Voluntarily Worthless


There’s an excellent blog post from Puppygames developer Cas making the rounds today. Though framed as a rant, it’s really a critical piece about the state of the game industry that takes out multiple sacred cows with a barrage of rhetorical cruise missiles.

Cas’ argument mostly concerns the downward spiral of indie game pricing, spurred by giants like Steam (as well as retailers that are merely tall, like The Humble Store), and how this has created a situation where customers are individually worthless. A game that sells for one dollar may make money, or may not, but regardless of how much it does or doesn’t make the low price creates a situation where providing after-sale support of is always a net loss.

This is true even if a customer is unhappy and swears never to buy from the developer again. Why? Because developers only make so many games, and even losing out on five future sales means losing out on just five dollars. If we assume an indie dev is trying to squeeze out a reasonable living wage ($25 dollars an hour, let’s say) the break even point is only twelve minutes. The developer loses money if fixing a customer’s problem would take more than twelve minutes to solve.

And that, again, is using the charitable assumption that the customer will not buy their next five games on the basis of bad support. If the developer assumes a bad support experience will only impact the next game (what’s the chance the customer will even remember the developer two or three years from today?) then a support problem only makes sense to address if it takes less than five minutes to solve.

These comments are directly at games, but they can be applied to software and online services as a whole. Recently I’ve expressed frustration with Google; their shit is proving unreliable for me, and it sucks, as there’s no customer service to speak of. I hate that, and I particularly hate it because I’ve already given up a portion of my privacy to use what Google offers.

But, using the logical of Cas’ rant, it’s not entirely Google’s fault. Digital content is often a race to the bottom, and by signing up for Gmail (and other free services) I became a willing participate. I voluntarily made myself worthless. And I still do hundreds of times every year by downloading free apps and using free services. At this point a paid option sometimes isn’t a choice; as consumers we’ve made ourselves worthless, so companies treat us as such.

I’ve reversed course on my use of freebies as of late and have begun to sign up for paid services, but it seems like too little, too late. Digital is increasingly replacing physical for many items and services, and digital is all too often thought of as a synonym for free. And in a world where all is free everything - and everyone - is worthless.