Someone on our forum just pleaded with us to make Fallen London an AAA-price, all-you-can-eat banquet, rather than our current day-by-day free-to-play rationing system. It’s a request we hear from time to time; it’s perfectly understandable, and it’s something we’ve talked about internally as well. But Fallen London will stay free-to-play, and here’s why.
First, the cost of changing the model. We currently only make about 30-35% of our revenue from action refreshes, so we seriously discussed the possibility of removing the action cap and retuning the content to be grind-free, monetising it exclusively through Nex-locked content (a smaller task than repackaging it as an AAA game). The ballpark figure we came back with for making that change is 20-25 writer-months. Yes, seriously. The content is designed to be read in small chunks, the pacing is baked into the drip-feed, the economy is all based around restricted actions. That’s a hell of an investment and it would consume our entire writing resource – even with a new hire – for a year or more, meaning we couldn’t work on anything else.
Secondly, text is a hard sell for a AAA price. Take 80 Days, an excellent game that’s been all over GOTY lists. It contains a huge amount of text – inkle says it’s about 350K words. You can buy all of it for GBP 2.99. Fallen London is four, five times the size – about 1.5 million words. I doubt we’d be able to sell it for even four or five times the price, let alone an AAA price. It would be a fire-sale deal for years of work. It would drive away the 90% of our audience who have never paid for the game (but who tell their friends, and may some day decide to pay, or buy other games like Sunless Sea).
Thirdly, we do a lot of free content updates. We wouldn’t be able to do those any more, because we need to pay the writers. The whole game was conceived as an ongoing project – it would be like one of those TV shows where a cancellation means major plotlines get tied up quickly.
Failbetter nearly went out of business a couple of years ago. StoryNexus didn’t work out for us, we weren’t getting any more client projects (the Last Court was the last) and I had to lay off half the team, all of them personal friends. Sunless Sea has done pretty well, and we’re growing, and we’re in a good place. But that near-extinction left me determined that Failbetter’s priorities would be safety, fun and profit, in that order.
Priority one: we want to be sure we can stay afloat. Priority two: we want to keep doing projects that we genuinely enjoy – which is the whole reason we’re in this business. And thirdly, money’s always nice, but that comes last.
Games are a hit-driven business. We don’t know how well our next game after Sunless Sea will do – the games industry changes wildly every year, and we are competing with entertainment leviathans and passionate, ambitious indies. So we’re spreading our bets. The great thing about Fallen London is that although it never covers all our costs, it gives us a steady and reliable income every month as long as we keep feeding it content. This gives us space for experimentation and polish elsewhere . If our next game flops – which could happen for reasons completely outside our control – we have a bit of breathing space. If we mess with Fallen London, we risk losing that breathing space, and alienating a long-term, loyal fan-base who’ve grown fond of this approach – a game you can play in five minutes in a browser tab at work.
Fallen London is staying F2P because we’re not after a quick buck – we’re in this for the long haul. This is, of course, the same reason that our monetization strategies are about the most gentle and polite in the whole industry, which is why we’ll never be rich. Industry consultants point and laugh at our bizarre strategy of earning money by making new content.
All that said…
We want to make Fallen London less grindy. We’ve taken steps in that direction already, and we’ll be taking more steps in 2015. The Gift, our latest bit of premium content, was an experiment – a chunk of lovingly polished, non-grindy, pure narrative that took extra time to make and merited a higher price. The reception has been really positive. It turns out that many of our audience like lovingly polished chunks of pure narrative. WHO KNEW. So we’ll be doing more of that.
We’re also looking at giving more value with Exceptional Friendship subscriptions. It’s difficult to make them a better deal without giving away the farm, but we think we might be able to manage a steady trickle of unique premium content each month, for EFs only. We recognise that people sometimes feel happier about signing up for a predictable expense – five or ten dollars each month – rather than picking through our giant store-house of content and guessing what’s worth paying for.
And you can also expect more stand-alone Fallen London experiences. Stay tuned.
We’re not going to stand still – we’re going to keep improving Fallen London. But Failbetter is about safety and fun first, and profit last.
If we ever go public, perhaps I’ll leave that last part out of the prospectus.