Buy A Game, Get A Haiku Free: Beamdog Interview

Conducted By Adam Ames

TPG was lucky enough to speak with the producer of a great digital distribution company called, Beamdog.  Phillip Daigle talks about how Beamdog came to be, the future of retail PC games, as well as the successes and failures of the digital distribution platform.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Beamdog.

I was brought on after Beamdog had reached the beta phase, so the base concepts were in place and all the parts were starting to come together. Since I’m not a programmer, and I would claw my brain out if I were one, I helped test the Beamdog client software and helped set up our website which needed lots of graphics and lots of data entry. After that we entered a live beta phase, and I gradually took over as Producer.

Being a Producer at Beamdog is somewhat different from the Producer role at a game development studio. We couldn’t think of a title that encompassed everything I did, so I got titled Producer. Since Production involves a little bit of everything in the regular game development world, we figured it was somewhat apt.

First off, I manage our games catalog. This means that I take care of new and existing developers and publishers that want to distribute their games through Beamdog. Some developers and publishers use our toolkit to push their games onto Beamdog themselves, but many of them simply provide us with the base game. In those instances I go through and add it to our database, package it up so that it works with the Beamdog system, and I also do graphics for the product page. During this whole process I also certify each and every game we sell on a series of test machines. That portion can go back and forth a few times as each game has unique requirements before it will behave itself. My vocabulary of expletives has increased exponentially due to this portion of my job.

In addition to that I’m usually the first point of contact for customer relations. If you take a gander at our forums you’ll see my name plastered all over the place, and if you send us a support request email I’m usually the guy that responds. I very foolishly forwarded my work email to my phone, and then even more foolishly told Trent about it, so now it’s too late to undo. Thus, I’ve woken up at 3AM a few times to handle support emails.

I also handle our weekly newsletter and sales. I do the graphics, write all the text, and handle our email lists.

Where did the idea for Beamdog come from?

That idea sprung from Trent Oster and Cameron Tofer, the co-founders of Beamdog. I’ll let Trent describe how the idea took root:

“Cameron and I had formed IdeaSpark Labs, which was a container for us to do something in.  We looked into the various game related options and we felt the PC user experience could really use an overhaul.  In the era of inexpensive bandwidth it didn’t make sense to adhere to a physical media mindset for distributing software.  As game developers we obsess about the user experience in the title, but outside of the title, we historically had no control.  With Beamdog we approached the PC how we would want the software to work.  You find what you like, you buy it, it downloads and is ready to go, no file browsing, no installers, no fiddling around trying to get things to work.  We’re pretty happy with how Beamdog worked out and the quality of the user experience.”

What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Beamdog?

One success we’ve had is that people really, really like it when you treat them well. We pride ourselves on excellent customer service, and we accomplish that by talking to each person as an individual rather than a support ticket that needs to be closed.

On the failure side: Even if you’re running a great sale, don’t expect people to just magically show up. I guess a lot of the lessons we’re learning have been learned 50 years ago in the retail space, but it’s new to us.

In its current form, how close is Beamdog to your initial vision?

I think it’s very close to the original vision, and in many ways has surpassed it. We’ve always seen Beamdog as gradually ramping up a customer base instead of having a sudden explosion of users, and it’s working out essentially how we predicted.

Another aspect of our strategy was to pick up a whole bunch of customers every time we launch an exclusive game, and that’s also happening with the launch of MDK2 HD. Our next project should be even more popular.

What do you look for in a title when deciding whether or not to sell it through Beamdog?

We have a very open door policy regarding games. There are obviously quality checks that go into place, but for the most part we don’t judge games that much based on gameplay. While I may not personally be into a Sudoku/Arkanoid hybrid game, some people out there are and those people will buy and enjoy that game. If a title is too buggy, or doesn’t work on any of our test machines, we won’t release it. We have rejected games in the past for being simply too poor quality, but for the most part people have only submitted decent games.

Are there any differences in the negotiations with indie developers as opposed to AAA titles and or publishers?

Not a whole lot, actually. The contract an indie developer signs will be very similar to the contract that a major publisher signs. Publishers, because they’re often bringing quite a few games with them, will have us package and prepare their games for sale on Beamdog. Indie developers often handle that themselves using our toolkit because they like having tight control over how their game appears in our store.

How do you respond to those PC gamers who believe digitally distributed products should cost less than their retail counterparts?  There are no discs to copy, no boxes to create and no manuals to print and therefore should not cost as much.

I agree that prices should drop for digital distribution, because it is cheaper than shipping out games to brick and mortar stores. Some developers realize this and lower their prices accordingly, others don’t because of business red tape or simply because they can still make sales at a higher price. Larger publishers effectively have their hands tied because they can’t use digital copies to undercut pricing on boxed copies.

One of the knocks against the various digital distribution platforms is the user having 4 or 5 different programs in order to play their games.  How do you react to this?

