8:32 pm]

This release improves the visibility code in the game to make non-visible objects under the shroud truly not visible on the screen. In previous versions, objects under the edge of the shroud could be vaguely seen (and with the help of a boosted monitor gamma setting, they could be clearly seen). Now non-visible objects are not drawn at all. The upshot is that a single-thickness wall is now sufficient for visually hiding other objects.

A full list of changes can be found here:

The Castle Doctrine Change Log



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Version 22 Released
by jasonrohrerThursday, October 31, 2013 [7:39 pm]

This release focuses on closing a few resource-gathering loopholes that could be exploited by using multiple accounts. A few bugs have also been fixed, and the reach of the gun and throwable items has been shortened.

A full list of changes can be found here:

The Castle Doctrine Change Log



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Version 25 Released
by jasonrohrerWednesday, November 27, 2013 [8:48 pm]

When I sent out a call for a final round of alpha testing, over 600 of you came through and hammered on the game. You found a slew of tiny issues that no one had noticed before. Thanks to all of you for your hard work in reporting all of this stuff.

I spent the last two weeks fixing all of these. The result is version 25.

A full list of changes can be found here:

The Castle Doctrine Change Log



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Version 21 Released
by jasonrohrerTuesday, October 22, 2013 [7:31 pm]

This release fixes a bug in family movement being triggered as the view shifts near the edge of the screen. A glitch in name text overhanging the house picking list has also been fixed.



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Version 20 Released
by jasonrohrerFriday, October 18, 2013 [6:35 pm]

There are two big changes in version 20.

First, the introduction of a panic button that allows family members to switch on circuits as they run out of the house. This one little object pretty much changes everything in terms of house design and the family. The panic button, along with animals and shotguns, is one of the only objects that doesn't block their exit path.

Second, animal movement has reverted back to the way it was in version 15: animals remain in place until they see you, but then they attempt to direct-line follow or flee you forever after seeing you once.

Lots of other little fixes and tweaks, of course. A full list of changes can be found here:

The Castle Doctrine Change Log



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