Tobold's Blog
Friday, September 10, 2010
Interesting idea - Bad headline

CNN has an article with a headline asking whether video game piracy is good for business. Fortunately the article has nothing to do with the headline, but instead presents an interesting idea: Why don't we go and make single-player games "Free2Play"? Nobody pirates Farmville, so why not do the same business model for single-player games?

Basically the proposal is that games would all come as free downloads, with minimal content, just enough to see whether you like the game or not. For everything else you need to open an online account and buy various downloadable content (DLC).

While the idea sounds interesting, I don't think the solution is all that easy. First of all it doesn't solve the problem of offline gaming. If you need to be connected to the internet to validate that you are allowed to use that DLC, that is equivalent to Ubisoft's hated copy protection scheme, and people can't play while offline. If you don't need to be connected, because you already have that DCL downloaded and installed, then what is to prevent you from copying the DLC and putting it on Bittorrent?

The other problem is that if the free version of the game has only minimal content, players will feel that they are nickled and dimed for everything. And people who don't play a game much will also not buy a lot of DLC, so the game company needs to make people who want everything pay more than they used to pay for a full game to get the average back up to the previous business model. Suddenly hardcore gamers will have to pay $100 or more if they want to have access to all the content of a game.

I like the idea of using online registration as a copyright protection scheme, but I think that is better handled in different ways. For example only being able to access the online multiplayer part of the game after registering the game. As you can't play online multiplayer offline anyways, nobody can complain that this keeps him from playing offline. And the registration could be "free" with a code that comes with the box. Lots of games are already working like that, e.g. Starcraft 2. Going further and making single-player games completely "Free2Play" is probably not going to work all that well.
Like you said, unless a significant part of the gameplay absolutely requires staying online, it's not going to work. Free2play without the online component is just shareware, and that's been on life support since the age of cracker crews and pirate BBSes. If the attacker controls the computer where the majority of code is being run, there's little that the developer can do to make the software tamper-proof.
Demos basically do this. You get a restricted version of the game for free and you pay for access to the rest of the game.

Dividing payments further for specific bits of content would be inconvenient to me as a customer. I would much prefer to pay a one-time fee to have access to the game's entirety in its current state than potential pay less but hit barriers at seemingly arbitrary points where the developer does little more than beg me for more money.

I want to buy and enjoy, I don't want to download for free and be nagged even after I've bought stuff.
Doesn't Starcraft2 require you to register online even if you don't even intend to ever play online?

I like the way you described: The copyright-protection is needed to play online. Add a weak offline-copyright-protection and you get the following:
- Average Joe can't just burn copies of the DVD
- Everyone who wants to play online has to buy it
- The notorious filesharer who posesses every game out there but plays nothing for long still downloads it

Thats a good model I think. The notorious filesharer wouldn't buy the game anyways but you get most of the others to buy without pissing anyone off. And your real hardcore players who play the game online for years will buy it for sure.

What I don't like is companies being "We developed this gread online service, you need to register" and then that online service is utterly useless, just wants to grab my personal details and they give it away by making it mandatory even for offline-gamers. Online services should be valuable additions to the game that provide a good copyright protection as an afterthought, not copyright-protections disguised as a service for the gamers. And asking your gamers for personal data that you don't absolutely need is just vile.
The rerelease of Fable II ( and possibly Fable III have explored these ideas, and on a console no less.
I think this might/probably be the wave of the future for a couple of reasons.

As per a previous post, this eliminates used games: the DLC is licensed so can't be sold.

The DLC is tied to your userid/email so it effectively forces you to register.

It gets around the release problems of software. features that don't make it into the game can be added as DLC.

I would rather overpay for an all-you-can-eat plan so clever companies will offer that as well as cheap options. I.e. free or $1 demo plus ATCE is like the existing game, but forcing you to register and no used games with the option of getting some money for the more price sensitive people.
Would the overall cost of to the hardcore gamer actually go up?

The ability to buy piecemeal would ensure the gamer would be dropping full price money on dogs. He would only buy the DLC of games that he found fun. So the net cost of gaming might go down. Which is probably why this will never happen, now that I think about it. A good 80% of the games out would never make a dime if people got to play it for free.
Blizzard's model with Starcraft II is the thin edge of the wedge for me.

Having purchased the game - I hasten to add, a bloated piece of excrement - I am unable to dump it off by selling it again to someone else. It can't even be taken to a charity shop so they may sell it.

The idea of paying for a license to use the game (with off-line content) is outrageous to me and coupled with an on-line check every time you wish to play it - makes me livid.

If Diablo takes this path, Blizzard will not be getting my money.

The music industry took this route, to an extent with Apple and DRM.

In the end Apple was pretty much forced to drop DRM due to lawsuits across the EU and public pressure.

DRM basicly is like saying you can buy CD's for 10 years... then your CD player breaks. So you buy a new one - but your CD's will not play on it, and have to start all over again with your music collection.

Virgin started an DRM on-line music store a few years ago. If you purchased music from that, lost it and wanted to get it back - tough, they decided to close up shop.

I maintain that when I buy a CD, a Game or a DVD for example, I own a single life time license to make copies for personal use and put it on as many devices/as I wish for personal use.

IMHO the entertainment industry are solely interested in ripping off customers with extortionate prices and unreasonable practises.
This strategy is actually the optimal way to capture revenue from users.

Pretend you have three users, one of whom is willing to pay $10, one who will pay $50, and one who will pay $250.

If you charge each one $50 for the game, the $10 gamer will not purchase, so you end up with 2 customers @ $50 for a total of $100 of revenue.

If you make the game free and then charge each player (via whatever mechanism is appropriate) up to the maximum they're willing to spend, then you have three customers willing to spend a total of $310.

The real trick is to figure out how to extract cash from each consumer up to the maximum they're willing to spend in such a way that each consumer is enticed to spend to their maximum. If gamers who have a maximum of $10 feel like they can not be competitive with gamers who spend $250, they won't spend. If gamers who spend $250 don't feel like they're getting more for their money than the gamers who spend $10, they won't spend.

The strategy is sound from an economic standpoint -- but from other standpoints it's extremely tricky.
Yes, that's called shareware.
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