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Developers: Stop trying to sell levels. The public don’t want them.

By on December 10, 2009
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I spend a lot of time talking to games developers about downloadable content.

And they always say “We’re going to make bonus levels and maps and sell them as downloadable content”.

Which is a terrible idea.

it’s a terrible idea because of all the different types of microtransaction content, consumers are least likely to pay for levels, map or extra content,.

They’re more likely to pay $2 for a Santa hat or to have their weapon recharge faster.

So why do developers keep trying to sell levels?

Selling what is expensive to make, not what customers want to buy

The problem is simple.

Making a new level is expensive. It takes lots of artists and designers lots of time.

Making a new Santa hat or shirt for your virtual world avatar is laughably cheap.

So developers want to make money from the thing that is most expensive to make.

Which is logical but utterly flawed. That’s putting supply needs ahead of demand needs. And that usually ends in tears.

Developers should accept that their role now is to make a world in which consumers play, and make money from it by selling players the things that they want (which may in fact be the cheapest items to develop of all).

The alternative is to spend a lot of money building expensive assets that consumers won’t pay for.


(Note: I acknowledge that this analysis holds more closely for PC/browser-based games than it does for console titles. Console gamers are more used to paying for content, and are therefore happier than freemium players to pay for extra levels. However, I think that this is likely to change over time.)

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve:
  • IPete2

    I guess, taking Igor Pusenjak as a solid example of a successful developer, perhaps ‘levels’ and ‘santa hats’ in his case are the continuous additions he makes to “Doodle Jump” to keep it fresh? That strategy does seem to have racked up millions of sales and a huge following, as well as a huge revenue. Do you class iPhone as a console?

  • I agree with you that console developers prefer levels.

    but elsewhere, selling items that engender feelings, impart status or build friendships are more successful.

    My suggestion thereforep; give away the levels to build longevity. Find other things to monetise.

  • If you ask a COD or MOH gamer what would they prefer, new levels or a santa hat, they’d be getting more new levels.

    The answer is on one hand, much simpler, sell both, if that’s what they want. But therein lies the problem, the game, the platform, the player and the developer are far too complex an intertwined relationship to resolve or define as easily as “sell santa hats” – that’s a good way to make a fast buck in a holiday season, but the surely the more people that play a game for longer, due to extra downlaodable levels are exposed for longer to more opportunities to sell up to, so by adding more levels, you should be able to earn more.

    Extra levels do not limit the number of people who can access an area, the arguement is no different to “if they want to pay $50,000 for kevlar, let them”, except in this case more people can afford the ‘kevlar’.

  • The answer to “why not sell levels?” is relatively easy. Every time you limit the number of people who can access an area, you are putting barriers to people consuming and enjoying your content (and eventually paying for it). The risk is that by selling levels, you *can't* sell Santa hats etc because only those people who have already paid for a level can buy one, and they don't want to because they've paid for a level. But I accept your comment that this is a complicated topic, and console gamers definitely behave differently to free-to-play brower-based gamers. In my opinion (and that of Diane Legrange, see the Meluzine tweet below) is that it is better to give levels away and sell content, because that gets the highest number of gamers into your universe to see if they like your world. Which means that people like you are more likely to get your levels for free. Isn't that a good thing?

  • Appleseeds

    I think your article is a simplistic view on a complicated topic. While you touch on a good point (levels are expensive), not all gamers are the same. I would personally pay for extra content while I would not look twice at a Santa Hat. From my experience, gamers do not have the same mentality but everyone wants to improve their in-game entertainment. So why not sell levels?

  • ChrisBateman

    I agree with you; there is a market for extra content on console, but not in the “open market” where cosmetic items are more valuable than pure content. I also concur that the root of this is thinking in terms of the value of the work done, not on the sale value of the item. If developers want to make good money selling virtual items, they need to poll their users for what they would like, not guess that it will match the developer's assumptions.

    Best wishes!