Why Freeware?

Many of the developers that I respect release their games for free. And so there comes a point that you may want to give them something back for bringing you hours of playtime for absolutely zero monetary gain. There are those that accept donations or sell merchandise, but the vast majority just tell you that the joy of having someone play their game is enough, especially if they hear that players were fond of it too. I refer mainly to Locomalito when I say this, who has a philosophy that he abides by when developing and releasing games. One of his tenets is to create freeware, and the reason for that is:

“I publish as freeware for many reasons. Mainly because I’m a crazy man who loves the freedom of publishing games in his own page, right when – and how – he wants. But also, to predicate a video game scene that exists beyond industry boundaries, a video game scene centered on the joy of playing.”

I should add to that that Locomalito does accept donations now, though he hasn’t always. Fans insisted that they were able to do it somehow, so after some unwillingness, he got around to doing it. But the important thing is the reasons. As he says, it’s partly because he wants to have complete freedom and having paying customers can upset that at times. The other reason is in hopes of having a scene that is focused purely around the “joy of playing.” It seems almost poetic, and to some it’s a pipe dream, I expect.

Maldita Castilla

Apparently, there are people out there who have a problem with swallowing truth about the reasons behind freeware games. I guess it has something to with the current trends when it comes to releasing games. There are more free-to-play games on offer than ever before these days, and while the price of entry has been removed, the presence of microtransactions are an easily identifiable answer to why these games are free to play – because the money is made elsewhere. So I’ve been asked by a few different people as to why developers release their games for free, and frankly, I’m not the one to answer that. For a start, I’m pretty sure that every developer has their own reasoning, so giving one or just a few answers wouldn’t really cut it. Naturally, I reached out to a few developers to see what kinds of answers I’d get from them. Just how many answers are there?

The simple question posed to them was: why freeware?

I was searching for the answers that were not tied to money in any form specifically. For instance, there are plenty of Flash games that are uploaded to various websites and are free, but the reasoning for that, quite often, is because they are sponsored or bring back revenue to the developer from adverts. So I’m deliberately avoiding those kinds of releases. We’re talking about free free. No adverts, no sponsors, no microtransactions. FREE.

Freedom

Sophie HouldenMy first chat, and the longest, was with Sophie Houlden. She decided to throw many answers my way, a few of which were repeated by other developers, it’s worth noting. Sophie has a range of free games and games available at a price, all of which you can see here. So what was interesting to me is what she perceived the differences were for her when developing a game she intends to release for free against one that she would ask a price for.

Sophie started off by saying that, for her (and doubtless many others), the reasons for creating freeware varies quite a bit. She elaborates:

“Making something for money is craaaaazy stressful. Will it sell? Will I have to support it later? Do I really want people judging me on this (I assume and I guess most people judge a dev on what they are prepared to charge for)? How long can I afford to work on this?

But the thing is most of us like making games, so we’ll make stuff anyway, but that’s kind of like a hobby, whereas games I make to sell I feel like that is work. It’d be weird to sell stuff I made just to please myself in my off-time, I guess. But there is also an issue of freedom. With Splat Death Salad I could tweak it a bit and totally charge for it, but then people would expect 100% uptime, balancing fixes and so on, but since it’s free, I owe nobody nothing. I’m free to spend my time working on other stuff.

But that’s not the only freedom. Like I made Swift*Stitch PC free for an entirely different reason; I was wanting to make money from it, and nobody was buying it. It was kind of killing me that I was so broke. It felt like clinging to a life-raft made of lead or something. Much better to just sever ties. Instead of having all that stress tied up in the thing, now it’s just a game I’ve made, and I can’t resent it for not helping me out or anything. Obviously, stuff like that is pretty personal. I know a lot of devs just like to release stuff for free. We want people to play with our stuff after all.”

It’s the answer I was expecting, partially. And I suspect that it’s one that many hobbyist and upcoming game developers will concur with. Charging for a game adds a pressure, and I think it does incite players to judge a developer and their work – surely what you’re prepared to charge for is a measure of what a developer feels is worthy of a price gate? Perhaps it doesn’t indicate what a developer perceives to be their best work, though. Moreover, it’s what they think people are prepared to pay for, and will be satisfied upon doing so. And that consideration is more likely weighed against What Sells rather than a measure of quality.

Swift*Stitch

It’s also a matter of taste too. If a developer wants to charge for a game, they may consider a small but affecting experience, or a weird trip through a strange land worthy of the asking price, whereas the vast majority of paying players will expect something that can be equated to other games of the same price. If they’re paying the $60 asking price of a AAA game, they’ll want something with features that add up to be about the same. Unfortunately, I think that mostly comes down to gameplay hours and quality of graphics for a lot of players. The question in such a case is always what else you could spend the same amount of money on. Releasing a game for free mostly eradicates those thought processes.

