How many times have you seen something on sale, thought it was a great deal and forked out the cash for it, even though it turned out that you really didn’t need it at all? I know I’ve used sales as an excuse to splurge on CDs, games and books, only to have them collecting dust (in the case of digital sales, make that virtual cobwebs) for months before I got around to perusing them.
It’s amazing how small things like these can increase the value of a commodity in our eyes, and drive us to impulse purchases. When you see a product marked at Rs 999/-, you know that it’s only a single rupee short of a fourfigure price, but because the visual feedback is that of a three-figure one, you feel like you’re getting a killer deal, regardless of what your common sense tries to tell you.
Why I went off on that tangent is to demonstrate where the new wave of ‘free-to-play’ MMOs is coming from.
For the uninitiated, an MMO is a Massive Multiplayer Online game that typically has a pricing scheme which involves your paying an initial fee for the purchase of the game and subsequent monthly subscription fees which enable you to continue playing. Most of the big hitters — World of Warcraft, Rift and the brand-new Star Wars: The Old Republic — follow this model, though a few notable entries, namely Guild Wars and its upcoming sequel, have eschewed subscription fees and only ask for the base price of the game.
Now while Guild Wars is free of subscription charges, that doesn’t qualify it as free-to-play. The kind of model I’m talking about is the one to which Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan and DC Universe Online have shifted, where the player can download the entire game and play completely free of charge.
Now, as we’re all aware, it takes time, effort and money to make these games, so the big question is, how do developers recoup their investment while playing Santa Claus? The trick is that free players obviously don’t get the complete red carpet treatment, and are usually excluded from some zones, which are kept exclusive for paying members. So now that they’ve involved the player in the world and enforced a sort of social strata, some players might be content with their freeloader status but others, having tasted blood, will be tempted to take the plunge and become paying members.
Another way of monetising your userbase is the ‘microtransactions’ mechanism, where you give players the option to shell out real-world money for items in the game.
Fast forward to the bottom line — does this model work, from a financial perspective? So far, the answer seems to be a resounding yes. The team for DC Universe Online report that they had over a million new players join the game after it went free-to-play. As for earnings, take Team Fortress 2, which went free-to-play not too long ago and started minting money through the sale of digital hats (of all things!) for player characters. To give you an idea of the money involved, TF2 had a special hat sale for a relief fund for Japan after 2011’s tsunami disaster, and they generated approximately $430,000. Also there’s the hugely popular League of Legends, a free game where many players end up buying in-game heroes and spend much more money than the cost of a normal retail game would entail.
Even the juggernaut World of Warcraft has partially conceded to the free-to-play phenomenon, making the game free up till Level 20.
So developers, take note — apparently, customers love free stuff, and they’re willing to pay a lot of money to get it.