There’s a certain irony to asking this question on a site where people volunteer their time to help fellow gamedevs without compensation. 😉
It’s okay to value a thing and find it fulfilling even if you don’t get paid for it.
If I wanted to maximize my income, there are many fields I’d be better-advised to work in than game development. 😉
Instead, for me at least, I do it for the love of the challenge of gamedev itself, and for the love of play.
Seeing folks enjoy a game I’ve worked on is a huge win for me, even when there’s not a penny attached to it:
By sharing this game freely, it’s gotten more people playing & enjoying & sharing it than I expect it would have even at a miniscule price, which for me (since I have a full-time game development job to support my livelihood separate from these hobby games) is a worthwhile trade.
Of course, there are also capitalistic reasons to share stuff freely too:
testing the waters to see if there’s interest in the concept & gather feedback for a future commercial version
offering a “free sample” as marketing for such a commercial version or expansion
building a visible portfolio & reputation to demonstrate your skills to potential employers
fostering & entertaining an audience of followers that you can leverage to access future opportunities
…but my point is that these aren’t the only things that can make it satisfying and worthwhile.
Sharing content for free might not enrich my bank account, but I believe/hope, in some small way, it enriches the world.
Releasing your game for free is the best way to get it exposed to the largest number of people possible. There are several reasons why you would want to prefer reach over profit:
- Making money through advertising. A lot of game portals use advertisement. On some portals, game creators get a cut of the revenue of the advertisement which appears next to their game. You can also integrate ads directly into your game. Or someone might actually pay you to create a game which advertises their product (anyone remember Moorhuhn, that advertisement game for Johnny Walkers whiskey which broke the Internet in 2000? Or maybe it was just a German phenomenon…).
- Grow first, think about monetization later. Get as many players as you can for now, and when they are all addicted to your game, look for a way to make them pay to keep playing.
- Making a name for yourself. When you created that free web game everyone knows and a few years later you release a new game for $19.99 on Steam, you can market it as “The new game from that guy who created that awesomely addictive web game in 2019”. Anyone who played your previous game will get curious about whether you were able to build on your success or not. In today’s game market, it’s all about exposure. A developer who already has a reputation for making a few good games has a much better chance to make it than someone who is completely unknown.
- Building a portfolio. When you are looking for a job in the game development industry, people will want to know if you have experience. A great way to convince people that you know your craft is to point them to a few games you created. When your games are free, they can play them right away.
Practicing your skills and collecting feedback.
- The only way to find out if your game design is good or bad is to let people play it and listen to their feedback. The more people play it, the more feedback you will get. Feedback also gets more honest for more popular games. You can read people publicly discussing your game who are unaware that you will read them. This allows you as a game designer to learn what works, what doesn’t work and thus improve your design skills.
- The most nerve-wracking part of game development is the release. But it becomes a much less serious endeavour when there is no money involved. Releasing your “practice game” for free is a valuable experience which will help you to become a bit less afraid of the release of your first “real game”.
- You can even use free web games as a medium for testing a new game idea. You create a simple prototype, upload it for free, see how people react to it and when people like it you use the game idea for a new full-price game with proper production values.
- Doing it for the art. Some people want to make games as a form of self-expression without commercial interests. Maybe you have something to say through your game. Maybe you just want to make people happy, and that’s reward enough.
I’ve designed, built and released for “free” (see below) quite a few games in my life. From my perspective, these are the main reasons, in no particular order:
- The chance to make enough of a profit to actually justify the added effort and overhead of billing is not big enough. Most indie games don’t make money in a quantity worth it, and the billing part is not fun, while making a game is.
- The line between amateur and commercial can only be crossed once, forever. For a free game, I can take it down, stop developing and supporting it, etc. at any time I feel like it. No obligations. Once people have paid for it, they are customers and have rights (moral and/or legal).
- Along the same line, I release many games in a half-finished state, basically once it is playable. They don’t have the quality that I would expect from a finished, commercial game. For free, that is ok with me. For payment, I would feel myself to be a cheat.
- Money later – I make games for fun, my fun. Money is an afterthought. That is why I put “free” in quotation marks above. Some of my games have ways to pay me, usually optional, e.g. donations or cosmetic DLCs or other premium features. But the gameplay itself I keep free because I don’t like to play bait & switch with my players.
These are my personal reasons, and other people have others.
Note also that “free” is not always entirely free. Some games have advertisement, or product-placement tie-ins, or follow a shareware model, or follow one of the many other routes to profit.