Electron Dance
23Mar/178

Pay What You Should

Caroikospiel-1

The history of computer games has coincided with the history of neo-liberal economics - thus, the lack of a safety net has been perceived by many as a state of nature, as opposed to what it is - an explicit set of policy decisions functioning as instruments of ambient violence directed against the poor in order to help the rich grow richer.

--David Kanaga, Road to the IGF: David Kanaga’s Oikospiel, Book I (Gamasutra)

Surely you all remember David Kanaga? Kanaga’s renowned for his collaborative work, constructing a unique musical dimension for titles such as Dyad, Proteus and Panoramical. This year, however, he released a title which is very much his own, Oἶκoςpiel, Book I. I haven’t played it yet, but I do know it is a dog opera and was up for the IGF Nuovo award.

Having read the first instalment of my book which explores the causes of and responses to zero price gravity in indie games, Kanaga pointed me towards Oἶκoςpiel’s unusual website which appears to be a toy for game pricing.

The website asks you to submit your income and number of people living in your household, from which the site determines your personal price for the Oἶκoςpiel software; Kanaga presents it as our personal ticket to the Oἶκoςpiel experience. As your income increases, so does the price of the game but the relationship between the two is not linear. Experimentation revealed that for those on annual incomes below $20,000 the game is free, after which point, you’re charged 0.01% of your salary. The percentage rises to 0.02% around $30,000 and eventually climbs all the way to 1%. Kanaga is interested in your ability to pay, which is why increasing the number of dependents reduces the price.

As explained in the book, the market price of software is zero. In a way, Kanaga’s website admits that Oἶκoςpiel has no price but Kanaga has to make money and you’ve got to pay for your ticket for the experience. The modern response to the zero price issue revolves around fans paying more, either because they feel invested in your success or are invested in what you've created: you make all your real money from the sweet merch. Kanaga rejects that. There are no extras if you pay more. Everyone gets the same package, but those with more money are expected to subsidize those on poorer incomes.

At the same time it is a rebuke to those on large incomes, because there’s no ceiling on the price, just a ceiling on the income slider. At the top end, a customer earning $14,000,000 with no dependents should pay $14,000 for the software. A ceiling on the price would establish a “correct” price of the game and, as we know, there is no such thing.

Now, moving the mouse across the webpage causes a wind turbine to turn, which generates energy, earning a discount on the price. The more you work, the cheaper the game becomes. This resembles unethical free-to-play practices where poorer players have to grind to attain the same level of fun. Even though both models contribute to the final price, it feels as if they are being compared: free-to-play, the modern answer to zero pricing, and Kanaga’s pay-what-you-should.

oikospiel-2

Let me stop the car at the side of the road so we can chat properly. This pricing initiative is fictional, a demonstration. It’s not enforced. And Kanaga isn’t checking your tax records to verify your income submission. The price updates in real-time which means you can experiment with this system until you find a price you find reasonable. Underneath the hood, it's pay-what-you-want, not pay-what-you-should.

However, how we frame requests can change their outcome. The very first chapter in Yes!: 50 Secrets From the Science of Persuasion (Noah Goldstein & Robert B. Professor Cialdini & Steve J. Martin, 2007) showed that asking hotel guests to recycle their towels was more successful if the request mentioned that the majority of guests did it at least once during their stay. Framing the want as a should might make some feel compelled to punch in the right numbers, but these systems rarely function how you want them to. Focusing on fairness might sway the heart but it does not necessarily sway the wallet. Does it make any difference that Kanaga's pricing system is about buyer fairness as opposed to seller fairness? Its message is a little bit inscrutable for the average theatregoer.

And here, as they say, is the thing. It’s an interesting experiment but I don’t expect it to lead to anything exciting or groundbreaking. I don’t expect it change the conversation about what prices should be or need to be. It will probably only work as a device for gathering attention, generating chatter about Kanaga’s wacky pricing methodology and what it means.

And, by writing this essay, perhaps I’ve proven the point.

Oἶκoςpiel, Book I can be bought directly from the developer’s website.

Download my FREE eBook on the collapse of indie game prices an accessible and comprehensive explanation of what has happened to the market.

