Monday, July 19, 2010

Why don't video game companies have "tip jars"?

Lately I've been wondering: why don't game development companies have the online equivalent of a "tip jar?" Or some way for me to directly give extra money to the people responsible for a game, above the price I might pay for at retail, and in a way that bypasses all the "middle men," too.

I've often bought games at low prices, and then enjoyed the heck out of 'em. I once bought the PC game, Conquest: Frontier Wars, for $1 at a retail store and then played the game for over 100 hours. That's one hour of entertainment per penny.

I've enjoyed games like Conquest immensely, and wished I could send additional money directly to the developer, as a way to say "thank you," and often as a way to say "please make a sequel!" But it's rare that this option is available.

There are other situations where I play a game and wish I could send more money to the developer, such as:

  • Playing a friend's copy of a game. I may borrow a friend's copy and play it to completion by sinking 20 hours into it, then give it back to the friend. I really enjoyed the game but did not spend a dime on it. I have no desire to play the game again, so I see no reason to purchase a copy from a store. And yet I still want to pay the developer for the fun I had ($5-10 usually), but I have no way to do that.

  • Playing a game that is part of a "niche" genre, like flight simulations. Certain game genres are not very popular. A realistic WW2 flight sim is probably lucky if it sells more than 100,000 copies. I may want to invest more in an unpopular, but personally enjoyable flight sim simply because I want to increase the likelihood of a follow up game.

Earlier, I emphasized the word "directly" because my desired goal is often NOT to send money to the retailers, manufacturers, or even publishers of a game, but more directly to the artists, game designers, writers, programmers, and sound designers of a game. I feel this is the best way to really say "thank you" to the creative minds who bring me a game I enjoy.

Now, you might say, "Charlie, if you like a game so much, and you want to support the developers, just buy additional copies of the game."

It's true that buying additional copies of a game means more money is going to the developer, but I believe the percentage of my retail purchase that goes to the developer may not be very high.

According to the book "Creating Games: Mechanics, Content, and Technology," the profit from a year 2006 console game sold at retail was divided among parties of the distribution chain as follows: developer (13%), publisher (32%), retail (32%), manufacturer (5%), and console royalty (18%). And while profits may not represent the whole picture of where my game purchase dollars go to, it's probably one of the best indicators.

Looking at these numbers, it appears that game development companies only get a small share of the profit when you buy a game at a retail store. Just 13%. So purchasing an additional copy of a game feels like an inefficient, even wasteful way for me to support a developer. Doing so means a great deal of my money would be going to all sorts of things that I don't need since I may already own a copy of the game. When I've played a great game and want to see more of that kind of experience from the creators of the game, I don't need people to print a new game box, burn a new copy of the same game, drive the game to a store near me, unpack it, and then take their post at the cash register.

What I want is to most effectively reward the game creators and encourage them to keep up the good work.

What I'd like to be able to do is to "tip" the game developers, in the same way you might drop a dollar in a tip jar at an eatery, or some coins into the empty instrument case of some musician at the subway station. In online terms, perhaps this could be done through something like Paypal. I'd like to see a "Click here to tip us through Paypal!" button on every game development company's website.

Heck, perhaps individual employees in a game company could have such donation methods on their personal webpages or blogs, too. Some games have great music and artwork, but awful writing. I'd probably want to tip the audio and art workers of a game more than the writers, in such a case.

Also, perhaps this incentive to donate could be provided: a promise that the short message attached to the donation is read by the developer receiving the donation (when you send payment to someone through Paypal, you have the option to send a message along with it). These messages could be requests for sequels. Or they could be requests that certain features be included in a current or future game. Multiplayer game balance suggestions. And so forth. No guarantee that any of these requests will be fulfilled, of course, but a promise that someone will at least take the time to read them. In this way, the donor feels their opinions as a fan are being heard. And the game developer may use these messages as a way to gauge public demand for new games, features, etc. A message with money attached to it has more weight than some feedback found in an e-mail or forum post, I'd imagine.

Are there many reasons such a "tip jar" system could not work for the game development industry? Do the retail and publisher middle-men have contracts with the developers that force them into not accepting tips? Or is it simply not something game developers feel they'd get any real money from? If game industry insiders read this article, I hope they can chime in.

As for the rest of us normal game consumer types, have you ever enjoyed a game so much that you felt like you got more than what you paid for? If so, what ways do you think are the best ways to support a game developer, after you've bought your copy? Would you ever tip a game developer?