Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, November 03, 2021
Pay before you play

There have been many complaints about various business model for games in which you get a game for "free", only to then be enticed to pay a lot of money for lootboxes, gacha characters, and the like. While this can be problematic, these games also have a positive side: If the game isn't any good to start with, you'll never spend any money on it. Genshin Impact makes people spend a lot of money *because* the free game is so good.

The other side of the medal is the classic buy to own, but increasingly there are business models in which you are asked to pay before the game is even ready. That could be on Kickstarter, where paying for something before it is ready *is* the business model; or it could be buying a game on Steam in "Early Access". And this business model can also go wrong for the customer.

The fundamental problem of pay before you play is that the seller is making all or most of the money very early in the process, and thus that is where his motivation is. Some people clearly put more effort in creating an attractive Kickstarter *campaign* than they later put into the actual project. Kickstarter projects are notoriously nearly always late. I just recently did a late pledge for The Isofarian Guard with some hope of getting the game in 2022, but the "estimated delivery date" on Kickstarter is December 2020.

On Steam, when I want to know whether a game is good and legit, I check mostly the "recent reviews" rather than "all reviews"; quite often you can see in the recent reviews that people complain that the game has been abandoned. A developer launches an early access game, and when the flow of money becomes less and less, they "release" a still rather unfinished version 1.0 and never work on it again.

So it is interesting to see that at least Kickstarter recognized the problem. They recently changed their rules on running multiple projects. You now need to have fulfilled at least 4 Kickstarter projects before you are allowed to run multiple Kickstarter campaigns, and even then there is a limit of how many (it's 3 for games). Before you can tap Kickstarter for money again, a content creator needs to fulfil his previous project(s). New creators can't simply create a second campaign if the money for completing the first project ran out.

On Steam there is no special protection against early access fraud. You do have the standard refund policy, but that requires that you didn't play the game for more than 2 hours, and bought it less than 2 weeks ago. Thus if you buy an early access game, find it unfinished, but wait for an update that never comes, you are probably out of luck with the refund.

Let's suppose we're unethical, but rational game developers who want to earn as much profit as possible.

If you're doing "pay before you play" game, you can bait and mislead some of the potential customers into buying your game. The existence of refund mechanism and some sort of community which facilitates exachange of information (which is true for PC, console and board game market, but not for mobile market) ensures that some of your initial customers might refund the game and, what's worse, they will warn other potential customers about the quality of your product. It's not sustainable in the long run, so it would be rational move to actually make a decent game.

If you're using free to play model, then it's highly likely that the most profitable approach would be to make the game slow/boring/unfairly hard/psychologically expoitative to entice players to pay. This will make the game worse from the player perspective, while also generating more profit. This is sustainable practice, and thus "rational" thing to do.

So, if we assume game developers to be rational agents who only care about profit and nothing else (which, of course, is not true and can only be viewed as a worst-case scenario), then I'd say that in the long run premium games are expected to get better, while free to play games are expected to get worse.
One advantage of Steam Early Access compared to Kickstarter is that in early access you generally have something to download and play - a demo of the unfinished game, if you like. A Kickstarter might never produce anything at all.
All these different monetization methods are neither good or bad. They are simply tools.

A tool when used correctly can provide some of great value. A tool when used incorrectly can create a disaster.

I've played great games where the awful choices by the developers or publishers in using one of these tools incorrectly ruined the entire thing.

I've also played great games where these models enhanced the experience and made a great game even better.

Early access especially, when done right, has lead to some of my favorite games in the past decade.
@Random_Probosis - surely if you're an unethical sociopath the rational thing to do with "buy before you play" games is to churn out masses of shovelware games. Sure, some players will give each game bad reviews and claim refunds, but you've moved on to the next game (which is a reskin of the last one, minimum effort required) so you don't care. If your reputation overall starts to stink, you can always change the name of your small, indie games company and reset it.
I don't know if this comment was meant to be facetious but there are literally "companies" on Steam whose entire MO is exactly this.

They toss out one asset flip after another and when they catch heat they open a new company under a different name.

The Youtuber Jim Sterling has covered this type of thing in depth for years. He was even sued by a "development studio" over his videos of them doing this.
Uh, I guess I'm just not evil enough to come up with such a scheme :]
My respects to you.
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