Online gaming gets cheaper

The online gaming universe takes a page from Radiohead's book as big companies like EA tinker with "pay-what-you-want" gaming experiences.

Free is always good. But did you know free – or "almost free" – is a big trend in online gaming?

In North America alone, the online racing game KartRider has more players than World of WarCraft – and you don't need to pay a cent to play it.

According to Hillary Lyons, spokesperson for Nexon America, which owns KartRider, "When [the game] launched in South Korea, it was the first big game to show that a free-to-play model can really work and only now are you seeing big companies here in the U.S. take notice."

That's no lie. The tens of millions of people that flock to this online racing game have everyone taking stabs at the free gaming space. How does one support the modern definition of a big-budget "free" game? They're using variations on the way the band Radiohead charged for its last album, "In Rainbows." They asked fans to pay what they wanted to pay for the music.

Micropayments

In the case of Nexon's popular racer, you offer up microtransactions. Pay a dollar here for a different chassis, a dollar there for better acceleration, maybe a couple cents to add a rear-view mirror Jack-in-the-Box dangly.

Lean, hungry, and small firms dabble with projects and gain varying degrees of success. Titles like War Rock have courted action gamers with a free-to-play, pay-to-upgrade model for years. But eyes are now on megapublisher Electronic Arts and noted developer Id Software (behind the Doom, Quake, and Enemy Territory games).

Id Software announced last summer that it would bring an ad-supported version of Quake III to a computer near you, gratis. The only cost of entry: eyeballs on in-game ads. And if the thought of actually having to install a game gives you headaches, Id has you covered – the entire game will be playable in a Web browser.

Now that game officially has a name (Quake Live) and – partnered with in-game ad purveyor IGA Worldwide – is moving along. While there's no official word on a release date just yet, check in at QuakeLive.com, which is where the game will eventually appear.

EA's Take on the Free Trend

In the case of EA's newly announced Battlefield Heroes, though, it's a combination of ideas. Capitalising on the franchise's frantic multiplayer matches, the plan is to have a microtransaction mechanic in-game and advertisements in the pre-match screens (no in-game billboards proclaiming, "This war brought to you by. . .").

The only possible hitch that comes with microtransactions is the possibility of creating an unbalanced arms race as players pay in to get more gear. EA, however, remains convinced that – when the game launches this summer – 95 per cent of players will never invest a penny in upgrading characters and will stick with the free model.

"Honestly," says Crowley, "this is where the future of gaming lies. Why make someone pay for a game if they don't have to?" Obviously other people think the same way.

If Battlefield Heroes and Quake Live prove to be success stories, more publishers and developers won't be far behind. We know for a fact that many more have plans in motion (Sony Online Entertainment's upcoming free MMO, Free Realms, comes to mind).

So, can you look forward to a day when kids aren't bugging you to buy them the newest game? We can dream.

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Darren Gladstone

PC World (US online)
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