Free as in ‘Pay What You Want’?

There’s a phenomenon that happens whenever someone tries a ‘pay what you want’ exercise online that’s always mystified me. People often get angry, express disappointment or even serious feelings of being ‘let down by the human race’ – all because some people want to get a ‘pay what you want product’ for free. This reaction has always confused me for a couple of reasons, predominantly since by all appearances doesn’t paying ‘what I want’ also include paying nothing?

I got into a semantic discussion the other day with Travis Megill of The Autumnal City about the Humble Indie Bundle. At that time I was seeing a lot of re-tweets and general bemoaning of the fact that the humble indie bundle was being pirated on torrent sites. Rock Paper Shotgun’s John Walker is apparently commenting on the same situation in a post about the Bundle, indirectly referencing those torrenters, when he says, “You might today be feeling a little sad for one reason or another. Perhaps you are feeling ill toward particular fellow humans.” I remarked on twitter that I didn’t see what the fuss was about – the sellers of the bundle are letting people pay what they want for these games already, clearly some people are just choosing to pay nothing implied by the ‘pay what you want’ slogan. Or so I thought.

Travis informed me that you couldn’t actually input $0 and still get the humble indie bundle, instead you get shown a picture of a ‘starving indie game dev’ with a puppy-dog look on his face. Joe Tortuga informed me that the least you could pay for the bundle was 1c. For people paying via a credit card in a foreign denomination (i.e. non USD currency) they will also get charged a conversion fee, possibly on top of a credit card surcharge, making the minimum purchase price somewhere around a dollar or so.

Cost breakdowns aside, I had assumed that “pay what you want” comprised being able to choose to pay nothing. Yet this is clearly not the case, the next question being why? Is this an ambiguity in the ‘pay what you want’ phrase itself? Clearly it’s an issue as even John Walker in the same Rock Paper Shotgun article jubilantly notes that “people…needn’t have paid anything.” Even Walker seems to be under the misapprehension that people don’t have to pay something, which is not quite the case.

It’s possible that he were simply commenting on the fact that people needn’t have bought the bundle outright, but it would be odd to make a big deal out of that issue since that’s a possibility with any product. You can always choose to not buy something. Alternatively, perhaps he’s mentally conflating paying ‘almost nothing’ with the technical definition of ‘nothing’. The trouble with this is that it implies a shared standard of what is a ‘nothing’ amount of money, which may or may not be the case.

One possible explanation for the confusion around ‘pay what you want’ could be that it’s picked up a particular perception from political positioning of proceeding sales of the same type. The first and still most notable of this type of exercise was Radiohead’s In Rainbows album launch, with its ‘pay what you want’ ethos that was also an attempt at ‘sticking it to the man’. Thom Yorke and the band were making a statement about the music industry and music labels in general – namely that you don’t need a label to distribute your album anymore, that you can get the internet to do it for you, and that you don’t have to sell at the same old ‘price points’. (Obviously, there are always going to be limits to this approach since it’s not going to be viable for every band or indie game developer. Not everyone can attract press attention like Radiohead but their point stands – the internet is here today and the structures of the 20th Century are being challenged, even undermined by it.)

One of the first ‘pay what you want’ sales by an indie game developer was 2D-Boy’s experiment at selling their game World of Goo at a ‘pay what you want’ price point. Incidentally, 2D Boy also made paying ‘nothing’ off limits, and placed a similar restriction of a minimum price of 1c (which I didn’t realise at the time). Regardless, once you set your price that low you might as well be giving it away for free as I’m certain it begins to costs the seller more in bandwidth than is recouped off a 1c sale. The seller is obviously aware of this potentiality and is counting on consumer’s own goodwill and sense of fairness in pricing. In the long run it seems to works out at a net benefit, as the numbers clearly show.

But according to the stats in the above-linked RPS piece, over 16,000 consumers paid 1c for World of Goo. If they all downloaded the game, with the World of Goo client even a paltry 67mb, multiply that by 16,000 and you get over one terabyte of bandwidth that 2DBoy now have to pay for with 16,000 cents. With this in mind, I think 2DBoy are less disadvantaged by P2P torrenters since they don’t incur a bandwidth cost.

