Originally published December 2, 2019
After years of on-and-off work on our mobile game, Bounty Hunter Space Lizard, we called it done. What we’d referred to so long in our household as “the game,” a labor of art, was now a product to bring to market.
Accordingly, the last touches we made to BHSL were to deface it. We interrupted the journey of our hero, an adorable lizardperson on a murderous path of self-discovery, to show advertisements. We added a pulsing “remove ads” label to the title screen. We combed through the price listing on the app store, valuing our work at a “.99” number for every currency and reducing the price for less wealthy countries as we imagined spending an hour’s wage to avoid a few ads.
We didn’t like the result. I want to explain what led us to monetize and why we’ve reversed course.
Why We Monetized
Why did we monetize in the first place? Well, I won’t lie: If the internet zeitgeist wanted to make us irrationally, immensely rich, we wouldn’t object. That fever dream aside, it is reasonable to demand that people who enjoy the thing we made should pitch in to cover the costs. We poured an immense amount of time and skill into our work, and we also paid for app store licenses, test devices, software tools, incorporation, copyright registration, web hosting, and some advertising.
Mostly, though, we fell into the idea that profit equates to worth. Even we—a public defender and an artist—found it hard to escape. Games that make money must be good, and games that don’t must be bad. Unless we made our game a product, it would not merit respect.
Why We Monetized with Advertising
Having decided to monetize, we had to choose a method. Foremost, we wanted people to play our game. The common wisdom is that most players will not look seriously at a mobile game that costs any amount of money to download. There are exceptions, of course, particularly for developers who have made a name for themselves or for games that first became famous on PC or consoles. But the statistics seem to bear out the common wisdom. Even in 2013—a relative golden age for indie devs—about 94% of app downloads were for free apps. Currently, 95% of Google Play apps and 90% of Apple App Store apps are free.
We used advertising because there are very few models for monetizing free games. The most common, and most lucrative, model uses microtransactions or rewarded ads, which heavily compromise the work itself. Another model gates part of the work behind a pay wall, like with a demo. The latter option is more attractive, but it is not popular, and we assumed that this also meant that players would reject it.
Despite our revulsion to ads, we wanted players and affirmation above all else. We monetized with the old standard of advertising plus a $3 in-app purchase to remove the advertising.
Why We Demonetized
Prior to launch, we followed the standard advice: We had public beta testing, a trailer and a website. We promoted ourselves on social media and contacted the gaming press. We hustled.
And we had a great launch. The premier iOS gaming website made us Game of the Week, and several other gaming websites put us on their top weekly lists. The recognition was beyond our hopes. BHSL was designed as a niche game. It has, relative to many popular mobile games, complex mechanics and a distinct point of view. Even so, over six thousand people downloaded our game, and our retention rate was between 30% and 40%, which is quite good. We were chuffed.
In our first three weeks, revenue was about $200. Then we made about $6 in November. And that was that.
What a conundrum: Our game was good, our thirst for affirmation quenched. Our revenue was terrible. Stay Inside Games was a failed business. We would not hit the internet lottery unless Nick livestreamed the kidnapping and ransom of a prominent influencer, which posed logistical challenges. We could generate an income only with some combination of increasing in-game ads, loosening our ad standards, implementing rewards, creating and gating off content, spending time that could be devoted to making more games on maintaining monetization code, and doubling down on advertising and marketing the game itself. The goal would be to make more money per user than it costs to “buy” a new user via advertising. But none of that was attractive, and the income would be de minimis.
Still, we were reluctant to demonetize. We had four concerns.
The first, and easiest to dismiss, was an insistence that people pay their fair share for enjoying our game. The public’s reluctance to pay for art—really, to pay for anything over the bare minimum—is not new. Visual artists rarely make a profit. Bands are lucky to make gas money for a performance. Actors starve. We’re no different.
The second concern was the effect of demonetizing on gamemakers generally. Artists in any discipline frown on other artists giving away their work for free because it devalues everyone’s creations, time, and skill. We eventually reconciled ourselves to this concern because, for video games, the war is lost. The main video game storefronts have sales multiple times a year where excellent games, from big publishers and indie devs alike, go for a few dollars each. Most people who regularly play computer games own more games from these sales than they will ever play. Subscriptions to use the online multiplayer functions for the major game consoles include free big-budget games every month. And, as we learned when deciding how to monetize, only 5% of apps on Google Play and 10% of apps on the Apple App store cost money to download.
Our third concern was disrespecting those people who had already paid us $3 to remove ads. To those few generous souls: Thank you for your support, you are a lord among beggars, you are a patron of lizards, and there is no higher praise.
The fourth concern was the most insidious. Demonetizing feels like failure because our society equates profit and worth. If our game made $6, admitting so out loud would be admitting that our work is worth $6. After we made the game free, one fan said they thought we would have been “raking it in” based on the press coverage and quality of the game. It’s tempting to keep up appearances and enjoy the respect given to those thought to be a financial success.
But the fallacy that equates profit and worth does not benefit creators. It bolsters only the few monopolies that act as conduits between creatives and consumers. As with films or books, games that make the most money have an almost accidental relationship to their artistic value. Casino games make plenty of money. They’re not art. The top 1% of mobile games get 95% of the revenue, and they resemble casino games more than anything else. Like casinos, their main source of income are a relatively few addicts known as “whales,” and .2% (two tenths of a percent) of the players provide 46% of revenue. Google’s Play Store provides a list of its top-grossing games. The current #1 is something called “Coin Master.” The list is cluttered with virtual slots and casino games, and there are only a small handful of interesting games.
It didn’t start this way. When Steam, the Apple App Store, and the Google Play Store first opened their doors, they gave small-team game developers a platform to feature their best work side-by-side with the big-budget games produced by established publishers. Within just a few years, though, as the software tools for gamemaking became more accessible and indie hits more prominent, the video-game market became flooded. BHSL itself shows the democratization of gamemaking. Hundreds of games (at a minimum) are now published to these platforms daily. A minority are high-effort works that are thoroughly buried by churn and reskins by developers happy to make a few dollars off a single game.
The explosion of games, and the difficulty for any one of them to break out, became the “indie apocalypse,” and it has been followed by what Jeremiah Reid aptly calls the “indie post-apocalypse.” As Reid explains, it’s time to retire the advice that any game can be a financial success if (1) it’s good, (2) it’s marketed well, and (3) the dev is persistent. As an article in The Verge revealed, through interviews with indie developers, even teams of skilled programmers, designers, and artists with a big hit under their belt struggle to support themselves.
We have had the advantage of learning from the increased transparency of developers like these. They’ve helped us get over the idea that profit equates to worth. We do still wonder whether we would have been taken seriously by critics, reviewers, and even players if we had initially offered our game for free.
For now, the balance of interests favors demonetization. If there were a way to sell our game without compromise, and to have people actually buy it, we would do that. The most attractive platform might be something like Apple Arcade or Google Play Pass, which promise some degree of curation and take away the need for advertising and microtransactions. The path into those platforms is currently opaque, though, as is their treatment of creators.
“Free” has its own rewards. In the week since we announced on a popular internet forum that the Android version of BHSL now has no ads or IAPs, our downloads and player base on that platform have doubled. This uptick is interesting given that our game showed so few ads (one after levels 4, 6, and about every three levels thereafter) that most players wouldn’t see more than one or two in twenty minutes of play.
If we can’t be rich, then we can at least see our art enjoyed. Video games, like films and books, are completed by the participation of the player, viewer, or reader. We made BHSL because, in Amy’s words, it’s a thing that didn’t exist but should. If making our game free without strings means that thousands more people take the Lizard’s journey, then that makes us happy.