When you invent a new art form, sometimes you have to invent a new business model, too.
Indie developers have been experimenting with video games for years. Some have found huge success rethinking the side-scrolling, platform-jumping games of old; others have taken those old formats and updated them with new mechanics. And one nascent genre eschews the very idea of traditional gameplay, putting narrative above action and replacing goals with poignance.
These games are priced within the normal range for indie releases: about $10 to $20. But they’re also unusually short, typically taking two hours or less to finish, making their cost per hour of play far greater than even the biggest-budget games and closer to movie downloads.
One such game, The Beginner’s Guide, was released earlier this month. It’s a meta-fiction in which the player just sort of walks around, listening to voice-over narration by the game’s creator, Davey Wreden. Wreden tells the player that the game levels they’re walking through were actually created by his friend, Coda, who mysteriously stopped making games in 2011. He says he’s released the levels as collection, to convince Coda to start working again. Along the way, the story of Wreden and Coda’s fictional relationship becomes a sprawling commentary on the tension between art and accessibility. It’s great; you should play it.
Wreden’s previous game, The Stanley Parable ($14.99), sold more than a million copies. Other indie games of a similar variety, like Gone Home ($19.99) and Dear Esther ($9.99), have also proven extremely popular despite their relatively high prices.
The creators of Dear Esther, released in early 2012, were the first to have to ponder the question of pricing for this new approach. “When we released Esther, there really wasn’t a comparable game on the market,” Dan Pinchbeck, the game’s co-creator, wrote in an email. Players in Dear Esther explore a deserted island while a narrator reads letters from his dead wife. Going through the game, players eventually discover clues about how the wife died. There are no puzzles or battles or other typical gameplay tasks.
Taking all of this into account, the studio decided to price its game not like another indie release, but like a movie. “Obviously, when we shipped Esther, it felt like coming in under $10 was a fair price for something that lasted about as long as a movie,” Pinchbeck wrote. “So a comparable price to a movie ticket.”
Pinchbeck added that since the release of Dear Esther, similar games have found some success with even higher prices. “A year later, Gone Home shipped at twice Esther‘s price for a comparable experience and length,” he said. “Now Esther looks incredibly cheap compared to similar titles. We’d certainly be aiming to be in that ballpark for future titles.”