Hi! I've decided to write an article about pricing the small games that you made as a hobby. It's free for everyone to view, but I decided to post it here since I already have an existing Patreon audience.
This article assumes that you’re a solo developer, a hobbyist, or a student who is making games by yourself. This also assumes that you don’t have Kickstarter funding, and that you’re making small games to release on itchio. Whoever you are, you’re not “too small” for the advice that I outline below.
Right now, the status quo financially devalues indie games far below their actual value. My friend made an itchio game that saved lives. I've made a game that's contributing to a tech company's product research and development right now. The question isn’t “How do we adhere to the unsustainability of the market?” The question becomes “How do we change the market to be more friendly towards newcomers, marginalized developers, and solo creators who want to create games full-time?”
I’m going to tackle this question by addressing game pricing. Specifically, you should price the tiny games that you made in a week. Price the games that you made as a challenge. Games you made as a hobby project.
If this topic makes you anxious, you’re not alone. It won’t be easy, but I’ll settle for “this problem is really hard and requires community effort,” rather than “this problem is impossible to solve.”
The Ethics of Pricing Hobby Games
I’ve come to realize that a big barrier to a lot of people pricing their games is guilt and uncertainty around the idea of becoming “commercial.” Here are some common anxieties I hear:
“I make games because I love games. Am I fake if I decide to price them instead of settling for the labor of love?”
No, it makes you rational for wanting to be compensated for your design labor. Also, every creator from musicians to authors love their craft. Just because someone sells their e-book online doesn’t mean that they’re less of a writer. If anything, they care enough to make their craft sustainable for them.
“Is it okay to charge money if I’m not [big household indie name] or a studio with at least five developers?”
You deserve money for daring to make experimental games that are different from the big AAA releases. If you think that Etsy jewelers deserve to make money even if they’ve never worked at Tiffany’s, then you should feel okay about making money as a lesser-known creator.
I made this game in roughly 2-3 days. Is it still ethical to price this game?
You still pay the plumber even if they spend five minutes unclogging your drain. Consumers pay other people to do any task that they’re not willing to do themselves, and that includes “making a video game.”
“Okay, but I made this game in a free engine. In one day.”
Your time and your precarity are both worth money. Just know that spending less time on a game or having low operating costs does not mean that a game should be doomed at the “FREE” price. Tons of folks in TTRPG have games that are about 1-3 pages of text, plus minimal pictures. Those games typically get priced at around $5-$10. The problem isn’t mainly that the product is electronic, or that the creation software doesn’t cost money. The problem is that there’s been no pushback against the myth that “small video games are not worth any money.”
Look at the physical games tag and tell me what you see about their pricing. At least half the games in the tag are priced, compared to maybe one tenth of digital games. There's also writing, game design, and art. The main difference is that video games have additional programming labor. How silly is it that we are undervaluing ourselves?
“I feel bad charging money for what’s essentially a ten minute/two hour/five hour experience.”
A manicure costs $20 for half an hour of labor. A two-hour movie costs $15. The average price of a two-hour concert is $75. In addition, most people have amassed a backlog of paid games that they’ve spent 0 hours and 0 minutes on.
Time doesn’t directly correlate to financial value. Don’t feel bad for charging for that 15 minute game. Especially since a 15 minute game took a LOT longer than 15 minutes to make. Consumers are paying for your unique perspective, which probably came at the cost of a lot of personal hardship (game development life, am I right?).
“AAA releases with HD graphics and hundreds of developers are only charging $60 at full price and $30 during sales. It feels unethical to ask for more than $2.”
I recently spoke to a friend who works on both AAA and indie contracts. She told me that she charges more for short term contracts, compared to longer contracts. This is common practice among professional freelancers, since short term contracts need to accommodate for “dry” periods where the developer doesn’t have any work.
AAA games pretty much never have a dry period. Their games are guaranteed to sell because of their huge brand recognition and long-term marketing. That’s also why they can sell high-definition, 5 hour DLCs for $10.
You have to fight capricious store algorithms (and Steam censors if your game is queer), so you’re operating in a totally different market. Don’t compare yourself to Sony or Nintendo. The biggest lie that developers have ever internalized is that AAA and indies should be priced at the same ratio.
