June 28, 2012 1:00 AM | John Polson
PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 3 indie developers are divided when it comes to pricing strategies for their games that use cross-save or cross-play features. IndieGames speaks with one team who decided on giving access to Vita and PS3 versions for one price and two others who are undecided. The developers discuss whether a lack of precedence mixed with seemingly non-conducive, third-party publisher pricing strategies may be to blame.
The power of the PlayStation Vita, allowing consumers to continue their experience on the go, seemed a strong marketing tool, until people learned they would have to buy essentially the same game twice. This double barrier to entry seems an especially hard sell, when it doesn't exist with other online distributors. Steam doesn't require its users to purchase a game twice for Windows and Mac platforms, and the AppStore has introduced universal apps for iPad and iPhone users.
However, the Vita's launch line up of port titles didn't support either strategy, as third-party publishers re-released Vita titles but offered little financial incentive to those who owned their PS3 counterparts. Using DLC across both systems is not the same as using an entire game for one price.
The only "universal apps" are found in Sony's least marketed Network sector, where PlayStation Minis carry a one-time purchase. They then can be played on PSP, PS3, and PS Vita hardware.
When extra development is required, those involved probably should get compensated somehow (Pub Fund, perhaps?). In the case of the "Wipeout HD Fury Add-On Pack," Sony decided not to pass this burden onto consumers. Owners of PSN game Wipeout HD and its Fury expansion can get their content for free to use on the Vita with the base Wipeout 2048 game. And if players purchase this pack via the Vita, they get the PS3 version for free.
Indie developer Vblank Entertainment embraces a one-time purchase strategy for its PSN title. Consumers will only have to pay once to access the Vita and PS3 versions of Retro City Rampage, which will make use of cross-save and cross-play features.
Similarly, Clever Beans' Martin Turton of upcoming PS3/Vita title When Vikings Attack shared that while Sony will make the final call on the price, the publisher is supportive of a single purchase to unlock both versions. "When it comes to cross-play, we really believe that it's pretty unreasonable to expect gamers to pay twice for the same content on two different platforms, particularly since we're really pushing cross-play as a USP that we want people to use. Therefore we want a single purchase to unlock both versions, for the same price as a single normal game."
Turton feels this will create a lot of goodwill among consumers. "[I]t allows them to spend more time with the game and therefore feel that they are getting better value from it and having more fun with it; and it also means that the multiplayer lobbies will have more players (of various skill levels) to play against, when you go online, since PS3 and Vita players will be able to freely play against each other."
He admits he had not looked at the cross-play pricing of other games, retail or indie, when making this decision. "It just feels like the most sensible thing for us to do. We don't think this would be any different if we were a larger developer.
"We think that the appeal of the 'buy-once' deal, which should hopefully attract more people to buy the game, far outweighs any extra sales we might get from people who are prepared to buy the game twice, especially considering that requiring two separate purchases would be likely to cause a fair backlash. Basically, we want to price the game in a way that would attract us to buy it ourselves."
Some self-publishing PS3/Vita indies are less certain about their stance on pricing, such as Dave Carrigg of Retro Affect. After blogging about the IGF nominated and PAX 10 showcased title Snapshot, Carrigg did not expect consumers to want one of the versions for free.
"The idea of having a single purchase for games across different platforms is really interesting to me. Years ago, if you wanted to play a game on your PC as well as on your Mac, you'd need to buy separate versions. Now it's starting to become expected that if you purchase a game for the PC, you'll also own the Mac and Linux versions if they are available. We've seen this slowly become more of a standard over the past few years with the help of the various indie bundles or Steam's 'SteamPlay'. Similarly on iOS, we have universal apps.
"The big question in my mind is where will the line be drawn? A single purchase for the Vita and PS3 versions of a game seems like the first time where we're seeing this jump between two platforms with such large hardware and software differences. In the end, I'd rather see more people enjoying Snapshot than charge them for another copy of the game. We'll be supporting shared saved games between the two versions, so we'd love to see players taking advantage of those features without needing to pay twice the price."
When asked if this hypothetical bundle would cost more than buying Snapshot on just one console, he wasn't sure. Carrigg also doesn't feel "comparing what a super small studio like Retro Affect produces against something like Metal Gear Solid is a good way to go about [setting prices]."
When asked if Snapshot is competing for the same digital dollar as other titles, he replied, "Don't get me wrong, we should definitely consider what other digitally distributed games are selling for. However, we should only be considering games that are similar to our own. It doesn't make much sense to compare Snapshot, our small independent game, to something like Metal Gear Solid. MGS is a fantastic series, but what they are producing is a much different experience than what we are producing.
"Additionally, in terms of competing for the same dollar, as someone who plays video games, paying top dollar for a new release isn't very appealing to me (and even less appealing is paying twice). The price of your game is just another barrier of entry for a lot of players, and as a small studio, it's easier for us to lower that barrier of entry. For me personally, the best moments of development are showing the game to a new player, and seeing them enjoy playing it. I'd much rather have more people playing the game, than have another dollar in my pocket."
On the other hand, DrinkBox Studios' COO Graham Smith felt they were competing with everything else on the market when releasing the critically acclaimed Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack on Vita. "We knew that our game would not just be competing with other downloadable games, but also every retail game. Part of the reason we decided to price our game the way we did was that we wanted to stand out from the crowd. We thought that we had a good game, and we really wanted people to notice it and buy it!"
Though not presently touting cross-play features, his studio is also uncertain of how to price their upcoming PS3 and a Vita Guacamelee! game. "[T]he fact that we plan to support a cross save between the two versions, it may make sense for us to bundle these two together in some way. We definitely want people who have both systems to be inclined to get both versions of the game, but we know people will not be happy to pay for the game twice. When we are closer to launching the game we'll look at what other games have come out that are doing something similar, and see if we think their approach also makes sense for us."
Regarding setting a reasonable price, Smith says his studio tries to think about decisions from the standpoint of the gamer. "We don't want people to ever feel like they are being ripped or not getting a good value. I think this is why Valve has such a good reputation in the gaming world: they always seem to know what people want and they do a good job of providing value."
That value can come at an additional expense to the developer and publisher with porting costs to cover, which can be expensive depending on the difference between the platforms. "Sometimes the games also have new features (e.g. in the case of Vita: Touch support, Near, etc). So I do think it is fair for the publisher/developer to expect to have some money from the second release of the game.
"However, maybe charging full price for the new version is a bit unfair if the person already owns the game on another platform. Having some kind of bundle for multiple versions of the game has only now become possible due to the unified store between the PS3 and the Vita, so it will be interesting to see what games decide to do with this feature over the next year."