January 30, 2005

Story Money

by Andrew Stern · , 11:28 pm

This was going to be a comment in today’s discussion on the IF 1893 in The Times, but this is lengthy enough that I’d rather score a new post out of it.

Nick and Scott commented that in today’s market, selling text-based IF has become rare, and that the viability of selling e-lit is questionable. My take is that the market for new forms of e-lit and the like, e.g. interactive drama, is underdeveloped enough that charging money for it may do more to hamper a work’s reach, than to give it away.

Michael and I are facing this issue right now: as we’re close to releasing Facade, now in its final stages of bug fixing and audio editing, we’ve been thinking about the best way(s) to release it. Anyone have any thoughts if it’s a good or bad idea for us to charge for Facade, based on what you know so far about it? What you would pay for it, if anything? Do you think charging for it would hamper its dissemination?

We planned from day one to release Facade as freeware, for several reasons, even though it has some features that people might be willing or are accustomed to paying money for, such as decent graphics and sound, and a copious amount of content, let alone its novelty. In fact some have suggested to us that if we don’t charge for it, Facade‘s perceived value / seriousness will actually decrease.

Our primary goal has been to get Facade out there and on as many machines as possible — we want to shine a light towards a new genre of interactive art/entertainment, and we figure the more eyeballs the better. We’re concerned that charging money for it will ultimately decrease its potential reach and distribution. Also, because the project leans towards experimental/artsy and less towards commercial, and is rough around some edges, it seems a bit foolish to try to charge for it. (And to be frank, I’m not sure it’s really good enough to pay for — but perhaps that’s just the somewhat frustrated/perfectionist developer in me talking.)

More freeware rationale: the project is being written up as computer science and game/art research, and some parts of the architecture/code will be available for academic/artmaking use, etc. and so is sort of in the “free” spirit in the first place. Additionally, we’re using some technology under a not-for-profit license, specifically the Jess forward-chaining rule engine, as an underlying layer of our natural language processing; and some of the labor (some of Michael’s time) was under the auspices of academically funded research. Selling Facade would require licensing Jess, and possibly dealing with tech-transfer issues — maybe not worth the hassle, but maybe that could be overcome.

We *would* like to come up with ways to recoup our onerous development costs, mostly the years of time invested.

Now, because Facade will be so large, 600MB+ (mostly audio), we’re going to need to make a cdrom of it that people would pay a few bucks to get mailed to them, or pay something towards a server fee to support serving the installer for download. We may put it the installer up for free download on the Georgia Tech servers as well, but I’m concerned that the server will only support a few downloads at a time. It would be *bad* for potential players that want to get a hold of Facade but can’t download it, and give up in frustration.

Once people receive the disc/installer, they’re free to give it to friends, bit torrent it, whatever. (But probably not free to serve it on their own websites, without our permission.)

So, because we’re already charging people a few bucks, we could give people the option to “purchase” it for $10, or $20, essentially as a donation, using a carefully worded plea. This plea will also be included in the experience, gently suggested after each play of the drama (without being annoying). Perhaps a “free gift” of some sort would be included for such donations, akin to pledging for public radio. For example, a “The Secrets Behind Facade” document or something, explaining in clear terms how it works.

Nick’s general suggestion of creating a special limited edition version of a new work also sounds good, we’ll have to think about that, what that could be for Facade.

On a related note, and not intended to open any old wounds, but any opinions on if Eastgate‘s marketing of and charging for e-lit has helped, or possibly hurt, the dissemination of the works it publishes? I’m not trolling, I’m genuinely curious.

25 Responses to “Story Money”

  1. Sean Barrett Says:

    My take is that the market for new forms of e-lit and the like, e.g. interactive drama, is underdeveloped enough that charging money for it may do more to hamper a work’s reach, than to give it away.

    I think that in almost every medium, regardless of developedness, charging money for _great_ works will always hamper a work’s reach. The percevied value comment is meaingful for comparing a $20 item to a $10 item, or even to a $0 item you can only acquire from limited channels, but not a $20 item versus a $0 freely-copyable item which can spread like wildfire. Quality can overcome perceived value if people can try without paying and the quality is sufficient to drive word of mouth so people will try.

