Copping a Feel(ie)

One of the things I’ve been thinking about later on down the line for Epitaph is a series of ‘feelies’ to go with the game – physical things you could buy on Amazon that would be reflective of the game world. I have always been a big fan of feelies generally – many of the games I remember most fondly from my youth came with them. The newspaper that was included along with Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders was a particular favourite, although the grail diary that came along with Last Crusade was also awesome.

The term was originated, as I recall, by Infocom who included elaborate extras along with the games they produced. It was the game Deadline that started the tradition, and it included physical representations of evidence, investigation notes, coroner reports, memos, photographs, lab reports, and so on. The hugely appreciative audience for this ensured that it was something that continued into many of their later games. Despite the cost of producing and including these elements into their packaging, they understood the positive enthusiasm generated was worth more than the money.

Modern games, unless you buy some kind of outrageously expensive collector edition, generally don’t come with feelies. The thing to remember about Infocom and (what was then known as) Lucasfilm’s games is that this wasn’t an extra extravagance – this was the basic packaging. You just got swag with the game, and the swag related to the experience you were about to have. They contained hints, clues or navigational aids. They were also one of the more effective ways of making sure pirates got an inferior gameplay experience without penalising legitimate buyers[1].

I loved the tradition, and continue to love the fact that some games, on occasion, will include feelies in their packaging. It doesn’t really matter what it is – my expectations these days are so low that you can literally just put a wall-chart in there and I instantly look upon the entire game more favourably[2].

I would like to bring the tradition into Epitaph – given its text based roots it seems particularly appropriate, and the nature of the game world lends itself neatly to the concept. But, the first and most obvious problem here is we don’t actually have a game box you can buy. Epitaph the game is, and always will be, completely free to play[3] and as such we can’t include feelies in the box you buy it in.

But, what’s to stop us having ‘feelie packs’ that you can buy on Amazon? A bit like collectible cards except that instead of buying a card you buy some kind of physical lore object that relates directly to the game and the game story.

For this, you’d buy a ‘feelie pack’ with unmarked and anonymous contents. When it arrives, it’s a complete gamble as to what you get. It’ll have common feelies (like letters, postcards, photographs, and so on) and it’ll have rare feelies (answerphone tapes, USB drives full of in-game lore from a (supposedly) in game computer, and survivor diaries). Some of it may have game impact (it’ll tell you where to find a single-use supply cache, as an example) some of it will just be background. I think this would be really interesting both to work on and to actually incorporate into the game.

These would be actual physical artefacts – photographs would be taken from the perspective of survivors in the world, or be from the time leading up to the apocalypse. They’d be staged of course (unless I am lucky enough that there is a zombie apocalypse that occurs roughly simultaneously with any plans to do this) but they’d look the part. Survivor diaries would be hand written (although obviously not for each copy) by real people telling real(istic) stories of survival. Answerphone messages would be frantic, frenetic, resigned or confused as needs be. It would all serve to make the game world feel more real and to reward those who help support the game with actual money.

I’m not fool enough to think I can ever make a living from Epitaph. I’m not fool enough to think I can ever even recoup my investment in terms of money paid out (for hosting) or ‘opportunity costs’ that go along with ‘hiring’ myself and others as developers. A conservative accounting of how much my time alone would have cost if I had charged a fair ‘hourly rate'[4] is in the low to mid six figures. Those are costs I doubt I’m ever going to recoup, but in real terms it doesn’t matter – as hobbies go, developing and hosting an online game is a lot cheaper than most of the other alternatives, and I enjoy ever minute of it.

But just because I know this is always an operation that runs in the red, it doesn’t mean that I am opposed to offsetting the losses in some minor way – even if all I got out of it was a nice dinner out every few months, it’s a nice dinner more than I would otherwise have.

Monetization is not something that is ever high on my mind generally. I’m not really money driven, and I never have been. But, were I to explore options for making money from Epitaph it would be in terms of extra content – a graphical client for example, a novel, or these feelie packs. I think if you want to really make money from something like this you need to offer a high quality product (like our central game) for free and then monetize around the edges. If you get people genuinely involved in the game they may be willing to buy your merchandise if it’s worth their while. Thus, I doubt you’ll ever see a paypal donation button on Epitaph, but a link to buy one of our feelie packs might well be something you see there. Part of the costing of that would be in just how expensive these things would be to produce and ship out there, but it’s an option I would love to explore even if it only ever broke even. It just seems so cool – a modern spin on a very retro idea.

But then, what do you guys think? Would you buy a feelie pack for a game like this if it led to understanding more of the game story? How much would you pay for something that is just a random gamble on getting something you don’t already have[5]?

This is obviously going to be my last Textual Intercourse blog entry before Christmas, so I just want to wish all of you reading this a merry Christmas, a happy holiday, or whatever empty meaningless platitude you prefer on this gross orgy of consumerism! Despite my hatred for all happiness and merriment, the traditional Epitaph Christmas Song is ready to go on Christmas day. I’m sure you are all as excited about that as I am!


[1] Diametrically opposed then to the current regime which is to ensure pirates get a *better* experience of a game. Pirates don’t need to worry about DRM or SecuROM. They don’t need to worry about ‘always on internet’ or copy protection schemes. They just plug it in and go without any of the bullshit. If you had a pirated copy of Mass Effect 3[6] you didn’t even have to install EA’s awful Origin system. Way to disincentivise piracy, games industry.
[2] Not that I actually buy boxed games any more – Steam has pretty much killed that for me.
[3] That doesn’t mean of course that later on down the line there won’t be Epitaph themed tools and content for which a payment is required. Just that you will never need to pay a penny for the game or anything in it. If I ever write the Epitaph novel I have in the back of my mind, you’ll need to pay for it.
[4] I do a lot of contract and consultancy work, and as such I have a reasonably good sense of what my hourly rate actually is.
[5] That’s a big part of it too – this is basically ‘collectible cards but not crap’
[6] When it’s released on Steam, I will buy the hell out of it.


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