"Alternative Marketing Methods:
Self-Publishing via Shareware and Low-Cost Retail"
Proceedings of the Eight Annual Computer Game Developers Conference
Note: Some of the information in this article is old and out of date.
So you want to be a game developer? Don't we all. Believe me, it's a rough business. You invest your youth and energy, you stay up all night programming, and you pour your heart into your creation, all the while hoping someday it will pay off.
The problem is, while perfecting your game, and concentrating on every detail of optimizing your code and making your game beautiful and fun to play, you neglected to formulate a business plan. You don't know how to sell your game after you finish writing it. What do you do now? Do you pitch your game to a big publishing company and hope for the best? Do you send copies to hundreds of publishers and hope one of them will find it acceptable? Do you wait for weeks by your mailbox collecting rejection notices?
I am here to tell you there is another way. You can self-publish your game. Self-publishing is not only within the realm of possibility, it is, an excellent idea. Many authors have found self-publishing games to be not only profitable in the long term, but highly satisfying. It makes you feel good to be your own boss, to control the destiny of your program, to make decisions yourself, and to gain respect in the industry as you grow and promote your products and yourself. With a little insight into the dynamics of the industry, it is possible to earn a living on games without surrendering your program to one of the big game publishers. It is possible to market your games yourself.
The first, most obvious, way to self-market games is through shareware. In the beginning, it was not believed that shareware was a viable channel for marketing games. A few of the early popular games did well, such as Nels Anderson's Mahjongg, but without strong registration incentives, most games were played and discarded without generating much income for the authors. That all changed when Scott Miller of Apogee Software invented the trilogy concept of shareware games. In this genre, a game, usually an adventure-arcade game, is broken up into "episodes". An episode typically contains about 10 levels. The first episode is freely distributed via shareware channels, and the player is required to send in money to get the other two episodes. Scott Miller has parlayed this idea into a multi-million dollar company.
Other registration incentives have also been tried with Apogee games. Cheat codes are made available in the registered versions, but not documented in the shareware versions. Time delays between levels also improve registration rates. As Scott pioneered shareware registration incentive techniques, other companies have followed suit with similar schemes.
Besides registration incentives, massive distribution is necessary for a shareware game to be a success. The best way to ensure massive distribution is to have an excellent game. If your game is really good, your users will distribute it for you. They will upload it to bulletin boards, give it to their friends, pass it out at user group meetings, etc. Shareware vendors supplement the efforts of users to distribute your software. There are many kinds of shareware vendors, and they distribute in many channels. Some publish catalogs, some distribute via on-disk catalogs, some sell on CD-ROMs, and some sell on racks in stores. Shareware vendors are always trying to think of new ways to sell shareware, and you will sometimes hear of shareware vending machines, shareware pre-installed on new computers, magazine cover disks, etc. As you can see, there is no shortage of distribution for shareware. All distribution is not equal, though, and we will discuss some of the controversy surrounding the various distribution methods in a few minutes.
When designing a shareware game, think about your audience. First of all, you want your users to be able to play your game right away. If it takes them more than 5 minutes to figure it out and get started, they will give up and delete it. Second, your game must be addicting. You want them to start playing right away, and keep playing for hours. In some ways, this is a rougher standard than a retail game. When a customer buys a retail game, they have already invested money in it, and they are going to take a little longer to understand the game and learn to play it. When they are downloading a shareware game, they are evaluating it, and deciding not only whether they want to invest more money in it, but whether they want to invest more time in it. With the retail game, since the money is already invested, the time investment is a given.
It is very important these days for a shareware game to have good graphics. While 16-color graphics are acceptable, they will not sell as well as 256-color graphics. Good art is important. Good music and sound effects, and sound card support are also important. Shareware, like retail, is a competitive market. If you want your program to be noticed, you must make it stand out.
It is less important that a shareware game run on all platforms. Shareware allows plenty of room for innovation. If you want to write a game that supports only 1 meg SVGA cards and requires 8 meg of RAM, you can get away with it in shareware. You will have a smaller audience, but you will have an audience. It is more difficult to sell a game with restrictive hardware requirements to a publisher. Publishers have their own in-house standards, and will require that your game must be able to run on their chosen subset of computer hardware. With shareware, you have the freedom to experiment, understanding that you also have the freedom to fail.
Traditional shareware is only one way to self-publish your games. In recent years we have seen the emergence of rack vendors and "Low Cost Retail" (LCR) vendors. These are distribution outfits that will take your game and put it in various chain stores at a low price and give you a small royalty. When I say small, I mean the typical royalty will range from 10 cents to 60 cents per disk. It doesn't sound like much, but the distribution is massive, and authors are reporting getting excellent royalty checks from LCR vendors.
The primary difference between a LCR vendor and a traditional retail publisher is the LCR vendor is not involved in the development of the program. The LCR vendor collects submissions from authors, usually shareware authors, and builds a product line of 2 dozen to 4 dozen titles. These are then placed in stores and distributed through several channels. The goal is to get as many titles as possible in as many stores as possible, and this method of distribution is becoming increasingly effective.
Another difference between LCR vendors and game publishers is the ownership of the program. With LCR vending, the programmer retains ownership of all the copyrights and trademarks. This works in the author's favor, as a game can be re-released in the future. The shelf life of a typical retail game is 6 months to 2 years, but an LCR game can continue producing income indefinitely.
LCR contracts vary. Products can be shareware or non-shareware, exclusive or non-exclusive. Non-shareware, exclusive titles generate the highest royalties, non-exclusive shareware titles typically generate royalties in the range of 10 cents per disk.
