Show Me the Money

Are your avid fans your best fans? In the world of movies, your best fans are the ones that watch your movie 15 times and bring in loads of cash. And to the best of my knowledge, avid movie fans rarely ask for ongoing changes to the movie.

One avid Neverwinter Nights (NWN) player posted a request on the BioWare board. He was concerned because when a player logs out of NWN then logs back in again, their hit points reset. This feature has become a cheat on fan-created persistent worlds. Some BioWare employees that frequent the board happened to see the post and explained it’s designed that way. After all, it’s not a MMOG, it’s a traditional RPG.

Soon, a minor feeding frenzy began, as several other persistent world makers complained that BioWare was ignoring them. They demanded better support! One poster claimed to have sold 10 copies of the game to his friends, and he felt this entitled him to some attention.

Now, as I do the math, even if we assume this poster sold NWN and both of its expansion packs to all of his friends – all at their maximum prices – it’s unlikely BioWare received more than $200-400 of that money. I suspect the – count ’em – 18 patches (so far) BioWare has released for NWN (most of which were full of goodies that will never be used in the single player campaign) have already been more than a fair exchange for that money.

Admittedly, it is generally considered reasonable for users of development tools – and that’s what NWN is to these avid fans – to want ongoing support, so long as they are still using the software and the company is still selling it. But let’s face it; the business model of an off-the-shelf game can’t handle supporting its users to the same level that Microsoft would support Visual Studio users. What we have, here, is a business model that doesn’t quite fit.

For that matter, why would a company like BioWare want to make a game like NWN, which still requires continuous support three years later for its avid community, when they can make Knights of the Old Republic and sell more copies without having to worry about investing additional time and money? And don’t free user-created mods actually compete with BioWare’s own expansion packs?

Jay Watamaniuk, BioWare’s community manager, told me the primary reason they support their community was because BioWare was “passionate about RPGs,” and they “wanted to support … fans with a [toolset as] many had asked for … “

I got a similar story from Ian “Tiberius” Frazier, the leader of Team Lazarus, who developed a remake of Ultima 5 for Dungeon Siege (DS) by Gas Powered Games (GPG). He found GPG “spectacularly helpful,” and said they were “always trying their best to provide tech support.” When asked why he thought they were supportive, Tiberius said he didn’t feel it was primarily to help sales, because he doubted the popular Lazarus mod had sold more than a few hundred additional copies of DS. He felt GPG was altruistically motivated because he could see how excited GPG was about the mod.

Still, companies exist to make profit. There is something to be said about keeping around a core group of players that continue to keep your game relevant by building mods for it three years after release. Team Lazarus’ Ultima 5 got an estimated 10,000 downloads within the first month of its release. That’s 10,000 players dusting off an old game and getting excited again. Not bad for a three-year-old game. Those expensive hardcore fans have a use after all!

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Watamaniuk added that giving ongoing support to the NWN community makes sense because it “demonstrates that when [BioWare develops] a game, [they] also support it after it is in the hands of the gamers.” He pointed to the fact that GameSpy ranks NWN in the top 10 games played online three years after its release. No doubt NWN‘s ability to sell a gold, platinum and diamond edition of their game is also due in part to its long-lived community. But there must be a better way to get that community to pay for itself, and at the same time give them more of what they want.

One possible way of getting your fan community to pay for itself is to have one of them produce the next Counter-Strike for your game. A mod so popular, it sells additional units of your game, is every developer’s dream. But this is a long shot, at best, and is a gamble, not a business plan. BioWare has addressed this issue by selling premium modules to their community. BioWare is essentially selling more to their most avid fans.

But let’s go back to Microsoft and Visual Studio. Why can Microsoft afford to charge big bucks for Visual Studio and its accompanying technical support? It’s because Microsoft’s users can make money using their tools. Perhaps the answer to funding avid game fans starts with allowing them to make money.

Maybe we should look to Garage Games. Currently, most mod communities have an EULA that basically says making money off the mod is illegal. By comparison, Garage Games sells the Torque engine, which was originally built for Tribes 2, and they offer to publish the games running on the engine. By encouraging their developer and mod community to actually try to make money, they make money as well.

Admittedly, this business model has its perils. Dealing with sticky copyright, licensing and joint-ownership issues presents a problem. And frankly, most game companies are just not interested joining the “indie publishing” business. A wise man once told me, “You can make money selling shoes, but that doesn’t mean all companies should sell shoes.” Perhaps the best economic model is still yet to be discovered.

There is no doubt that longer shelf-life is a need for the industry. Having three-year-old games that still sell is definitely a start. I’m not the only one who thinks user-created content may be the solution, but only a solid business/economic model will carry that trend. If it’s true that “money makes the world go ’round,” the company with the best economic model will win the day, both by making the most money and by having the happiest community by giving them the best possible support.

Bruce Nielson is the designer of The Light Reborn, a critically acclaimed and popular module series for Neverwinter Nights, and runs The Online Roleplayer, a fan site. He was also the producer for the Great Battles of History series created by Erudite Software and Interactive Magic.

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