This is something that we struggle with. Nobody wants to have yet another client, but at the same time having people download their games from a website and handling the installation themselves isn’t ideal when your goal is to make getting games as easy as possible. Our whole approach has been to keep the client lightweight and as unobtrusive as possible, and designing it so that it doesn’t have to be running in the background 24/7. We think it’s a fair compromise.

In terms of regular and sale pricing, how much say do you have when making games available via Beamdog?

We let developers and publishers define what they want their prices to be. There are cases where we’ll talk to them if we feel that their prices aren’t doing them any favors, but at the end of the day it’s their decision. That’s important to us because we know a lot of developers who have had their prices changed constantly and without their consent on other digital distribution platforms that will remain nameless.

For sales, we’ll usually come up with something and then ask the developer or publisher if they’re okay with the percentage off. Sometimes they’ll alter the numbers or say “No” outright. We also allow them to design their own sales.

How important is it to get instant feedback about Beamdog from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?

It’s absolutely critical. I would say that a large percentage of our interactions with customers happen on our forums, or when they message us through Twitter. We also try to stay active on our Facebook pages – MDK2 HD especially has been a lot of fun, talking directly to fans of the game.

What is your reaction to the recent launch of EA’s Origin service and the announcements for the upcoming IndieCity and GameFly digital distribution platforms?

Good for them! I have no ill-will towards Steam, which is obviously the biggest player out there right now, but I think that it’s very important for the digital distribution marketplace to have a lot of strong alternatives. We think Beamdog is one of them, and we welcome competition from even more sources because it opens people up to the idea of trying out alternative portals.

How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology?

I think they’re great, and someday I’d like to try to do the same thing on Beamdog. Obviously if everyone and their dog were doing it, it wouldn’t work, but I think that those promotions are excellent ways to help promote games. The other side of it is that those events are amazing ways to raise money for charities, so I hope they keep at it.

What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?

DRM comes in a lot of flavors, and I don’t really like any of them. I think that having a serial number that you need to input is reasonable, because it prevents casual copying, but at the same time I know that if you’re actually intent on pirating a game you’re going to hop on over to a torrent site where a scene group has already stripped out the DRM anyway. Beamdog has some limited DRM, but that’s primarily because many developers and publishers specifically request it.

You’re never, ever, ever going to stop people from pirating your games, so the best thing you can do as a developer is to give them a reason to buy your games. Even the most die-hard pirate will shell out cash for a game if they’re given a reason to do so – be it extras provided when you register the game, or online support, or something else.

How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?

Kind of logey.

But no, I think digital distribution is great. I sometimes miss having a physical copy of a game – the cool box, having a shiny disc that I can hold… but then I remember all the irritating parts. Actually installing off of a disc. Having to download patches right away. Losing discs. And it’s not like games come with really awesome cloth maps or thick-as-hell manuals that often anymore. The manual for C&C: Red Alert was epic.

Do you believe PC retail outlets still have a place in today’s market?

Yes. But I don’t think that game-exclusive stores will last for much longer. We’ll see software sections in larger stores like Walmart for a long time, because setting aside some floor space is trivial for them, but I don’t think places like Gamestop will be around in their current incarnation in 10 years. More and more people are transitioning to digital distribution on the PC side, and the next generation of consoles will probably launch new games in both digital and physical format at the same time.

How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?

Depends on how it’s done. If I’m playing a game and I walk over to some dude that needs my help, and in the middle of our chat he presents me with a conversation option to buy some DLC right then and there so I can actually help him, I think that’s bullshit. That completely takes you out of the game and ruins any sort of narrative you’re trying to build. I was immediately irritated when I ran into that. Additionally, content that was developed during the original construction of the game, finished, and then sold later as DLC is a pet peeve of mine. I guess I’m still stuck in the 90s mindset of “expansion packs”.

I don’t really have an opinion on weapon and armor DLC as long as they don’t shift gameplay balance in multiplayer. Some people are really into more customization for their character, so more power to them, as long as they aren’t given an advantage for spending cash. I do get a little bit concerned on the PC side, because it’s tempting for some developers to lock out modders in favor of making additional content DLC only.

On the other hand, the mini-expansions for New Vegas were pretty cool and definitely the way I think DLC should work. An entirely new party member, or new/expanded locations are definitely something I’m in favor of.

What can you to do make Beamdog a more attractive option for PC gamers?

I think about this every day and it largely comes down to streamlining the client and buying process even further, and improving our library of titles. We’re actively working on both.

For anyone hearing about Beamdog for the first time, is there anything else you would like to say?

As a special offer for those of you checking out Beamdog for the first time, I will write each and every one of you a personalized Haiku if you buy a game from us and post a request on our forums. – End

We would like to thank Phillip for his wonderfully detailed answers and wish Beamdog continued success. 

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