On the 17th October 2013, I Fight Bears were due to release their much anticipated and eagerly awaited mobile platform title, FIST OF AWESOME (FoA). Two days before the release, things did not go to plan.
From the inception of FoA as a peculiar Valentine’s Day gift, to a successful and much lauded Kick Starter campaign, through to PR promotion and final release, the game has maintained the ability to punch a bear in the mouth.
Ever since the AWESOME preview of FoA, I have been keen to play the final release. On the morning of the 15th October I received an unexpected email saying that I could download a “secret” free version from iTunes for review but was embargoed until the 17th October, the day of release. The key bit is that I was simply asked to not shout about the game publicly but it allowed me to discuss it with my mum if I really wanted to, the email said so.
This is where things get complicated. On systems such as Steam, codes can be generated in vast quantities and distributed freely. Not so with Apple and iTunes, they give you 50 codes and that is it, end of story. Nicoll Hunt (the developer) tried to plead but to no avail. So how do give free copies of the game to 500 odd Kickstarter backers without creating a nightmare scenario? Putting it out for free for a few days before release and then changing the sales price at a later stage, was the chosen solution. If you missed your opportunity in those two days, as a backer, Nicoll would PayPal back your money. 500 would then become a smaller and hopefully more manageable number.
There is a documented approach by Mike Schramm taken for a game called Zombie Run! which faced a similar issue. Their solution was to create two versions of the same app; one was purchasable, the other free but required a password to activate in the the game itself, the studio could then distribute the password to its backers. Simple. What was not documented is that they were requested to remove the feature. They were subsequently told by Apple that the system would never be allowed again, as Nicoll found out when he approached the team behind Zombie Run!
With options exhausted, the “secret” free version was uploaded and the price would be changed in 48 hours to full retail value. The iTunes storefront started advertising the “secret” free version, because there is no inherent mechanism to have available apps not being made public immediately. Unsurprisingly, people started downloading it.
If you have not come across SavyGamer, headed by Lewie Procter, then you are simply missing out. The site specialises in finding the best possible deals in gaming and making them public knowledge. They take the time to find every exploit, discount code and bargain going, to make purchasing games cheaper. Nearly all at MGP towers have saved money due to their work and none of us have ever seemed to question these genuine savings.
So what happens when a link to a free game on the established iTunes platform lands in their laps when they know it is pre-release reward for Kickstarter backers, but remains bonafide? Is it a moral or ethical conundrum?
Lewie confirmed that he became aware of the free version via the iTunes store itself under new releases. He then reached out to Nicoll to confirm that the pricing model had not changed to Free-to-Play as this would not interest SavyGamer. Having not heard back from Nicoll, Lewie explored the situation himself and discovered the truth of the situation and SavyGamer posted the link to the iTunes store.
Lewie tweeted the following:
“SavyGamer does not exist to support developers or the industry. It exists to get the best value for my users. That is the primary function. It’s cool when getting the best for my users is aligned with supporting the nice developers, but not something I specifically aim for. It’s not uncommon for them to be aligned, but in instances where they are not, I will do whatever is best for my users”
The game was also featured on IGN and Touch Arcade in addition to SavyGamer, on the same day.
There were a few tweets that were dismayed at Lewie’s actions as they saw it as unethical, or suggested it was a betrayal of trust from within a tightly knit indie community. Mike Bithell, creator of Thomas was Alone and the upcoming Volume, commented on the SavyGamer site stating (abridged due to length for which Mike even apologises for in his post);
“….Lewie is absolutely within his rights to post this price point, and you are utterly within your rights to take advantage of it, but I would encourage you not to do so…..
… The first game is very important to indies, financially and reputation-wise. I’d encourage anyone who plays the game and enjoys it to purchase, or find some other way to put money on Nicoll’s pocket“
Lewie approached Nicoll directly for a statement to place on the SavyGamer page which reads prominently as follows;
“If you managed to grab the game while it was free and enjoy it, I’d be most grateful if you could tell your friends. Thanks!”
Having contacted Lewie if he had anything further to say, he responded;
“I totally stand by my actions, and would do the same again. I hope Fist of Awesome does well (I think it will) and I hope there’s no hard feelings between myself and Nicoll, he’s been totally reasonable throughout the situation, even though it’s no doubt been stressful for him. I’ll be buying the PC version as soon as it’s out.”
The result of this ended in Nicoll ticking lots of digital boxes late into the evening of the 15th October, changing price points, and launching the game a day early. On the morning of the 16th October 2013, I Fight Bears announced the surprise day early release of FoA across all mobile platforms. This reactionary measures caused a few logistical issues, and changed the remaining relaxed day of sorting small issues and problems before launch, to one of fire-fighting.
The thing is, for indies especially, their first day launch sales are critical. Can you chalk this lost revenue down to painful experience? Perhaps, but honestly, should you have to? Nicoll has not done anything wrong, and acted in good faith throughout. He took active measures to seek resolution to a perceived problem at an early stage and arrived at an imperfect solution based on the options available. The community that received the link to game prior to official availability appear to have acted in good faith.
It was Apple’s own system that was the failing. Perhaps Apple need to assess their own store distribution systems and implement what you would think to be quite simple changes. At the very least other indie’s following the same route should take heed and consider this issue prior to Kick Starter.
Nicoll has kindly provided the first couple of days download information;
“[FIST OF AWESOME] was downloaded 8,502 times on the first day when it was free (15th Oct), and 389 times the following “launch” day (16th) once I flicked it over to being paid. I think that’s very respectable first day sales for a £2.50 indie game, and I’d be inclined to think it’s in part because of word of mouth from people who got it for free.
So I’m really not upset with what happened at all, even if it did force my hand a bit and I had to rush my schedule. I’m happy that people who may have not have played it before got a chance to try it. I’ve had more than a few people ask if they can send money via PayPal because they felt guilty getting it for free. I ask them to gift a copy to a friend if they’re determined to give me money, but I’m really just glad they’re enjoying the game!”
FIST OF AWESOME by I Fight Bears is available from iTunes, Google Play, and Ouyya store now, and will be released on PC soon. You should buy it, not to support a new indie developer, not because there is a tale of woe and tribulation but for the right reason; it is simply a very, very good game.