    Now, obviously, if you charge money, you then have money available (speculatively) to market it and possibly reach a wider audience that wouldn’t otherwise hear about the work, even with the viral spreading. The question is which accomplishes more. For a middling-quality work, or a work in an oversaturated market, it’s possible that marketing will make the bigger difference. But for a great work, people will share and it will spread regardless even without marketing. The original shareware Doom is a good example.

    Of course, the original shareware Doom probably undercut the sales of the registered version of Doom significantly. They only sold 150 or 200K registered Dooms; they sold over a million Doom 2s (which was released at retail and had no freely-distributable demo). But that doesn’t mean that the for-money Doom 2 reached more pople than the _free_ shareware component of Doom 1; typical shareware has a 1 or 2 percent conversion rate, and even assuming Doom 1 was higher, say 5% (and I really doubt that, considering how many people I knew for whom shareware Doom 1 was the only game on their computer), that would still mean 4M people played the shareware version (and I imagine it was actually more like 10M or 20M). I doubt that the marketing for Doom 2 actually reached many people who hadn’t already played the original.

    I realize this is possibly tangential to your main point (unless Facade really turns out to be the greatest thing since sliced pie, or possibly if novelty has a samilar effect to quality); I just often run into people who are oversimplifying how I think perceived value really works.

  2. Rinku Says:

    Sell it if it’s something that people would buy, give it away free if it’s something that they would not. Personally I’m very interested in Facade having read about it in Chris Crawford’s latest book, and would be willing to pay for it. But if your audience is only people interested in creating interactive stories, that’s a pretty small audience.

    What I would do (and what I’m going to be doing for one of my own games, Ziggurats for Red Turtle) would be to give it itself away free (or for a 2$ CD shipping charge), but sell background material: another CD with the design document, the source code, the design art, conversation logs from its developers, and so on. That way it reaches a large audience but at the same time you’d benefit from those who enjoyed it enough to want to learn more about it.

  3. SpiderMonkey Says:

    I’d rather you gave Facade away for free. I would be happy to pay a modest fee for it, to support the valuable work you’re doing.

    But I’d also like to be able to recommend it to all my friends – all the ones that think they know what a computer game is about and that it’s just about pointing a gun at people (I don’t know whether you consider Facade to be a “computer game” but it at least shows a direction they could move in) .

    That’s a *lot* of people and a lot of people I’d like to see having their beliefs challenged (both casual consumers and some of the guys who do film research at my university who don’t think games are worth their time). However sending them a link to something they have to pay for isn’t likely to result in them looking at more than pictures on the site and going “oh that looks nice”.

    My vote goes for donation-ware – ie provide a link where people can provide money if they like (of course another debate is how in-your-face you make that) and that way you get some money back to cover the cost of your work, but in a way that doesn’t hamper the reach your piece has.

  4. scott Says:

    I think the free download but pay for disc model is a good one.

    On your comment/question about Eastgate, I can think of ways in which they have both helped and hurt dissemination. On the one hand, there is some validity to the “perceived value” comment above, both from the standpoint of consumer but more importantly from the standpoint of people like literary critics and insititutions like libraries. They can understand something that comes in a package with an ISBN number. There is also the “many copies” benefit — each work published by Eastgate has been spread around on a number of CD-ROMs, so even if Eastgate’s servers crash or the company goes under, those works will be at least technically recoverable, though perhaps more difficult to recover from a legal standpoint. Works published by Eastgate are also “findable” by virtue of being housed under one imprint — there’s a benefit of association. And the authors do get some royalties. So there is a lot of upside.

    The principal downside is that people who know nothing about electronic literature will not buy a hypertext from Eastgate. Their pricing structures are also somewhat inflated. And you can’t read Eastgate hypertexts after running a search for “richard powers eats” or “the melancholy house of john barth” or the like on Google. And from an author’s standpoint, you retain your rights to a given piece of work if you give it away on the internet. If you sell those rights to a publisher, they’re no longer yours.

    There are some simple satisfactions in participating in free culture that, at least for me, outweigh the benefits of distributing electronic literature via a traditional model. You can stick a URL on a business card and say “here is my work” and give someone that card, and authentically give them your work. The world doesn’t usually work like that, but it’s nice when it does.

