Game On!

Should All Video Games Be Free?

Jason Johnson Freelance writer and editor

Is the Internet inadvertently strangling the video game market?

Thoughts like these were percolating in Henry Smith’s head after he’d finished creating a mobile game called Spaceteam and had no idea how much he was going to charge for it. The game is an unconventional one, with two or more players working together to man a spaceship. This involves issuing oral commands to your teammates such as “Set star prism to maximum!”

The game is a hoot, but Smith feared the concept was so unusual that no one would take a chance and pay for it. If people just tried it, he was sure, sure they’d love the game play.

His next step required a leap of faith: he gave the game away for free. The approach paid off — Spaceteam went on to become a big success, garnering over 2 million downloads.

The problem is that millions of free downloads translates into zero dollars of income. In order to continue making games, Smith needed money to pay his bills, rent and insurance. In some ways, his crisis is typical of the Internet era, where we expect everything we do online to be free.


“There’re a lot of problems with charging money for digital products. Any price you slap on them is artificial in some way,” said Smith. “But I firmly believe that artists should be paid for their work.”

New problems are often an opportunity for new solutions.

Instead of following a traditional revenue model that involves buying and selling, Smith wondered, what if we invested in people?

Smith recently went to Kickstarter and asked those who loved his game to become his patrons, if they wanted. In exchange for a one-year salary of $80,000, he pledged to his backers that he would create a year’s worth of free games. They took him up on it.

“Some people paid a dollar. Others, five dollars. If I could convince them to support me, I could get by,” he said.

To help with the persuading, he had purchased a ten-dollar captain’s hat at the costume store and began appearing in it to let fans know that an actual person was behind the game, not some faceless corporate entity.


I’m not trying to get rich. I’m just trying to be sustainable

It’s an interesting social proposition, which requires having some faith in people: I gave you a free game. If you feel like thanking me, you can donate a little or a lot of money, which I’ll use to live on while making another free game.

While traditional online purchasing turns us into consumers who buy digital stuff that retains little monetary value, the patronage system lets us be altruistic and put our trust in fellow human beings. It also keeps us humble.

“I’m not trying to get rich. I’m just trying to be sustainable,” said Smith, pointing out that, even if you don’t care about things like virtue, patronage could be great for games, giving the designer the freedom to create without compromising her vision for fear of poor sales. “I selfishly don’t want to be restrained by that.”

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