Developers won’t be able to sell their games on the upcoming Samsung and Oculus VR platform Gear VR for the first few months. The payment system won’t be ready in time for launch, which means you can either hold your content back until the payment system is ready, release a demo or just give your game away.
"It was a surprise. I immediately had to rethink my launch strategy," E. Mcneill, the developer of Darknet, told Polygon. "The obvious solution was either to delay the release or to make some sort of Darknet lite version, but both options seemed awkward to me. The game is set to be finished in time for the Gear VR launch; am I really just going to put it away in a drawer for months?"
He didn’t want to miss the launch of the hardware, and neither option sounded right, so he decided to simply give the game away. This is why.
The importance of early exposure
"This is how I think of it: I'm giving away Darknet as a gift to the early adopters of VR, and I expect that they'll go tell the rest of the world about it, for better or worse," he explained. "This whole strategy only benefits me if Darknet is actually a good game. By the time the game has a price tag on it, plenty of players will already be talking about their experiences with it, and I'm betting everything on the belief that they'll be saying good things."
"All I can gain from this is good will and exposure. That doesn't sound like much when your income depends on actual sales, but I think it's going to be important. Obscurity is by far the biggest danger for indies like me, and this is a chance to stand out."
This is the issue with VR development in general right now. There are a small group of players who are interested enough in the technology to be an early adopter to the "Innovator’s Edition" of Gear VR, and it’s unknown what they’ll be willing to pay for software when for-pay games are released on the marketplace.
"Darknet is a weird game, being developed for a small group of early adopters, and I'm about to give it away for free. It's a risky game for a risky platform with a risky launch strategy," McNeill said. "At some point, you should probably just say that I'm crazy."
"Still, I don't think this is as insane as it seems at first blush. Darknet is already designed to be one of the deeper and more gameplay-oriented experiences on Gear VR. If it's one of the only full premium games available at launch, it has a chance to really stand out."
The idea is that everyone with a Gear VR at launch downloads and loves the game, and they talk about it to friends and other VR enthusiasts online. When the device reaches a larger audience, and the payment system is finished, people will buy the game to see what the buzz was about. It's a play for mindshare over profits, at least for the first few months.
This is a trick McNeill has used before. He released his first game, Auralux, for free on Reddit for 24 hours. "In response, Reddit pretty much launched my indie game career. That first surge of attention and good will led to the game being ported to mobile, and it was the proceeds from Auralux that allowed me to spend so much time on Darknet."
"It's clearly a big financial risk," he said. "Darknet has been surprisingly expensive to build, and my games are my only source of income."