How Artemis became a $40 indie game with die hard fans willing to support ongoing development
Artemis is a strange game. You need six people to get the full experience, along with six computers, iOS devices, or some combination of the two. A projector or large television is also helpful. Creating a full bridge takes a decent investment in equipment, time, and people, but the result is worthwhile: You get to experience the joy of running your own starship. You can read our thoughts of the game to get up to speed; there is nothing else like it on the market.
It’s also one of the rare indie success stories built around a game with a premium price point: Artemis costs $40 for a bridge license, which allows you to play with up to six peopl. I sat down with Thom Robertson, the creator of the game, to ask how how one continues to sell a $40 game at a time when anything above $15 is considered “premium.”
Listening to the fans, and making the value argument work
The $40 price is actually a reduction; Robertson had taken an early version of the game to a few events and had people offering to pay for their own copy. The first release was sold for $60, or $10 per person. Robertson never really entertained the idea of selling the game on a per-person basis.
“I immediately thought I would rather sell a bridge license than sell six copies of the game,” he tells the Report. What happens when five people bought the game and wanted to bring in a sixth? He felt this would just lead to piracy. “I never wanted to be in a situation where I had an adversarial relationship with the players.” Even though the $60 version of the game was selling well, he listened to the feedback and dropped the price to $40. You bought the game once, and everyone played. Sales continued to increase.
While $40 may seem like a high price for an indie game, he makes a compelling argument for the pricing on the official site, and also does everything he can to get the players on his side. Read the text from the FAQ about pricing, and why you should feel comfortable buying the game:
The full version of Artemis is available for $40, and can be instantly downloaded. This purchase gives you the right to copy and install the game onto every computer of your bridge (up to 6). So I'm really only asking for less than $7 per bridge station ($14 if you can only find two buddies), and there's no copy protection or complicated systems or limits. I just ask that you share with your bridge crew, and not the whole world. This purchase comes with a 100% money-back guarantee. If you don't like the game, just ask for a refund, and it will be cheerfully provided. Think of it this way; you can get every crew member to chip in $7, OR you can buy the game yourself and say, “I paid for it, so I get to be the captain!”
The game has now been out for around two years, and has yet to wane in popularity. “It’s been doing great, it continues to sell very regularly for me, making very good money, certainly much better than any indie game I had ever published before,” Robertson explains.
He’s been releasing his own games for a very long time. How long? His early titles were called “shareware.” Remember when that was a thing? “I’ve seen things sell, I’ve seen things not sell, I’m much more of a game developer than a savvy businessman,” he tells me. “Artemis is the big one that took off.”
It also helps that Artemis is sold through his own website; the margin looks positively decadent without Steam taking 30 percent. “That isolates that $40 buying decision, it lets me put up a big block of text explaining that it’s not just one copy, honest. Go tell your friends! Share the cost!” he explains.
His credit card processing company takes around 10 percent, while protecting him from fraud, and he’s worked on the game more or less on his own since launch. With no competitors in the field of “multiplayer hardcore space simulator,” the fans are dedicated to making sure he stays in business, and he keeps around 90 percent of the revenue.
“What my fans are buying for their $40, often, is support of me,” he explains. Other developers do Kickstarters or offer pay what you want deals, but fans still vote with their wallets to keep development going. He says he talks to fans who purchase multiple copies of Artemis after a new update just to make sure new content is coming.
What's coming next
And development is definitely continuing. Robertson is deep into development of Artemis 2.0, and he was kind enough to show me some of the designs of the updated bridge controls. It looks like an impressive update, much more extensive than any of the updates that have come before.
What is going to change? The mockups were much easier to understand, with a more cohesive design and aesthetic. The Artemis we’re playing today is the result of features and ideas being layered on top of each other, while 2.0 will attempt to take all those ideas and bring them together in a way that makes sense, from the ground up.
He also shows me sketches of the alien races, and says that the motivations of the enemies will be fleshed out, and the alien AI will be much improved. There will be new civilian ships. The user interface will be cleaned up and improved. There will be more life to the world, and more to do other than flying from place to place and fighting.
“I’m revamping all the ways the aliens communicate with you and communicate with each other, mostly through the comms system,” he explains. The taunt system will also be improved and revamped. You will be able to design missions where each ship can be a friend or a foe, or have those values be generated on the fly. It will be a richer, more realized world.
So with all these updates, and bringing on artists to work on the game, will he charge for Artemis 2.0?
“That is such a tough question for me,” he says, after a pause. “Since 1.0 I’ve been selling it at the $40 and I’ve been given every update away for free. From the beginning I’ve been telling people that this is not a Minecraft thing, I reserve the right to charge for updates, I just never have.”
“The fans are important to me, and new fans keep coming, and if the monetization strategy is working, why change it?” he asked. “But 2.0 is going to be a big deal, so while I’m not in any mood to punish my existing fans, a lot of them have said they think a $5 to $10 fee for upgrade would be very reasonable.”
He’s not close to releasing the update yet, so he has time to think about this stuff and find an approach that works. In an industry where a sequel would be the same price as the original game, Robertson is struggling with the idea of selling all these updates for one fourth the price of the original game to those who have already purchased a bridge license. You begin to see why the players and fans are so ready to support his work.
We take a moment to watch a crew of children play the game, chirping orders at each other and tapping commands on the touch screens he brings to these shows. He says that he never intended Artemis to be a family game. “It just kind of happened, there are no breasts in Star Trek,” he tells me. “The violence is horrific, but it’s abstract.” Sure, you may be killing great numbers of people, but all you see is an explosion in space.
Watching children play the game is amazing; they fall into their roles quickly, and work together to solve problems and to compare intelligence coming in from the multiple stations. Without any prodding, they’re showing something like military discipline in how they talk and interact with each other. They’re role-playing the act of flying a starship, and they’re barely aware of it. I've also watched mixed crews of serious adult players and children, and everyone has a great time. This is the power of Artemis, and why Robertson is so protective of the people who both play his game and support his development.
“The last thing I want to do is lose the goodwill of the players,” he tells me. The kids blow up a enemy ship using their nukes, and they cheer in shared triumph. Robertson gets to his feet and claps, a big smile on his face.