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Comments (8) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Let me tell you about 10 minutes ago. I came across the preview for this article on Feedly, opened both this and the pricing tool on new tabs and when straight to Oἶκoςpiel’s site (so I hadn’t read your description of the tool nor your doubts about its efficacy).

    I started playing with the tool and found the concept so compelling that I decided then and there to buy the game for whatever price it told me to. I converted dollars to Argentinian pesos only to discover I make much less than the lowest non zero value on the scale. #thirdworldproblems

  2. @David T. Marchand: I’m so glad I’m not the first one to mention that particular #thirdworldproblem. Standards of living, eh? I mean, a thousand dollars a month makes for some quite comfortable living where I’m from. And yet it’s so low you don’t have to pay shit for Oikospiel.

    @Joel: I just realized how much I love your irregular publishing schedule. Having articles surprise me in my RSS reader instead of waiting for one every Tuesday is… well, it’s better.

    @Article: I’m all for the idea, but I don’t think it should be enforced. Not in the strictest sense of the word, at least. As always, I’d say education is the way to go, and Kanaga’s system could be an enlightening spark. Art is good for the soul, and everyone should have unrestricted access to it. Those who can afford to pay, should pay, to offset for those who can’t. Noblesse oblige and all that.

    Somewhat tangentially, I’m not above libgening the fuck out of that PWYW study.

  3. David TM, so nice to see you again! I’m sure David Kanaga would be happy to hear it made him a sale but, on the other hand, it was for the agreed price of zero :0 I had thought about that because it’s a trend that runs through a lot of these pricing problems that despite the global nature of the business the numbers have a North American bias built into them.

    Ketchua I was thinking about getting three articles out this week, just to make up for lost time, but I ran out of time, which is what you would expect. I have complicated thoughts about Kanaga’s pricing mechanism. I know what he’s trying to do but, at the same time– do we just apply that to all products? If you’re effectively “autobalancing” prices against ability-to-pay then what’s the point of money? Perhaps that is Kanaga’s real point. He just wants to burn all the money.

    The results of the study are given on the Wikipedia PWYW page.

  4. I shared Oἶκoςpiel’s site and this post on a Facebook group for Latin American devs and there was some discussion. On the one hand, Steam does segment prices for some Latin American countries, and I’d love for that to happen in Argentina. I remember when The Witness came out I had a boring 8-to-5 job and 40 dollars was nearly 10% of my monthly income.

    On the other hand, if Oἶκoςpiel is any indication, maybe having fair prices for Argentinian users means charging next to nothing for most products and I can’t expect Valve to invest time into that.

  5. Valve said offering appropriate regional prices reduces piracy – that’s what they found in Russia. So I don’t think it’s out of the question. I’m not sure how that’s implemented, though, on a game by game basis or through a smart Valve algorithm.

  6. “Do we just apply that to all products?”

    That is a really good question. I’m a socialist at heart, so I’m gonna go with why the fuck not? You could argue we already have that (BMW vs Volkswagen vs a fucking Yugo), but cheap products are often shit. And there’s no reason for their being shit, apart from the desire to fleece the poor.

    As for the study – now I really wanna read it. I think their definition of fairness is problematic – it could be broken down into loyalty to seller + usage, in a way. I mean, you’re loyal to the seller because they constantly produce good work, right? And you presume you’re going to be happy with the usage, because they constantly produce good work? So what’s fairness, really? If the product is shitty, no loyalty will be built, and no usage will transpire. So you could think it’s fair you don’t give them any money the next time around. I hope I’m making sense here.

    @David: Steam has nothing to do with the price segmentation – they offer the possibility, but it’s up to the dev/publisher to use or disregard it. Valve games have had fair prices from the beginning – I remember paying less for TF2 than a Western European would, way back when. Others often don’t bother – except when it comes to huge markets like Russia, or Australia (which constantly gets shafted).

  7. Ketchua, I guess that’s what I was poking at… if we do apply that to all products then we’re effectively saying the quantity of money you possess is immaterial.

    There’s a big survey of PWYW research here and it suggests only short-term research has been done. Evidence is still pretty light.

  8. Ooh, splendid. I’m gonna look into that survey.


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