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.