The Economy of Free

Develop reported today that The Lord of the Rings Online, which went Free to Play at the end of last year, has seen revenue for the game triple since then. This is an MMO, that place that has been all but ruled by the subscription free, and suddenly it’s making more money by doing away with that model. And not just more money: triple the money. That’s a lot of money! Well, so long as they were making a reasonable amount before then, too.

And how are they doing it? Microtransactions, of course, that dirty word in the gaming vocabulary. LotRO, specifically, locks off some of the high end content, letting you pay for it as and when you want it. Essentially, the first 60% of the game or so is there, free, to get you hooked, and then you pay for exactly what you want when you want it. If there was a subscription fee on top of this, I’d be crying bloody murder, but without? Hell, that’s just good business sense.

You’ve got to be grateful to Turbine for finally getting it to work, too, because having MMOs chained down to a subscription fee isn’t doing anyone any favours. Not only does it provide a constant drain on your bank account every month, but it’s a constant drain on your time, too. Because, y’see, if you’re paying for a month of a game, suddenly you’ve got an obligation to play it. Otherwise that’s £9.99 wasted. And no one likes to waste money. It’s unseemly. It’s a perpetual cycle; you play because you’ve paid for it, and then you pay because you’ve played it. Not to mention all the social ties that pull you back in, but really, that’s enough on its own.

So now, you make it all free, you’re suddenly lifting a great weight from the player’s chest. You’re giving them room to breathe. When you’re suddenly not obligated to do something, you can play it purely because you want to, and suddenly, you can enjoy yourself, rather than just kill that time. Don’t feel like playing? Fine, go for it. There are other things you can do, and you’re not being punished for putting your character on hold for a day, or a week, or a month. It’s turning an MMO from a nagging wife to a carefree girlfriend. It’s just a casual thing, y’know? We’re just seeing how it goes, before we make any sort of commitment.

It doesn’t pertain purely to MMOs, either. If you look at some of the stuff that have come out of the Steam sales in the past year or so, some interesting things are getting thrown up. I’m seeing people saying, time and again, that ‘I bought that in the Steam sale, haven’t got around to playing it yet’. I’m pretty sure no one spends £40 on a game that they don’t play immediately. Because that’d be a waste of money. No one just throws £40 around on the off chance they might play it some day. £3? Sure, I’ll throw down a pint’s worth for a game that I’ve heard is good, but I don’t have the time to play right now. Part of it might be that it’s a time-sensitive thing; it’s not going to be £3 tomorrow, but it’s the complete lack of investment there. £3 is chump change, it’s something I’m not going to miss.

It’s not a one way street, either; back in 2009 when Epic did a weekend sale on Unreal Tournament 3, selling it for $11.99 and making it free to play for the weekend, they saw more profit in that single weekend than the combined profit of the game so far, not to mention a 2,000% increase in player activity on the game. It’d been out for over a year at this point. So yeah, cheaper things mean more sales, which means more profit. Especially in a digital medium, where there’s very little cost in actually getting the product onto the customer’s computer.

There are multiple examples of this stuff working, and working well; you just have to see the success of the iPhone apps, and the Android market alongside it, to see that people have a lot of time for something that can be got for less than the price of a pint. As soon as it comes under the prices of something you’d snack on, suddenly people pay attention. And it’s not restricted to games; Netflix in the US is massive, now, and iTunes (regrettably, because the software is the digital manifestation of a multi-tentacled spawn of Nurgle) has been doing a similar thing for music. Who wants to pay £16 for a cd anymore, anyway?

So to bring it back to the beginning, because I like circular articles like that, going Free to Play with an MMO just makes sense. Sure, charge for the original box, but a subscription just seems archaic now, especially when there are people out there, providing an MMO and all the persistence and society that provides, without it. Especially when there’s WoW sitting there, farting and eating money while its top hat rests on its swollen head at a jaunty angle. It’s got over a dozen million subscribers. You think you’re going to get some of that pie? You’re not, trust me. WoW is greedy and selfish, and doesn’t like sharing. Much better to slip into another space entirely, and let it dwell in its own squalor. That way you’re going to have happier customers, who are more happy to splash out on what they want, rather than be forced into what they’re obligated to.

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About Phill Cameron

I've graduated, had a look at the world, and spat. Now I'm devoting my time to moving from 3/4 of a games journalist to 9/10ths. I figure I can get away with 9/10ths.
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