Better Than Free (or Pirated?)

I read a couple of interesting blogs recently, and began to wonder how they might be related to the indie game scene.

The original piece was written by Kevin Kelly who, among many other notable things, helped co-found Wired magazine. On his “semi-blog” The Technium, where he posts thoughts on his next book, he authored a piece called “Better Than Free” back on January 31st — and it triggered an avalanche of discussion, all of which I naturally missed since I have no sense of these things.

In the piece, he discusses how to approach the creation of product value in a digital world, where free copies proliferate in the “super-distribution system” of the internet:

Yet the previous round of wealth in this economy was built on selling precious copies, so the free flow of free copies tends to undermine the established order. If reproductions of our best efforts are free, how can we keep going? To put it simply, how does one make money selling free copies?

I have an answer. The simplest way I can put it is thus:

When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.
When copies are super abundant, stuff which can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.

When copies are free, you need to sell things which can not be copied.

He goes on to discuss his eight categories of “intangible value” that we can buy when we pay for something that could be free: things like immediacy, personalization, authenticity, and so on. Some very interesting thoughts, and if you’re an internet hermit like me and haven’t seen or heard of this piece before now, I recommend checking it out.

I was directed to the piece by an entry on Jason Scott’s blog, ASCII. Jason is the creator of the BBS Documentary, an awesome DVD set that archives the history of the electronic BBS (which I highly recommend). He’s also currently working on a new documentary, GET LAMP, a similar work on the history of text adventures, and one which I’m really looking forward to.

In his blog, Jason talks about how he applied some of the principles discussed in Kevin’s blog to his projects. For instance:

His version of Immediacy (the ability to get the stuff hot off the presses from the content people) is basically what I exploited/used for the BBS Documentary, selling pre-orders by the bucketful and ending up with something like 400-500 DVD sets ready to go out the door as soon as they arrived at my house. In fact, I ended up having to hand assemble these things to get them out quicker. We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars of pre-ordering, so I took that stuff seriously.

He’s doing a similar thing for GET LAMP, but in the blog he also brainstorms new ideas for the project. One he seems to like is an “ultra-deluxe” version of the film, which buys you a special code. When you e-mail the code back to him with your phone number, he responds with a personal telephone call. You can chat with him, praise him, yell profanities at him, whatever you like; that’s the added value you get, a brief period of access to the creator of the film.

While this method seems more appropriate for getting the customers who would normally pay for the product to pay more than they might have originally, the system in general is trying to push “things which can not be copied,” which in this case is a one-on-one conversation with someone with whom you might not otherwise have access.

Just as with music and movies, of course, games suffer from the problem of “super abundance” from pirating, and it makes me wonder if indie game developers have or could use this type of strategy as a response — providing value where there is otherwise none. It might not be very successful at converting pirates into paying customers (such a thing likely does not exist), but it could be an approach that indies might take advantage of to improve sales and revenue in a difficult marketplace.

It seems to me that indies are better suited for this kind of approach than the big developers; better positioned to provide the kind of personal service that is apparently the key to this strategy.

I haven’t paid close enough attention to the business side of indie games to know if there are developers out there who have tried approaches like this that would qualify as ways of providing “intangible value”, but I would be interested in hearing about those who have done so or are thinking about it…

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  1. Gareth
    Posted April 3, 2008 at 3:26 AM | Permalink

    Thats a great article, thanks for the link. 🙂

    Gonna definately keep those points in mind for Scars of War.

  2. Rubes
    Posted April 7, 2008 at 2:35 PM | Permalink

    Glad you liked it. I’m enjoying your blog, too. Looking forward to SoW.

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