Pay for free

Dungeons & Dragons Online: Play for free

How do you turn a free product into a profitable enterprise? That’s normally the challenging issue to be faced in today’s increasingly competitive online market. Internet giant Google continues to have issues attempting to monetise its expensively acquired YouTube daughter. Yet game developer Turbine is looking to do exactly the opposite, converting their current business model into a subscription-supported free product. But does ‘free’ pay?

It certainly appears that Turbine’s decision to offer their MMO Dungeons & Dragons Online for free has paid off. Hundreds of thousands of new players have signed up to take advantage of the new offer, and despite the ‘free’ price tag, subscriptions are up 40%. In addition, many players are taking advantage of an in-game payment mechanism to buy additional items and open up new sections of the game. Previously the game had required players to pay a one off purchase price, followed by a monthly subscription fee. Now just about anyone can download the game and be playing within half an hour, paying or otherwise. Turbine also maintain that some players are paying even more per month than the previous subscription fee alone, removing an important cap on how much individual players could pay into the game. Rather than seeing players who play without paying as freeloaders, Turbine are confident that such players bring their own benefit to the company, generating interest, advertising via word-of-mouth, and thereby generating new subscriptions and one-off payments.

Just how successful this move will prove to be in the long-run is difficult to estimate. It’s clear that the business model has worked to some extent, generating plenty of fresh interest in a game that is already over three years old. But will the benefits dry up once the hype is over? What is clear is that this move represents yet another step away from traditional methods of sale, and is another example of a trend away from that classic method of promoting games—the demo.

Indeed, it would appear that there is plenty of evidence that offering games for free, if only for short periods, acts as one of the best methods of advertisement. Figures produced earlier this year by Valve boss Gabe Newell suggest that offering their action zombie-fest Left 4 Dead at a discount price over a free test weekend boosted sales figures to such an extent that they beat launch figures. The same source reveals that the release of new content for their other key title Team Fortress 2 also boosted Valve’s sales significantly.

Of course, in the case of games sold via Steam the main impulse for the impressive sales figures lies in the buyer’s perception of the short-term heavy discounts being offered. But the principle of no cost gaming models isn’t limited to only short-term probation periods, nor is Turbine unique in pursuing their policy of a combined free and subscription service. Gaming giant EA recently entered the market with Battlefield Heroes, a comical extension to their successful Battlefield series, this time free to play via browser, and supported by player micro-payments for upgrades and vanity items. Certainly an experimental move on EA’s part, recent figures do suggest that there has been some success, with players who make use of the game’s extra features paying an average of $20, and the total number of players recently tipping the 2 million mark.

And it’s not just the big players who are experimenting with new sales tactics. 2D Boy are taking a leaf out of Radiohead’s books, and offering their award-winning World of Goo title for a limited time at whatever price the buyer wishes. Whilst I can’t see such a risk being taken by any of the larger games producers any time soon, regardless of how successful 2D Boy’s trial proves, it does represent yet another departure from the traditional sales models.

As ever, however, failure remains an important component of every experiment. Whilst systems of in-game micro-payments are providing some evidence of success for EA and Turbine, it appears other alternatives to direct subscription gaming aren’t bringing home the bacon. id Software’s Quake Live was to be a free browser-based game funded via in-game advertising, however earlier this year John Carmack revealed that a premium subscription service would be have to be offered in addition, an honest admission that their advertising model alone won’t foot the bill.

Nevertheless, it is clear that games companies are becoming increasingly willing to try new tactics when it comes to funding their productions. Direct payment and subscription methods are being gradually supplemented in part with micro-payments, and attempts are being made to integrate in-game advertising, although to date it seems with little relatively success. Valve’s Steam content delivery system is proving to be an able testing ground for offering short-term probation periods for gamers, and the different levels of discounts and their positive effect on games sales will provide plenty of food for thought for games publishers and psychologists alike. Whilst we are still some way from seeing such methods commonly applied to mainstream games, it will be interesting too see whether these current examples remain profitable, and if they will inspire others to do the same. It seems even a free product can turn a profit.