  5. Randy Adams Says:


    Interestingly, trAce has just published the following article on the topic of charging fees for online work:

    To Be or Not to Be Free, by Edward Picot:

    As Andy Deck points out in this article, the idea of a tip jar might be viable. But I wonder if we might end up passing the same dime around between us?



  6. Edward Picot Says:

    If you decide to charge for Facade, let me know and I can list/review it on The Hyperliterature Exchange (http://hyperex.co.uk). I can still do this even if the charge is optional.

    Personally, having written the article for trAce on this subject, I’ve come round to the idea of asking an “admission” fee for (substantial) online work, but also offering a link through which the same work can be viewed for nothing, if people either can’t afford or object to paying – the idea being to retain as much potential audience as possible, but also to give yourself a chance of recouping some expenses. At the moment I’m asking 25c-per-view for my nonlinear story The Recycling Bins (http://edwardpicot.com/binsindex.html), using the BitPass micropayments system to collect the money (http://www.bitpass.com/). In both the scale of charge and the use of BitPass I’m following the example of Scott McCloud, who’s been charging 25c for each chapter of his online hypercomic The Right Number (http://www.scottmccloud.com/comics/trn/intro.html).

  7. andrew Says:

    Rinku, Randy, those skeptical non-gamers out there that SpiderMonkey describes are exactly who we’d like to get Facade to, which is a much larger audience than existing interactive story enthusiasts / artists / developers, like the readers of this blog.

    SpiderMonkey, I agree that charging will put up too high a barrier to get to those folks. Now, if it costs $5 to get the cdrom mailed to you (probably a necessary evil, since Facade is so large), would you guess that even that is too high a barrier for such folks?

    Rinku, I agree with your approach to offer a special edition that costs a bit of money, which is similar to what was suggested by Nick and others.

    Sean, and everybody else, any thoughts on the subtleties between requesting/expecting payment but not enforcing it (technically this would be shareware?), versus freeware that merely asks for a donation (“donation-ware”, as SpiderMonkey put it)? Would calling it shareware, expecting a payment if you use it and like it, potentially result in more money for us to recoup expenses, but somehow annoy people a bit more, reducing overall dissemination?

    Scott, I’m concerned that free download won’t actually be possible, because it’s too big; I’d rather not offer it for free download if the server offering it is so slow, that it only frustrates people…

    Edward, Randy, the idea of a painless-to-use electronic tip jar, that gets presented after playing the experience, implemented via BitPass or what have you, sounds great. In the interface, I think I’d want to visually distinguish the tip jar (25 cents, 50 cents, etc.) from “donations”, which might be larger, and would result in a special extra goodies being sent to you.

  8. Sean Barrett Says:

    I think the idea of asking for tips/donations is fine. As you say, with something this large, you’re going to have to send CDs, so if you’re collecting money anyway, that seems perfectly reasonable. (Whether you will see much that way, none can say. Tips/donations have worked for some webcomic authors but not others.) I’m not sure there’s any benefit at all to calling it shareware as opposed to just being upfront about the money and having a limited edition.

    Since you’re encouraging people to distribute it themselves (whether by burning CDs or passing it around or creating bittorrent seeds or whatever), obviously you should make it easy for people who got it elsewhere to get back to your site where they can learn more about it and have the option to donate. But calling it “shareware” would probably be counter-productive these days, since it used to mean “try this, and if you like it buy it” but now means “try this crippled thing and if you like it buy the real thing”.

    I don’t really know whether it’s more effective to sort of have an expected donation and the option to not pay it vs. having it free and the option to donate. That gets into some subtle psychology that I can’t intuit and I don’t have any data on. (The choice between the two reminds me of the choice of whether to charge $20 or $19.95.)

  9. SpiderMonkey Says:

    Regarding offering up a copy for download, would you necessarily have to host the file yourselves? I think you’d be surprised at the willingness of some games sites to host your file (eg. fileshack.com/etc) and some game mods can end up with a vast list of mirrors just by putting out a request for generous people to host their file.

    You may dislike the disordered nature of that kind of distribution though, and it certainly doesn’t hit the whole of the market you are aiming for.

    I’m sure I could convince some of the film-types I know to get a copy – shouldn’t be too hard since someone in the past persuaded them to get copies of Quake III and Unreal Tournament for “studying” interactive narrative!