“My audience is primarily marginalized people who don’t have a lot of money. Is it ethical to charge them $5? $10?”
Spending money on art is how marginalized people survive an unjust world. The main difference is that they’re giving money to you, rather than a corporate boardroom that doesn’t care about them.
A big injustice is that the most marginalized creators can’t sustainably release games for free. These are the creators who eventually stop developing games, or they drop off after one or two projects. I know of many developers who worked minimum wage jobs while creating their first games. Most of these developers had the privilege of a safety net. Other developers… don’t. You can’t get around marginalized developers needing money.
Queer people will usually support queer games. The diaspora will support art made by its own. Most of the people who got me funding and news articles for LIONKILLER were queer, or part of the Asian diaspora. If you don’t ask your group for support, your game is limited on the success that it can achieve. I also personally believe that marginalized communities should not exploit artists for their own pain relief.
If you truly feel guilty about shutting fixed-income folks from your games, you can do what the TTRPG community does. A lot of designers have a fixed number of “community copies” that low-income players can claim (usually 5). You can do this by creating game keys in itchio and asking people to DM you for a community copy.
Is it ethical to price game jam games?
With any collaborative project, you need to get the consent of every person on the team. If they say yes, then make sure that they get their equal cut of the sales. Don’t worry about it if you made a solo jam game. Obviously, make sure you own the rights.
There is precedent for commercial jam games on Steam. This list features games that have prices ranging from $9-$24, with the median being $10. I don’t know what their financial situations were, and it’s probably not your financial situation. I’m still linking you this list to show that “game jam entry” shouldn’t be a disqualifier from you pricing your game.
The Sustainability of Pricing Hobby Games
“I’m an unknown developer, and I really need eyeballs on my game. I’m sorry to do this, but FREE is the only thing that I have.”
I’m here to tell you that I started pricing my first game as “FREE” as well. Guess how that did for downloads? Almost nothing. Every time I picked up in downloads, it was because I got RT by someone with more followers, or my link took off. Marketing is what determines your game’s success, not the price point. If you’re relying on free to stand out, then you’re not likely to succeed. All that “FREE” does is devalue small games. It doesn’t even give you a competitive edge.
I mean, there are so many good games that are free. That’s kind of the main problem. You can’t stand out by making free games unless your game was already super good or if you have a strong personal brand. And those other things have nothing to do with the price of your games. Those other things depend on your design skill and your marketing ability.
“I’m already not getting many downloads. Charging $5 will only hurt me, I think.”
Your biggest competition isn’t games in the “FREE” category. Your biggest competition is the fact that nobody with disposable income has much free time.
Free games aren’t really free. They demand the player’s time. If you tell me that your free game is 10 hours long, that’s not really free to me. That’s demanding hundreds of dollars worth of my time. When you think about it, games that are longer than 10 minutes are never free.
Compared to what players’ time is worth, $5 is super cheap. The price is not the reason why your game isn’t doing well. Even if your game is brilliant, you have to give busy adults a reason why your game is worth the time. “FREE” doesn’t make the time burden go away.
“I don’t need extra income, so I’m thinking about pricing my game for free. I just want to entertain players with a topic that I’m passionate about.”
You can do whatever you want, but I still strongly recommend pricing your game. If you don’t want to keep the money, then you can tell your audience that you’re donating profits to charity. What’s important is that your game has any price tag at all.
As a solo developer, I am constantly feeling the effects of popular free games on the ecosystem. Because free games don’t exist in a bubble. They’re setting the expectation for whether or not other developers are allowed to sell their game at a fair price. Low income, disabled, and neurodiverse developers deserve to sell their games at a fair price. Everyone deserves to sell at a fair price.
You may not need the money, but a minority developer who faces employment barriers might. They might not be able to make amazing games sustainably if it’s harder to get people to pay for their amazing game. This is an instance where precarious developers are inadvertently shut out of the industry by their more financially stable peers. It’s okay if you didn’t know. What’s important is that you think about the effects of your pricing on more precarious folks.
If you want to donate your sales to a non-profit, consider AbleGamers, Queerly Represent Me, and I Need Diverse Games.
