Free DLC for indie games: financial suicide or smart politics?

In the dawn of the success of CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3 and their welcomed, arguably innovative, or perhaps retro attitude towards free content, it is easy to see why even the little guys may want to follow those giant footsteps. But is it viable for indie developers to do so? And more to the point, why do it at all?

As the quest designer and writer of a small indie studio, it fell to me to share our wisdom and folly with the indie community. To discuss the subject I will dissect our recent experience with free DLC’s and talk about our own journey, the good the bad and the damn right ugly.

So who are ‘we’ exactly?

Thea: The Awakening is a strategy/survival/4x/rpg made by MuHa Games with a core team of four people and more importantly, only one programmer. As such, we had our limitations, both financial and physical, to overcome as our project grew in scale and scope. In an effort to gain funds we proudly failed two Kickstarters and raided our personal savings.

The saving graces came largely from selling our own framework (Honey Hex Framework) on the Unity Asset Store (http://u3d.as/9e1), which boosted our tight budget and allowed us to finish the game. At the very end of the development process we also found a publishing partner who took over the sales and distribution of eventual box sets and localization costs. While this partnership had no impact on our production budget, it provided additional possibilities for the game’s development, although the effects of this cooperation would only become available post-release. Thea was published on Steam Early Access in September 2015 and then fully released on November 20th 2015 and up to date, we’ve sold approximately 70k copies. We also released two major DLC’s since and both of them were provided for free.

So why choose to give away content, and did it work?

Nothing in life is free, right? So why do it? Building a relationship with our fanbase and building our ‘brand’ as we want it, that was one of the key reasons for releasing free DLC. Sounds idealistic and it is. That is what being indie is all about, or at least it is in our books.

We really do value our fans and we do believe in free content for a game you already paid for. We have shown this by listening to  feedback, carefully considering reviews, even the bad ones, staying very active on the Steam forums and implementing much of the user feedback we get straight into the game, sometimes within hours after we received it. Now, this isn’t supposed to be bragging, but I just want to make clear that providing the free DLC’s is part of our larger company ‘policy’ which is simply to do the best we can for the gamers who already invested their money and trust in us.

In case you think we’re a bunch of starving idealists, or we’re lying, I’d like to make it clear that Thea’s sales covered our costs within the very first day of the launch and up to date (date of this article that is) we have sold just over 70k copies. While this doesn’t mean we’re swimming in cash, it did mean that we had more money than we expected after release. With that in mind the decision was made that we will now give back to the community and create the content. Thanks to the sales, we were able to consider features either requested by people on the forums, or things we always wanted to add, but had no resources to do so before.

And so, our first free DLC, The Return of the Giants was born, adding such features as localization, full voice-overs for all events in English, over 70 more events, including a new main storyline, an event editor, more art, music and an abundance of gameplay improvements and features.

It is during this phase that our partnership with a publisher bore fruit, as they were able to cover the costs of the localization. Seeing as our game has over 250k words, this was no small task and one that would not be able to cover ourselves. In exchange, the publisher got the rights to distribute our game on all platform except Steam, Humble, GMG and GOG as well as box sets and we would split profits from those proceeds.

Did Giants pay off?

Well, financially speaking the crude answer is: NO.

Postmortem of the Giants DLC:

The cost of development of this DLC ended up being around 90.000 euro. The DLC was free and about 8000 of our players have enjoyed it within the first two weeks after the release. Sales after the DLC brought about 10.000 euro above what we were usually selling without the DLC, and normalized in about 10 days.

So if we were to judge things by those figures alone, we would have lost a big chunk of cash. Working with a publisher was a huge saving grace here, as we did not carry the costs of the localization which the publisher invested in, to eventually regain from the box sales. Still, for us, the Giants did not prove to be a huge financial hit and it was disheartening.

So was it all bad?

Well, not entirely. While we did not increase our sales, we did continue to build a loyal and loving fan base. People began to create forum threads encouraging others to buy Thea for their friends, organised their own giveaways and even doing their own community translations.

The work that our programmer put into creating an event editor for community modding was very valuable, both for this project and for our future work. Players who create their own quests and ask questions or request features inevitably give us precious feedback and ideas we would never get being limited to our small team. Much of the work we do for Thea is in part a learning exercise or at least an open arena for honing our skills, mastering working as a team and building up for whatever we do next.

Why do we think Giants didn’t do so well in terms of sales?

There are several lessons we’ve learnt from our Giants experience. Lesson number one: timing is key. Localization of more than 250k words took a long time. It is not only the translation itself, but implementation and testing that really took a toll. For various reasons, we were forced to push our release by almost a month (and that was on an already delayed deadline) and we believe this was very detrimental to our sales. Why? Simply because features like localization or voice overs have the strongest impact when they come out asap, while the game is still ‘fresh’, otherwise, a lot of the players already finished it and won’t come back, even with a DLC. Another reason we are considering, was missing a Steam sale at the end of March, as the figures from our second DLC will show, launching a free DLC while the game is on sale is bound to have a greater impact, so this was another boat we missed with Giants.