Sophie adds that she never sets out with the intention of “testing the waters,” as in seeing if a game concept is able to catch attention, and if so, then developing it further for a commercial release. Adding to that, she acknowledges that a couple of her free games have been worked on more and developed into commercial releases (like Zagi-Zigi becoming Swift*Stitch), but the intention was never there initially; it wasn’t until after that the potential was seen. She says she makes free games entirely for the pleasure she gets from making stuff. The joy of the craft.

Lastly, Sophie notes that making free games is something that she does primarily for herself. And for that reason she doesn’t feel the need to get rid of the rough edges or to make sure that it’s compatible with all the different computers out there.

“They say that “the last 10% of a project is really the last 90%,” and that’s true. For my free games I usually just skip that last 10%.”

Free Play

Joshuah RileyNext up is Joshuah Riley, who says that he doesn’t class himself as a freeware developer as his ambitions lie beyond making games of this type. However, he acknowledges that all of this games up to this point certainly are freeware. His first reason for making freeware is related to the amount of time he can offer game development, and that affects the type of games he is able to create. Having a full-time job, a wife and two kids and having that pestering need to sleep means that game development is confined to tiny numbers of hours a week. And while he does think his games might be worth something, and the same argument could be pitched as a reason to charge for his games, he’d rather release his games for free simply so that more people will play them.

“A game I sell will likely have fewer than 100 people play, and will be a “success” if I even breach double digits. Games I release freely are basically guaranteed to have thousands of players. It’s also really cool that a decent amount of those players will choose to interact with me, which is incredibly satisfying. The idea that people I will likely never be within a thousand miles of have gotten to know me in this unique way is really incredible to me.”

Another reason Joshuah gives is being able to make weird things, like he wants to. He notes that his current game in development is a “roguelike/shmup with randomly generated dubstep and a color palette that changes on screen to the beat,” and that he hasn’t seen any of those on Steam. Nor have I, unfortunately (now I want to). Not having to worry about profitability enables him to create whatever it is that he wants, and enjoy creating. Related to that is his other reason, and that is being able to learn new things while making his games. Before his current project, he had never tried randomly generated maps, AI or music generation, and he says that if he went out with the intention of selling the game, then he probably wouldn’t have taken the risk in doing so. As we touched on previously, Joshuah says that making a commercial game would lead him to make something familiar and easy, and that he knew people would want to buy as based on proven sale stats.

Joshuah finished up by saying that if he could make games full-time, then he would, as it’s the most rewarding and challenging thing he does. However, he says he makes the games that he wants to play, and not the ones that will sell. If a happy middle ground does occur, then he’ll jump at the opportunity, but he’d still be very excited to see as many people play the game, and would probably give it to people for free anyway.

I’m glad to say that Nuphrator also got in touch to add his reasoning behind making free games. You can read my previous article about him and his games here, but to say they’re experimental and highly interesting (to me) would be an understatement. He said:

“When you create a freeware game, your game is literally free – you don’t need to adjust any aspect of your game to a particular audience. You can make anything you want. You’re free. And if you are making short and experimental games with lack of classic gameplay and good looking graphics, you shouldn’t demand money for your games.”

Nuprahtor

Another who got in touch to add a couple of sentences on this topic was C.Y. Reid, who makes games under the name Failnaut. If you haven’t played Hug Marine yet, then go and do that; it’s sweet. His reasoning for making freeware games is as follows:

“For me, it’s because game development is still a learning experience, and my games are my attempts, rather than my products. Up until that point, advertising seems the wiser option, especially as I think you run the risk of cutting off a massive part of a 2013 audience by asking for cash before entry. I do worry this is devaluing the art form, though.”

Last one for now is Kerri Brown of Living Midnight. Kerri noted that she and the others at Living Midnight do have one commercial game, but the rest of their game development efforts are part of One Game A Month or Ludum Dare and, as such, can take anywhere from a day to a few weeks to make, as opposed to the commercial app, which was made over the course of a year. She was generous enough to give me a list of reasons for making free games:

- to battle obscurity and raise our company profile
- to take risks we might not take in a commercial game
- to churn out prototypes and gauge public reception to determine the direction we should be taking with our commercial games
- to build community with other developers
- to keep my skills as a composer/artist tooled up, since there’s always less for me to do than Wampus (the programmer) on our commercial games

So, to those people who have approached me (for reasons unknown to me) with the question of why developers make games and release them for free, I hope that goes some way to answering that question. It’s certainly a much more rounded answer than you’d get from just me, and it showcases the many different and often personal reasons why developers spend so much time on making something and don’t put a price on it.