    For your general joe-public though, it’s one of those rules of the internet that $5 versus free isn’t a gap of $5, it’s a gap of epic proportions to dig out your credit card and fill in your address and wait for a couple of weeks, as opposed to clicking and receiving in an hour while you make the tea.

    But you should certainly charge if you’re sending out physical media. So I guess the problem to solve is what method of electronic distribution is feasible.

    As regards level of expectation of a donation, I’d say whatever you do that doesn’t harm the experience of actually playing is fair game. Your average computer user is used to having things screaming at them for their attention/money, wherever they go.

  10. iJames Says:

    Scott, I’m concerned that free download won’t actually be possible, because it’s too big; I’d rather not offer it for free download if the server offering it is so slow, that it only frustrates people…

    This is precisely why God created BitTorrent. Drop a BitTorrent tracker on your home site and seed it from your server, link to one or two mirrors for those too lazy to install BitTorrent (and warn them that the mirrors will be slow), and sell the CD for $10 or so to the Luddites. Everyone wins.

    On charging money: On a niche product like this, the risk is that you would only sell to the converted. I’d suggest that the best answer may be the Doom model Sean Barrett mentioned, although he may not have meant it as a role model. Give the first one away, and if it succeeds, sell the second one now that you’ve built up your fan base. Whether or not it’s what Id meant to do, it worked brilliantly for them.

  11. Fred Ollinger Says:

    I suggest that you charge for it first, then later on give it away. You seem to have worked hard on it so you should charge. Why not?

    If you plan on giving it away in the future then it won’t be locked up like you fear, and you can have the best of both worlds. I think that Blender’s ransomware model is a good one for a project like this.

    The bigger question for me as a programmer is what is going to happen to the source code. I suggest that you give this away as part of the sale price. This is the path to true immortality.

    I did like the idea of a tip jar as well.

    Anyway, Kudos on the hard work. Making a game is _work_.

  12. scott Says:

    I’m with iJames. Movie files are often quite a bit larger than 600MB, and they get around on BitTorrent just fine. I think it’s a great idea to also sell the discs, but since what you’re after, mostly, is wide and fast distribution, cast wide the nets. You might also want to look into a service to distribute the discs for you — a couple of articles in the mainstream media and you might be looking at a fulfillment problem. Actually, I’m curious if anyone knows of such services — are you aware of any companies that do on-demand burn and fulfillment for small independent publishers, one disc purchase at a time? There are now plenty of POD and fulfillment services for selling books this way, but what about CDs?

  13. scott Says:

    Ah — here you go — Swift CD in combo with Kagi is one such service, though their pricing doesn’t look great for one-at-a-time fulfillment.

  14. andrew Says:

    This is precisely why God created BitTorrent.

    Um, so, God = Bram Cohen?

    You’re right, BitTorrent could be a great way to go for the free download. (It’ll happen whether or not we explicitly direct people that way, of course, which is great.)

    But, reputation-wise, is BitTorrent more often used as a way to illegally share content, than to share legally distributable content such as freeware? Since most huge things (movies, tv shows, commercial music and games) aren’t legally free to distribute, I wonder if this is so. Therefore, if we pointed people to BitTorrent as a way to freely get a copy of Facade, would their initial reaction be suspicion, since BitTorrent may have an air of illegality to it?

    I may be naive about this, but just the fact that I’m a bit suspicious of its reputation may mean that lots of others would be too, sadly. (I should note I’m a big time KaZaa user, so personally have no qualms about software with both legal and illegal applications.)

    Give the first one away, and if it succeeds, sell the second one now that you’ve built up your fan base.

    Sounds good to me.

    I suggest that you charge for it first, then later on give it away. … Why not?

    Because there may only be a little wave of hype / attention at the start, and we’d want it to be as accessible as possible then, given our primary goal is dissemination, not profit-making.

    the source code. I suggest that you give this away as part of the sale price.

    We are planning to release some of the code at some point; packaging it up nicely and including it as a reward for donation is an interesting idea.

    You might also want to look into a service to distribute the discs for you

    Oh yes, we weren’t planning on doing this ourselves at the post office or anything — we’ve always been planning on a service like Swift CD, though hadn’t done the research yet; thanks for those initial links to check out.

