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What Can Music Learn From Video Games?

In an interview at a recent tech conference, Gabe Newell, co-founder of Valve (the video game company behind Half-Life and Portal), gives some fantastic hard data on the economics of sale pricing and freemium models of digitally distribution.

For those of you who aren't gamers, Value has a web service called Steam where you can purchase a game online and have it download directly to your computer instead of having to buy a physical copy of the game. You can download the game any number of times, but you have to be signed in to your account online to play. Simple, unobtrustive DRM (digital rights management) that protects creators but doesn't screw legitimate customers.


With an estimated 70% of the digital game distribution market, Steam has access to more data than you could ever ask for on pricing and consumer behavior.

And they decided to share some insights with us. Groovy.

From the Geekwire transcript of the talks, Gabe Newell on piracy:
One thing that we have learned is that piracy is not a pricing issue. It’s a service issue. The easiest way to stop piracy is not by putting antipiracy technology to work. It’s by giving those people a service that’s better than what they’re receiving from the pirates. For example, Russia. You say, oh, we’re going to enter Russia, people say, you’re doomed, they’ll pirate everything in Russia. Russia now outside of Germany is our largest continental European market.
...the people who are telling you that Russians pirate everything are the people who wait six months to localize their product into Russia. … So that, as far as we’re concerned, is asked and answered. It doesn’t take much in terms of providing a better service to make pirates a non-issue.
Pay attention to your customer's wants and needs and they'll pay you for the effort. This business knowledge is far from new, yet it's also ludicriously easy to overlook. Don't do draconian DRM as it'll chase off paying customers and move them to less-hassle piracy.

Software-as-a-service / cloud platforms such as iCloud and Spotify seem to be the way forward as they balance DRM with customer service and price. However, royalties from these sources are small and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Use them as entry-level services for new fans but don't put your entire catalog on them.

Gabe goes on to talk about the company's pricing experiment by making Team Fortress 2 a free-to-play (aka freemium) game:
Why is free and free to play so different? Well then you have to start thinking about how value creation actually occurs, and what it is that people are valuing, and what the statement that something is free to play implies about the future value of the experience that they’re going to have.

And then the conversion rate, when we talk to partners who do free-to-play, a lot of people see about a 2 to 3 percent conversion rate of the people in their audience who actually buy something, and then with Team Fortress 2, which looks more like Arkham Asylum in terms of the user profile and the content, we see about a 20 to 30 percent conversion rate of people who are playing those games who buy something.

So that’s a fairly surprising and fairly recent statistic, which is that there seems to be something about the content that significantly changes how your monetization occurs, with apparently much broader participation than you would see out of something like FarmVille.
They first get the customer interested in the product, then increase the value they offer to the customer as the customer become more commited. Again, it's a simple concept that's simple to forget.

No matter whether your're talking about video games or music, It's all about making it easy to become a fan.

1 comment:

  1. From my experience with Steam, that remark about pricing vs experience is absolutely true. I remember when it first came out and it was awful - slow, buggy, and a huge pain in the ass. They didn't jack up the price of games or anything, but it was miserable to use. A few years later, they'd fixed most of the user experience issues and it was great, particularly if you had multiple PCs. I think services like Spotify will be the rough equivalents to Steam in the music realm. It's interesting to watch big music retailers experiment in the same way as Valve (see and speculate what the downstream effect on labels/etc will be.