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April 14th, 2009, 19:37
A friend (and former employer) of mine developed a humorous 'space station tycoon' style game called Outpost Kaloki. When they finally got a major portal to pick it up, they were thrilled. First one major portal picked it up, and then several did. These guys were jubilant.

And then their royalty checks started coming in. They were devastated. The sales were something like an order of magnitude below their conservative estimates. They almost abandoned the whole idea of indie game development altogether.

Fortunately, the story ended happily, as they managed to show the game to the Microsoft team in charge of rolling out the XBox Live Arcade for the XBox 360, which was due out in a year. Since they were a launch title, and the game kicked butt, they did well with the revamped XBox 360 version. But sales of the PC games - even through the major portals - remained much worse than merely disappointing.

Getting onto a portal *can* make a huge difference for certain kinds of games. I can speak from both first-hand and second-hand experience, however, that it's no guarantee of success. If you can get into the top ten on a few choice portals and STAY there for a while, you will probably find it well worth the 65%+ commissions that the portals take. They have spent years (and lots of money) building their audience and marketing system, so there is great potential there.

But the majority of games appear, enjoy dozens or hundreds of initial sales the first week, and then fade into obscurity after that. If you have a game that doesn't align very well with the portal's audience, you can do better sales from your own site (if you put some real effort into marketing).

I think that this might be part of the reason Vogel isn't selling his more recent games via the portals - he can probably do better on his own. He's not the only one. And developers have told me that they've had games that have sold a ton on one portal, but barely register a pulse on another.

As far as breaking your content out into chunks: Good in theory, and it's definitely being tried with some success (see Penny Arcade Adventures, Sam & Max, etc.). But it's had its failures, too. If try and pursue an episodic format, you really have to build your game AND your business around that idea. You can't just divide a game into pieces arbitrarily and expect any reasonable results.

One other option that isn't pursued too frequently in the indie space is a tiered pricing scheme - where you offer a scaled-down version at a budget price, a medium-scaled version at a reasonable price, and an upscale enthusiast version for a premium price. I know of one developer who has done just that - Hanako Games' Cute Knight / Cute Knight Deluxe - where she offered the deluxe version from her own and affiliate websites, with only the original version selling on the portals. There have been a few other efforts at having a "collector's edition" for indie games, or offering soundtracks of the music, or whatnot….

So it's been tried, just not really fully explored.

The bottom line is that it's never as simple as it first appears. I don't think Vogel has the ultimate answer, nor do I imagine he'd claim he does. But I believe the portals are really pushing towards commoditized, disposable games - and that's part of why they are pushing the new, lower price points. They also push the one-hour demo size… because that's what works for the majority of the games that they sell, and they are really going for a "one size fits all" experience.

As a gamer, I don't want to play generic, commoditized, one-size-fits-all games that are the game industry's equivalent of fast food. At least, not that often. I'd rather play the cool, quirky, niche games out there that are more oriented towards my own weird preferences… which could and should command a higher price.
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