    I just thought of a cool gift for those inclined to donate substantially, say, $50 or more. In Facade, players choose their own name, from a list currently about 80 names long. Grace and Trip call the player by that name during the drama. We recorded each name in about eight different intonations each for Grace and Trip, for a total of 16 sound files per name. We chose 80 common names; however inevitably there’ll be lots of people whose name isn’t on the list. For $50, we’d offer to record any name you want, to be included in a future release update of Facade, a few months from the time of donation. Customize Facade to your own name!

  15. Sean Barrett Says:

    I hope your voice talent gets a cut!

  16. andrew Says:

    They wouldn’t do it otherwise! Recording and editing those names is Tedious with a capital T.

  17. SpiderMonkey Says:

    “For $50, we’d offer to record any name you want”

    Oh boy … I’m just imagining what you’d be committing yourself to with that. :)

    I wrote a reply to your first reply but it disappeared into the aether. The guy who mentioned BitTorrent pretty much covered everything I had to say though, just much more eloquently.

  18. jaja Says:

    I definitely think BitTorrent is the way to go – the only way such systems get redefined as legal & legit is when they’re used for such purposes. See legaltorrents.com for other examples.

    Another option to tie into is Creative Commons to both license and distribute the project.

    Can’t wait to get it – however you choose to distribute!

  19. michael Says:

    I like Rinku’s idea, which I think I first heard suggested by Noah a couple of years ago, of releasing Facade for free (both web and BitTorrent – maybe requesting a donation) but selling some kind of nice packaged version for collectors and “official” institutions (libraries, etc.). That way we cast the net broad, but also have an archival quality artifact for the project as well. Of course now we’d have to design the nice brochure…

  20. josh g. Says:

    My experience with BitTorrent is that it only works well when you have a critical mass of interested users transferring the file. In situations where I’ve been downloading something shared by only a handful of other users, it’s been slower than a moderately busy mirror.

    My impression is that it works best to get that initial flurry of downloads out of the way to all those who were waiting for release. A few weeks in when the “initiates” have already downloaded it, the straggling new users who are following their friends’ recommendations might find the BitTorrent to be pretty dead.

    I’d still include a BitTorrent option (because, hey, free bandwidth), but be sure you have a reliable backup.

    I’m also unsure about the donation model. Comparing this situation to webcomics is somewhat flawed – most webcomics build up a solid fanbase of repeat visitors before asking for donations. You don’t have that luxury, because this is a one-time product. Also, webcomics generally have a blogging aspect which gives the reader a stronger personal attachment to the authors. (“Gabe and Tycho need rent money? Hey, those guys are cool, I’ll chip in.”)

    Erm, all that said, donations might work. The word “donation” seems a bit loaded, though, in a maybe-bad-maybe-not way. I’d lean more towards having a special CD edition with good packaging art and some small but nifty extras if possible.

    Hmm, if this has been done on a non-profit basis, could the donations be set up to be tax-deductable? That would definitely add to the credibility of a donation system.

  21. nick Says:

    SpiderMonkey wrote: I wrote a reply to your first reply but it disappeared into the aether.

    Sorry, it disappeared into our moderation queue. It is now listered here as comment 9.

  22. chrisf Says:

    I also agree with iJames. I’ll pay a few quid for it.

    On a side note, ‘Bram Cohen = God’
    reminded me of a recent interview, where he says that when coding, he gets in a trance, and it’s as if the code is coming to him from God, much like Mozart is supposed to have composed. Anyone find this familiar at all?

    Cohen makes a living purely on his donations, BTW.

  23. Christy Dena Says:

    There’s also CafePress for producing the CD on-demand, distributing it, and collecting funds. You can even have Facade mugs, mouse-pads, underwear…

  24. andrew Says:

    Scott Miller at Game Matters suggests Digital distribution is on the way, in a big way, discussing and comparing Steam and Game xStream.

    btw, for Façade, we’re starting off with BitTorrent, running a tracker from our own server, and gathering volunteers to seed the process. We’re also looking into ourmedia.org, legaltorrents.com, prodigem.com. We’ll also offer it as a 2-CD set, sold at cost, via SwiftCD. T-shirts etc. will be through Cafepress. And donations will be via PayPal.

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