The Humble Indie Bundle adds another layer on top of the World of Goo sale approach, however, in that it has also opted to split your choice of the amount with a pair of charities. Since both amount and split ratio is now left to the purchaser to determine (with a suggested split of 50/50) it makes the issue of what one should pay for the package an even murkier affair.

Furthermore, I also wonder what effect it has on the overall bundle that it’s a mixed charity and commercial venture. ‘Cause-related marketing’, as its known in marketing circles, is hardly a new tactic and apparently quite an effective one. The stats have indicated that from the money brought in from sale of the bundle about 1/3rd of the money is going to a charity, indicating that not everyone is following the advised 50:50 split. Certainly the end result is much more beneficial for the charities involved than the veritable con-job of “1c from every dollar goes to X charity” often employed by commercial type products, and the organisers of the bundle are to be commended for that.

However even if the motivation behind the use of ‘cause-related marketing’ was a genuinely altruistic desire to benefit charity while running a sale, it does leave open the possibility to read it as though the Humble Indie Bundle is trying to double down on the social guilt and stigma that is being employed in place of a DRM system. In any ‘pay what you want’ situation the seller is deliberately opening themselves to potential abuse and relying on social pressure offset the downside. By adding in an element of donating to charity it adds further compulsion to enforce behaviour through social expectations, and clearly it’s working incredibly well for them.

Viewed like this, the hand-wringing and moral outrage that inspired my initial comments over twitter as well as this subsequent post can be read as complicity in a free and distributed form of social DRM. And I’m not entirely convinced that I want to be a part of that – or at the very least, I don’t want to be an unwitting part of that. According to Travis Megill, torrenting the humble indie bundle makes you an ‘asshole’. PC Gamer in a blog post call downloading the game for free, paying nothing (not even one cent) “a little bit dickish.” Both fine and valid points of view, especially since these people aren’t even donating to charity. But given that most people weren’t donating to charity (or not in amounts to equal the amount directed to the developers) why isn’t there more of a cry going up about those people?

I guess I’m less willing to quickly condemn the ‘pirates’. Is it even really piracy if they’re giving it away for almost free anyway? Are there other benefits the sellers get from that 1c sale? And if the pirates are torrenting, at least they’re not taking up bandwidth. There’s also a big expectation with the internet, and perhaps this is changing in select pockets like amongst indie game supporters/purchasers, that stuff is supposed to be free. It’s extremely unlikely, but some of the piracy could even be a kind of protest against the 1c requirement, since it’s been remarked (I forget where) that the gulf between “free” and “1c” on the internet is a huge span that many people are not willing to cross. Clearly, when it comes to indie games, that’s not quite so simply the case but the idea ought to be kept in mind.

As I think I’ve shown above, the phrase ‘pay what you want’ is hardly clear and unambiguous – even when the actual payment mechanism is less ambiguous, preventing the purchasing of a game for zero dollars and zero cents. The bundle is ultimately a very unique and appropriate product of the internet – exhibiting something some important aspects of its nature: it’s both technical and social; expectation and implementation; and it’s got the inherent push/pull aspect of information wanting to be free and simultaneously expensive. I’m reminded by it of Alex Galloway’s concept of ‘protocol’ as described in his book of the same name. Built to appeal to the techno-utopian ideologue who speaks out about ‘free as in freedom’ but who then furrows his brow at ‘free as in beer’. So where do we position ‘free as in pay what you want’? Capitalism has never been ‘free’ except in the manner of being ‘free to buy or to not buy’. The ‘pay what you want’ movement merely extends the ‘freedom to choose between’ to the amount you pay.

Here’s a torrent for the Humble Indie Bundle if you must pirate the game. I won’t judge you. There may be nothing ultimately wrong with social DRM, but politically speaking I’m much less enamoured with the ‘pay what you want’ approach than I was before I took the time to critically examine it, finding it now much less revolutionary than I first thought.

The bottom line though is that I’m really glad a bunch of indie’s got paid.