This graph shows our sales figure during the March Steam Sale vs the sales we got for Giants (the smaller red circle).

And then you decide to give away a second DLC, are you crazy?

Yes, well, it is likely that we are. Still, our main reason for offering free content updates remained unchanged and despite the setbacks, we wanted to test the ‘lessons learnt’ and give it another go.

What did we approach differently?

We set a deadline in stone and we did not allow external parties to influence this date. In order to achieve this goal and to minimise the costs we made a decision to only localize key events and UI, and also to limit the voice-overs. The editing tool we created for the Giants, the event editor, allowed us to cut down considerably on the word count, and so this goal was achieved with ease and minimal cost.

Focusing on features that would not stretch our budget and yet make some real quality improvements to the game was step number two. So while we limited the costs of the story content, our main focus for the second DLC was implementing a co-op mode for Thea. This was a huge task, but one that only cost our coder’s sanity and sleep, so nothing new there.

Multiplayer for a 4x, why?

Well, to quote our programmer directly: ‘I wanted to play Thea with my wife.’ Yes, I kid you not, this was the actual leading reason and one we pride ourselves on. Why? Because that is kind of how Thea came to life: ‘What type of game would we enjoy?’ was always the question that led our discussions.

But, there were other reasons. The feature was on a wishlist from the community and it is something that we wanted to do from the get go for our next project. So, to put it bluntly, doing the co-op for Thea was the perfect occasion to test our skills and see how it works.

Trying things out and community testing is actually one of the biggest advantages of providing free downloadable content to your players, especially when you have a small team with limited resources. With four/five people on our team at any given time, we were never able to do large scale testing and one thing all creators know is how claustrophobic it gets to interact with your own creation.

And so, having provided a free DLC we feel more comfortable in knowing our players will inevitably help us discover many areas where tweaks, fixes or added features are needed or wanted. Some of our fans have remarked that they’d rather pay for content than get something half baked. So, it is crucial to note here that we never publish unfinished or unplayable content!

Even during early access we only pressed the publish button once our game was fully playable and feature complete – albeit back then, it had a lot room for growth. We have the same policy for our free DLC’s. They only come out once they are truly ready, but once they are out, we are happy to work with the community to make them even better.

From the moment we released Thea in early access till the release of the second DLC, we did over 160 updates, patches, fixes and features and although the time has now come to slowly move on to the next project, we will certainly continue to support Thea: The Awakening in whatever way we can.

So was it all worth it?

YES!

I mentioned earlier how timing was an issue for Giants, and I believe we have learnt our lesson. We stuck to our deadlines, used a faster service to do our shortened localization, and we released the MultiPrayer DLC during the Steam Summer Sale. Our sales this month had a +1572% increase from the previous month on Steam, and while the sale is likely the main culprit here, we still think combining the two was the jackpot.

And more importantly, our relationship with the community grows. Only this week we had one generous fan donated $1000 for us to spend on more artwork and a dedicated group of French gamers did their own translation for the game (because the ‘official one’ turned out to be terrible, so a word of caution on localization here!). Over the course of making Thea, we had people offer free proofreading, testing, recording videos and so much more. I believe this kind of a relationship with your community is priceless and worth all the hard work.

Inspired by our community constantly asking us for ways to pay us for the DLC’s we’ve also come up with Coffee for Coding, our only ‘paid’ DLC to date, which includes some awesome cards with Thea artwork as a thank you for those who want to support our efforts. This new model, a ‘pay-if-you-wish’ DLC, seems like the perfect way to stick with our ideals but also give people the chance to say thank you without imposing it on them.

We’ll never know how much of the summer sales is due to the 40% price cut and how much the free DLC helped, but it certainly looks better than with Giants!

Free DLC’s for Indies – yes please.

One thing to note when considering free content is actually the prime rule for indie dev anyway: don’t overestimate what is doable, don’t overreach and only do things that are well within your team’s competence. Our community requested many features, a lot of them were well outside the scope of our game, and if we did succumb to these requests, this story could have had a much worse ending. So keep your budget tight, only do things that are achievable in reasonable time limits and without blowing your already limited budgets!

The Indie market is a tough one. If like us, you have a small team, limited resources and a tight budget that simply cannot stretch to huge marketing campaigns, you need to think outside the box. For us, this meant putting a lot of emphasis on our community in hopes of the power of the ‘word of mouth’. This strategy has paid off and we do believe it is a valid route for other indies. Create a good product, respect your client and the rest will fall into place – sounds idealistic, but it certainly worked for us and I am sure it can work for you.

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed