Expectation and exception

Expectation and exception

How can I help give back to the world without starving myself in the process?

Philosophy of pricing

Much pricing in the software world is pretty simple: if you pay, you get the thing, and if you can’t or don’t want to, then you don’t get the thing. I’ll call this strict pricing.

I personally like to put prices on my work because of my philosophy around work. I believe that, if you help bring about good fortune into the world, you deserve to benefit at least some amount from that good fortune, based on the work you contributed towards that end result.

Strict pricing is often thought about as the way that you get compensated for your contributions. If you support me, I support you. A simple reciprocal agreement where no side benefits more than the other.

The downside of this scheme is that it locks access behind a pay wall that not everyone can reasonably surmount, especially in the absence of systems that can regionally adjust pricing. If you can’t support me as much as I support you, then no business is to be done.

But that runs counter to one of my other philosophies around wealth transfer. I think - in addition to the previous philosophy - that wealth should diffuse outwards. The haves should help the have-nots. I believe that it is a fundamental good to share, regardless of whether it is ‘earned’.

So I’m not really looking for a reciprocal agreement like strict pricing offers. I want something that biases wealth flow downwards towards the people who need it - something that doesn’t lock out the have-nots, but instead subsidises them.

So, put simply, the sum of my philosophies is this:

That’s the context for this next bit.


It’s the current hot topic in the Roblox plugin community. I’ve personally been a champion of the idea for years - and I still am! - but it’s worth a more critical and nuanced look.

If I were to make my paid products free, with the option to pay what you want, what happens?

Most obviously, it’s removing the mandatory pay wall. This serves my latter philosophy quite well! If you can’t afford to support my work, well, you don’t have to. No mandatory pay wall, but I can still earn money from the charity and good will of those who want to give back something.

But, more subtly and concerningly, pay-what-you-want of this flavour would change the messaging around my work. It makes compensation optional, no matter what value you ultimately derive from my work.

That’s a problem. It opens the door to all the classic issues that plague open source (or otherwise charitable) development work, namely that people (or corporations) can derive incredible value from your work without you ever receiving fair compensation for your part that you played in their success.

Free access becomes the expectation. Fair compensation is the exception.

Framing the problem

Thinking about these issues in terms of expectation and exception has clarified a lot of my thinking on the topic, not just for how I should conduct my own business, but potentially as lenses through which we can deconstruct and work on some of today’s largest problems around sharing software and fair compensation in the open source world.

For a solution to line up with our philosophy and values, managing expectations is important. Pay-what-you-want does solve for both earning some money, and for free access. Same with any similar donation-based model. However, you would be kidding yourself to believe that such a model efficiently shares value around - it is an inefficient mechanism as proven by the vast numbers of people who get far too little in return for their contributions.

The expectations are wrong for that to occur.

This is something I’ve felt implicitly for a long time, but had never truly articulated well. Everyone’s acutely aware at this point that donations become an ‘optional’ choice in practice - people don’t tend to donate much, and we’re grateful for the few who do - but this framing is the first time I could articulate why that happens. It is a systematic consequence of the way the options are presented to the user, and the way we signal what we expect for them to do. It’s a design problem.

Expectation design

Let’s talk about how my products currently work.

Right now, my products have a fixed, paid price, anywhere from 5 USD to 50 USD. You can see those prices clearly on the product pages. That’s what I advertise everywhere. It’s pretty clear that you’re expected to pay for these things.

But unlike other kinds of web shop, this isn’t a strict price. I’m open to alternatives; that’s what the Access Anywhere program exists for. It’s an alternate pathway which lets you obtain my stuff for free, all surrounded with clear messaging and communication that tells you why it exists. This isn’t the default pathway - it’s here so that people with no other alternative can still use my stuff. If you’re earning your way well, then using this route is clearly discouraged. Free access is the exception.

To be clear, both pathways are very possible to participate in! I put very few obstacles in the way of the free path - all the questions I ask are optional (just to understand who’s taking that path), and I don’t do any ‘shaming’ for anyone taking the path. The only obstacles are those necessary to ensure the system is fair; you need to provide your email address, and you need to apply to join a waitlist so that it doesn’t suffer from timing issues like a first-come-first-serve system would.

However, it’s crystal clear that the two pathways target two different audiences. As a result, it’s been a huge success so far; I’ve earned a more promising income from my new products so far thanks to the contributions of those who are able, and I’ve got a list of people to give free access to, whom wouldn’t otherwise be able to take part. It balances!


Right now, I implement this system with the technological equivalent of chewing gum and tape. The application to get on the wait list is a humble Google Form, chosen for its easy export to CSV and built-in email association that helps to discourage spam, automation or other simple gaming. It’d be nice to have a more proper way of distributing my wares.

That’s where the Creator Store can come in. We’ve already campaigned hard for pay-what-you-want, and I’d bet it’s almost certainly on the team’s radar by now because of that. However, I think we need to be careful not to paint it as a panacea, but simply one part of a system of expectation management.

I think the Creator Store team should explore an Access Anywhere-like system too, as something that composes on top of these other approaches to help capture as much value for creators as they deserve. Imagine a world where you can pay the listed price, or pay above that if you’re especially well-off and want to show your support, or receive the product for free if you’re especially disadvantaged compared to everyone else and need the support of others.

A system like that artfully manages expectation and exceptions.

A system like that paints a future I believe possible, and a future I can get behind.