A list of some of my favorite royalty-paying rack vendors is included at the end of this article. If you want to submit your program to LCR vendors, I suggest you study the list and contact as many of them as possible. Try to find LCR vendors that are appropriate to your product.
When designing your game, keep in mind the differences between an LCR product and a shareware product. The LCR customer, unlike the shareware user, is an impulse buyer. He is not interested in evaluating a product before buying it, he is interested in throwing a box in a shopping cart. He is more likely to buy a title that he quickly recognizes. In my case, I have found that solitaire card games and simple gambling games like slot machines sell well on the racks. Most impulse buyers recognize these games and won't hesitate to buy them for themselves, or perhaps for members of their families. Adventure games, puzzle games, and arcade games also sell well, but the more esoteric a game is, the smaller the audience it will attract.
LCR games sell best when there is a screen shot of the game on the box. Design your games with excellent graphics, because the LCR vendor is going to want screen shots. It is one of the most important selling points of an LCR game.
LCR games should not require printed manuals. They should be easy to play using only the online help. If your game requires a manual, you should either go straight retail, or you should stick with shareware. A printed manual is generally acknowledged to be an excellent registration incentive for a shareware product. Likewise, technical support will kill an LCR product. When you are selling a game in the $6 range, you are not allowing any money to cover technical support costs. If your game needs technical support, release it as shareware and make the technical support a registration incentive. Hints and cheats are an excellent way to get a player to register, especially if they are stuck half way through the 9th level of a 10 level game. Give them an 800 number to call to register the game, and when they register, tell them how to beat the level.
LCR racks consist of exclusive and non-exclusive titles that are not shareware. That means, the author can not demand additional payment from the users who have bought the game in a store. However, you can still make money on after sales of related games. "If you liked Ping Pong, you are going to love Table Tennis Deluxe". Include a plug for your other games in your exit screen, or write a small on-disk catalog with a printable order form. Think in terms of maximizing your sales in all channels simultaneously.
Since exclusive games generate the best royalties, write lots of these. Design your games in such a way that you can create multiple exclusive titles. If your game has levels, you can put 10 levels on one rack, and another 10 levels on a different rack. You can change the title and change the artwork and recycle the code to maximize rack coverage. Also popular are "game packs". If I write 6 solitaire card games, I can put 3 on one rack, and 3 on another rack, and then mix together one from each rack plus a new game for a third rack. The more games you have, the more room you have for this kind of marketing.
Be careful with exclusive contracts. Insist on a performance guarantee. If a game doesn't sell, reserve the right to take it to a different vendor. Otherwise, an LCR vendor can tie up your game in a non-productive exclusive contract for years. If possible, reserve the right to market a program via shareware simultaneously with the LCR distribution. If the LCR vendor insists on no shareware version, then he should pay you a higher royalty. Keep in mind, whenever you give something away, you should get something in return. If you sign an exclusive contract, you deserve an advance against royalties. Do not sign away a right of first refusal on future program unless the vendor gives you a very, very large advance. If the vendor does not want to pay you an advance, then reserve the right to release the program in some other channel.
Non-royalty shareware racks still exist, and some authors find them profitable. Some authors have programs which are so hot, they want any kind of distribution they can get, and will place their games on any kind of rack and CD-ROM. That works for some authors, but it doesn't work for all of us. Many authors report that their registration rates from non-royalty racks are as low as 1 in 3000, or even worse. The problem seems to be, when people buy software in stores, they are not in the habit of paying more money for it. It is less confusing to the public if they can buy the game outright and not owe additional money to the author. However, this issue is still the subject of much controversy, and results will vary for different companies and different games. It is best to go into this kind of situation with your eyes open, and study the issues before allowing distribution of your shareware program on non-royalty shareware racks.
The CD-ROM market is also controversial. Some CD-ROM manufacturers put a dozen or so carefully-chosen games on a disk and pay a small royalty to the authors. Authors report being pleased with the results. They report being less pleased with CD-ROMs that contain a "gigabyte of shareware", or hundreds of titles downloaded indiscriminately from bulletin boards without regard to author distribution requirements, current version numbers, hacks or viruses. This type of CD-ROM is less effective at generating registrations for the author because individual programs tend to get lost in the huge volume of software available. Also, the trilogy method doesn't work well when there are so many games available. Instead of registering to get episode 2 of Commander Keen, the user will simply start playing episode 1 of Duke Nukum, for example.
License agreements are very important for shareware programs. When you release a program, it will stay released. There is no way to call back a program once the shareware distribution has been started. Therefore, it is important that you get the license agreement right from the beginning. Do not give away any rights that may later be valuable to you. In particular, do not give blanket permission for shareware vendors to distribute your program. Require that vendors get written permission before distributing in stores. In general, you do not want shareware vendors to sell a non-royalty shareware version that will compete in the same store with your royalty LCR version. To avoid this kind of situation, take care to reserve your rights. If you have questions about copyrights and distribution restrictions, talk to a knowledgeable attorney.
In conclusion, self-publishing games through shareware and low cost retail is profitable and satisfying, but requires a thorough understanding of the market to be successful. There is room for innovation, and there is also potential for disaster. Your program is valuable, and deserves to be marketed in an optimal manner. Design your program to fit your marketing strategy, and choose a marketing channel that fits your program. Protect your rights, study what the other authors are doing, and talk to as many vendors as possible. Good luck!