Cashflow woe

Yesterday was a fairly frustrating day, development-wise, for various reasons. For me, personally, it was spent wrestling with the problem of working out a system for taking people’s money.

One of the goals of the Flatland project was to monetise a game, to some degree. We certainly don’t expect to make any kind of profit on it, and we still want to make it available to those who can’t or won’t pay, but monetisation is something we’ll definitely need to do in the future, so it’s something we want to learn about now. Unfortunately, sometimes learning hurts.

We have a few specific desires in terms of how we want to monetise Flatland. One is that we really wanted to do a “pay what you want” pricing scheme. We’re big fans of other developers and bundles that have done this, and we think it’s ideal for small-scale game development. Those who can’t afford much (or are just stingy) can pay a little, while those who feel like being more supportive don’t have their generosity limited by an arbitrary price point.

Another thing we wanted, if at all possible, was to avoid using Paypal. Yes, it is  a popular platform, but I’ve heard enough horror stories about them lately (mostly about them cutting off access to people’s money) that I wanted to steer well clear. We considered Google Checkout as an alternative, but they don’t allow “pay what you want”, so we decided to go with Paymate, assuming we could make it work.

Now, I’ve since discovered that Paymate has its issues – their fees are high, and customer service is difficult to access. But they allow us to do “pay what you want”, and they’re based in Melbourne, so at least they fall under Australian jurisdiction if we have any trouble with them.

Our setup seemed straight-forward. We want to give the basic version of the game away for nothing, and then allow anyone who likes it to pay whatever amount they desire. As an incentive for this, we will send them a Special Edition of the game, with a couple of fun extras.

So – we could link them to the payment page, no problem, and have it so they could enter their chosen payment amount. But how to send them the link to the download page? At first I was just going to bite the bullet and do it manually, but Paul pointed out that this wouldn’t work if the game became even remotely popular – all our time would be spent responding to payments. Reluctantly, I had to agree.

Complex scripting was out, due to time constraints and my highly limited abilities. We did seek a plug-in that was compatible with Paymate, but the only one was going to cost $70, so we ruled that out.

My next plan was to do it all through some complex Google juggling. When a payment was made, an email would be sent to the Google Group (mailing list) that we’d set up for the purpose. I then found the “canned responses” tool in Google Labs, which would go to the directors, and another new email address that would auto-respond to each email by sending out the download URL.

The first problem was that the Group wouldn’t work. It took me a while to figure out that that was the break in the chain, but my test emails seemed to be simply disappearing into the ether. I tested our other Groups. Hmm, they all seemed to be down (later that evening, we’d all receive a barrage of test emails). Okay, I thought, so I’ll cut out the middle man, just have the receipt emails go through a single email account.

Except then I realised I’m an idiot – the receipt emails would be from Paymate, not the individual customers, and so all our response emails would go to them. Back to the drawing board.

Paymate aren’t a hell of a lot of help in this process – they have some limited help on their site, but if you want them to actually help you set anything up, they charge through the nose for it. Eventually, I discovered that I could change the behaviour of the Paymate form by adding various arguments to the link, and that there was one there for a “return URL”. In other words, I could get it to send the user back to a page on our site, after they’d confirmed payment.

There was a big warning that it wouldn’t work with all kinds of web pages, so I fully expected to be stumped again, and I held my breath as I clicked the link. But it worked, and I let out a big sigh of relief.

It’s not a perfect solution – it doesn’t email the link to anyone, so they won’t be able to retrieve it if they don’t bookmark the page. And yes, it’s a static page address, so it can easily be shared with people  who haven’t paid. But piracy isn’t really a concern for us, and it’s a system that will work for now. For the next project, we’re going to spend a lot more time planning this aspect!


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