Keeping DLC mostly free has worked well for big developers like CD Projekt with The Witcher 3, who can garner reams of publicity from players used to being nickled-and-dimed to death by other big-budget releases. What happens, though, when a Steam indie takes a similar approach? Thea: The Awakening is a turn-based 4x strategic survival game inspired by Slavic mythology that came out late last year. It was made by four people with a bit of aid from a publishing partner. You probably have heard of it, but folks who like it really, really like it. It currently has 1053 reviews on Steam, of which 90 per cent are positive.
In the wake of a more successful than expected launch (the game recouped costs within a day of release), its developers decided its major DLC packs would be free. They recently published a blog post about how that's gone for them.
As it turns out, the first free DLC — which included 70 new events, a new main quest line, new building types, new voice acting, an event editor and a bunch of smaller features — didn't up sales enough to justify tearing off the price tag.
"The cost of development of this DLC ended up being around 90,000 euro," Thea's developer wrote. "The DLC was free and about 8,000 of our players have enjoyed it within the first two weeks after the release. Sales after the DLC brought about 10,000 euro above what we were usually selling without the DLC, and normalized in about 10 days."
"So if we were to judge things by those figures alone, we would have lost a big chunk of cash," they added. "Working with a publisher was a huge saving grace here, as we did not carry the costs of the localisation which the publisher invested in, to eventually regain from the box sales. Still, for us, the Giants did not prove to be a huge financial hit and it was disheartening."
Despite that, they decided to stick with their free DLC plan. In the meantime, they saw players recommending the game, mentioning substantial free DLC as a big plus. Some even went a step further. "People began to create forum threads encouraging others to buy Thea for their friends," the developers wrote, "organised their own giveaways and even doing their own community translations."
For their second major free DLC, they decided to take a more tactical approach. This one added multiplayer, and they decided to release it close to the Steam Summer Sale, to drum up additional interest. Sounds like it worked. They explained:
"I mentioned earlier how timing was an issue for Giants, and I believe we have learnt our lesson. We stuck to our deadlines, used a faster service to do our shortened localisation, and we released the MultiPrayer DLC during the Steam Summer Sale. Our sales this month had a +1572% increase from the previous month on Steam, and while the sale is likely the main culprit here, we still think combining the two was the jackpot."
They have since released another piece of DLC that's, well, not really DLC at all. It's more of a glorified donate button that grants players some snazzy cards. Game-changing DLC, it seems, will remain free.
The Thea team's takeaway from all of this? Free DLC can be good for players and developers, but developers have to be strategic about it.
"The Indie market is a tough one," they wrote. "If like us, you have a small team, limited resources and a tight budget that simply cannot stretch to huge marketing campaigns, you need to think outside the box. For us, this meant putting a lot of emphasis on our community in hopes of the power of the 'word of mouth'. This strategy has paid off and we do believe it is a valid route for other indies. Create a good product, respect your client and the rest will fall into place — sounds idealistic, but it certainly worked for us and I am sure it can work for you."