Who is a bad customer?

For a long while now, the video game industry has had a very simplistic definition of a “good customer” and a “bad customer.” A good customer is someone who pays you $60 for your game (and better yet, pre-orders it.) A bad customer is someone who buys a used copy of your game or worse, pirates it. The problem is, this worldview ignores a variety of important factors and doesn’t translate very well to the digital markets that most indies are focused on.

Tell me which of these people is the best customer:

  • Customer A: pays 99 cents for a copy of your game immediately after launch, gives it a 1-star rating for some trivial reason and deletes it forever.
  • Customer B: pays 99 cents for a copy of your game, gives it a 5-star rating and even tweets regularly about it, but is such a toxic presence in the forums and/or in-game that she drives other customers away.
  • Customer C: pays 99 cents for a copy of your game and enjoys it, but never rates it and does nothing to promote it.
  • Customer D: pirates your game and regularly tweets about how awesome it is to her hundreds of followers. She also eagerly and politely answers the questions of newbies who visit your forums and happily beta tests your new games.

Customer C might have seemed more attractive at a $60 price point, but at 99 cents she isn’t generating much profit for a game’s developer. When reaching the top of the charts means everything (as it tends to in digital markets) I’d rather have help reaching critical mass than have another 99 cents in my pocket. Sorry, 70 cents after the platform’s cut. (Five more of those sales and I’ve got myself a latte!)

But there’s a bigger question: why are you even trying to sell your game in the first place? When piracy rates are sky-high and even big companies like Ngmoco have turned to F2P as their saving grace, why bet on being the next Angry Birds when the odds are way more likely that you’ll be the next corpse on the pile of well-intentioned indie devs?

The F2P world does a brilliant job of forcing developers to focus on the true definition of “good customer.” You stop worrying about landing that 99 cent sale up front and start worrying about what matters:

  • Is this person going to eventually convert into a paying customer? If not,
  • Is this person going to effectively evangelize my game to other people? (i.e. are they essentially free advertising.) If not,
  • Is this person going to be a positive presence inside and/or outside the game, helping to keep it alive and healthy if not grow?

Only someone who fails all three of those tests might be a bad customer.

3 responses to “Who is a bad customer?

  1. Great post. Our next game will be F2P.

  2. I agree it’s a good thing to analyze the potential gains from piracy for content developers. However, is this the most balanced discussion? For one, your list is missing customer categories E, F, G and H —customers who purchase your title and will also market it virally just as well as the pirate user in your D scenario; and then the other three categories of pirate downloaders who either do nothing to promote the game (akin to category C); Trash the game publicly for trivial reasons (akin to category A); or harp it’s tune so much it turns others off. Adding to that, one might even presume that a user with a pirated copy may be more likely to delete it trivially and give poor reactions to the game when they haven’t spent money on it, whereas a customer who actually purchased it might invest more time in playing the game for a while first. Leaving the ‘angel marketing user’, who could be either honest customer or pirate user, except I wonder if any pirate users would be ashamed to boast about a game they didn’t pay for, potentially making the pirate user less likely to virally spread the game as the actual customer who has no danger of such hangups.

    I also think it’s naive to approach the game market with a goal of ‘getting into the top of the charts’ because getting into the charts isn’t what makes us devs an income, it’s from customers buying the games. And if everyone pirated the game, then sure, we might get into the charts but it kind of defeats the point if we cannot make money.

    Finally, F2P might seem like the best option to get around piracy, but consider this: if we choose not to demonize piracy in any manner and begin to welcome it as beneficial, then what happens when some clever coder, one day figures out how to hack in-app-purchases so users can get them for free and bypass the system? Haven’t we just expressed to society a permissive stance on taking things in this manner? And then how does that leave content industries?

  3. Luke’s final point is valid. You can use certain software and a very good internet connection (speed + bandwidth) to send a tremendous number of transaction requests to a web game all at once. Very often you’ll find that you are able to make spurious purchases. That particular case can be fixed by anticipating it, but Free To Play does not entirely avoid bad actors.

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