Monday, February 2, 2009

Online business models: Lessons from Comics

Jeph Jacques, author of webcomic Questionable Content (one of fave webcomics) has written an interesting blog post about business models for online comics. You can read it here.

He's written it as a response to a post by another comic artist (of the more traditionally syndicated variety), who was lamenting the death of newspapers, and how this was taking comics down with it.

The original post suggested 3 business models that might work online:
  • Subscription: Jacques points out that the original author's DRM dependance is full of FAIL.
  • "Interactivity": Not what we'd mean by it in the games space, he's talking here about what I'd call customized content. Jacques concedes that this could work, but that there aren't succesful examples in the webcomics space.
  • Donations: Jacques claims this can work, but has a high risk of eroding readership over time. (Mind you, you could make the same argument about PBS, NPR, etc. If you stay relevant, I beleive this could work)
Jacques looks at a one other business model in the space: 
  • Make the Comic free, sell merch: This is Jacques' model, and seems to work well for him.
There are then other flavors of these, or hybrids, mentioned in the comic thread, pointing to the successful examples:
  • Sell advertising on the website: Penny Arcade, others
  • Sell your original inked pages as artwork: Octopus Pie.
  • Limited merch (like signed limited edition prints): XKCD did some of this
  • Sell the 'dead tree' version: MegaTokyo
I think it's a really interesting thought exercise for indie game developers to look at this space and think about which, if any, of these models apply. 

Some examples:
  • Donations: Kingdom of Loathing (they also sell merch)
  • Ad-supported: there's a ton of this in the casual space, though usually with a portal/middleman. Some amount on iPhone, etc.
  • Customized content: That (or the illusion thereof) and merch together are BuildaBearVille's business model, which is what I wrote about in my post that Gamasutra picked up.
  • Subscription: We have the usual subscription-to-a-given-game model; but it's worth thinking about whether the webcomic model would work: If a developer released a game a month, and a subscription offered 1-month-early access to each of these, and made you part of a club of sorts, would this work?
I'll leave the remainder as an exercise for the reader. I think, though, there are some interesting lessons here. Just as casual games with their smaller budgets are able to experiment with different business models and hybrid models more quickly; indie games should be able to do the same to an even higher degree.

If you are reading this and other models or examples of successes or failures come to mind, please point to them in the comments. I'm curious to see what trails are being forged.


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