“Will marginalized players pay for my game? They’re my core audience.”
If you’ve ever tried to sell a queer game, you would know that queer audiences are really good about financially supporting queer creators. The fiscal logic is kind of backwards, but working-class people tend to give more money to independent creators than “celebrities” or relatively wealthy gamers.
Will raising my price affect my game sales significantly?
I only have data for my own game sales. I won’t tell you that it has zero effect. I will tell you that people still buy my Twine game at $10 per unit. I still make more money on itchio than Patreon. You don’t know what the data is until you start collecting it. There are so many factors affecting this data, including audience and genre.
Unless your game is $50, most people who buy games on itchio have already decided to buy your game or not before they look at the price. Especially if your game is the price of a coffee. The only difference is, $5 x 3 players = $15 before taxes and fees. $0 x 3 players = $0 before taxes and fees.
Here’s more math. If you raise the price to $10 per game, you only have to sell 2 copies in order to make more money than selling 3 copies at $5. Also remember that you can change the game price whenever you feel like it. There’s no pressure to get it right on the first try.
How will raising my price affect discoverability on itchio? Like, algorithm-wise
I don’t know about the website’s algorithm, but I do have data on how users get referred to my game page. Here’s itchio’s data on where my page views came from. These are just for the past month.
As you can see, itchio doesn’t represent the majority of my page hits (593 external versus 395 from itchio, including people searching specifically for LIONKILLER). The majority come from Google or Twitter. This doesn’t tell the whole story, but it does say that my external marketing efforts make up over half of the traffic to my game page.
Start building a following on social media. Encourage other people to say nice things about your game. That gets you more views and sales than trying to underprice your work.
You say $5 a lot. Why that number?
Game developers have to pay income taxes and processing fees on their game sales. I believe that $5 is the minimum that allows creators to still have any noticeable amount of money after Steam/itchio cut and income taxes (for U.S. creators, our base tax is around 30%).
I priced LIONKILLER at $5 because I received some money from Wattpad for the right to port the game to mobile. If not for that sum, I probably would have priced the game at a lot more. The first part took me 6 months to develop while working a full time job, and the 2nd/3rd parts took me two months of not working any other job.
The game is now $10 in an effort to raise the floor on interactive fiction prices. LIONKILLER’s rankings fell significantly (probably also due to other factors), but I’m still making about the same amount of money. When you charge more money, you don’t have to sell as many units.
Will consumers get upset if I price my game?
Nobody’s been upset at me so far at the $10 pricing. I think you should still price your game even if you got a bit of backlash, but the backlash doesn’t happen on itchio. It’s a totally different audience than the “mainstream” prestige gaming player base. The aggressive, angry gamers who devalue prestigious indie games aren’t the primary audience who would even download a comfy, soft, poetic, or queer game on itchio.
If you’re worried that the itchio community might change one day, then that’s even more reason why you should help us normalize paying for small games. Who has power? What’s the social structure? What are the cultural norms behind these financial transactions? These are the factors that drive the games market, moreso than any invisible hand.
I think that you have good points, but I’m not ready to price my games yet
Hey, we’ve all been there. I really hope that you eventually feel confident enough to price your games. If you’re interested in pricing your games one day, then you should try talking to solo developers who are already doing that. Once you see that your friends can do it, you might feel empowered to do so.
There’s someone who doesn’t price their games even though they’re really good. Should I say something?
If you’re kind about it, I think it’s fine to ask: “I think your game is really good, have you ever thought about setting a price for it?”
If you want to be more subtle about it, you can tip them for the game. Creators feel really good even getting a couple dollars above the suggested minimum. If they don’t have a payment system on itchio, see if you can give them a Ko-fi for the game. Building financial confidence in their own art is the first step to increasing game valuation.
How did you come across all this data?
A lot of data is from my own itchio analytics. Another chunk is from browsing itchio. A significant amount of information and inspiration is also taken from DC’s (@DungeonCommandr) sustainability efforts in the TTRPG community. You should also follow them since they’re doing a lot of work for marginalized designers.
This article is a lot of free labor. How do I support you?