08/09/2009 09:46 | By Patrick Goss: Editor - Tech & Gadgets

Online gaming: A new direction?


Online gaming: A new direction? © Codemasters Online

With millions of people prepared to pay out hard earned cash on a regular basis for the pleasure of playing them, Massively Multiplayer Online games have revolutionised the computer games industry.

The likes of Lord of the Rings Online and industry behemoth World of Warcraft have accrued millions of players, and the monthly fees to get into the servers and play the game, creating a multi-billion pound industry.

The startling rise of broadband connectivity and the obvious desire of the game-playing public to embrace online social networking through both sites like Facebook or MySpace or games such as WoW or LotR, means that companies are flocking to the MMO arena.

But, can this burgeoning area evolve into more enticing ways of paying? Can those reticent to pay a monthly fee for a product be persuaded to invest time and money in a different way?

Archlord - a new era? © Codemasters Online

David Solari, the vice president of Codemasters Online, the company behind LotR, not only believes that people are looking to other ways of paying, but has recently re-released two key games titles that can be played for nothing but which rely on micro-payments from the players for gear or trinkets to make its profit.

“We kind of wanted to go free to play from the start with RF online and Archlord but we decided to go down the box product route,” confesses Solari to Tech & Gadgets.

“It was a good decision, a sensible decision that we made I think, but we always felt that these games were good candidates for a micro-payment model.

“I firmly believe that certain games suit a subscription method of payment like Lord of the Rings Online or World of Warcraft, but there are others that suit this micro-transaction route.

“With the two games we released we tried out a hybrid method which, in retrospect, didn’t work, but we reached a point where we went free-client – allowing people to get the game and play it for free and decide if and what they paid for through micro-transactions.”

RF online - free to play © Codemasters Online

Since the decision to give the game away for free, Solari confirms that both titles have been given a huge boost in terms of the numbers of people playing, although it is early in terms of judging the financial benefits.

“The response has been incredible. The increase in traffic in the game world is somewhere around 600%,” he adds.

“It's a new dawn for these games and there’s been an incredible response.

“The decision has been received very positively by those already playing the games and I can’t believe how much money some of those guys are paying in the short time since we made the change.

“We've seen a couple of guys spending hundreds of dollars a week – obviously we don’t expect to keep that up and it will hit a more sensible level.

“But for that hardcore it shows how willing they are to embrace this change.”

Dave Solari - looking to the future

The risk of this model, of course, is that the expense in sustaining these persistent universes for players needs to be surpassed by the amount that people are willing to invest in the micro-transactions.

“Of course we were nervous about taking this step – it’s why we didn’t do it in the first place.

“Making an MMO is easily the most challenging task you can do in the gaming sphere, but probably the fairest thing you can do is give people the game for free and let them decide what to pay.

“With Archlord, you can set up an account and play for nothing, all that buying credits does is allow you to take shortcuts.

“It’s perfectly possible to become the Archlord without spending a penny – but it would be significantly harder taking that route.

“We’re the first company to try this with a ‘proper’ MMO. Others have tried it but they tend to be two dimensional or lower quality. I’m not trying to knock that, it’s just that this is a different proposition.”

Archlord © Codemasters Online

Micro-payments have picked up something of a bad press already within the games industry, with controversy over the likes of Oblivion’s decision to offer critical ‘horse armor’ for a small fee and the obvious discussions over buying your way to success.

But Solari is insistent that micro-payments are a world away from the shady trading in in-game currency that has reared its insidious head in the likes of WoW.

“I think you can’t compare the two,” he states. “On one hand you have a person paying their £8.99 subs and suddenly someone buys this gold and they get ahead of you.

“Our [buyable] items are designed to get certain benefits. They’re not designed to let you get something that’s very precious in the game.

LotR Online © Codemasters

“It’s not like buying a million gold to purchase the biggest sword in the auction house.

“When you are giving people the game for nothing and freely letting them choose to buy objects it’s very different from a subscription based game.”

It remains to be seen whether the public will embrace the micro-payment model, but the early indications are good for Codemasters Online, and Solari is confident for the future.

“It’s great that we have revitalised these games by this change and I hope that gives us a few years in which they continue to grow, but we'll have to see where it goes.

“I do feel it’s an experiment. And we’ll continue to experiment to find what's best for the customer. It’s certainly worth a try.”