Alex Goldman is a producer for On the Media. One time he got run over by a car.
Step 1. Make Your Game Free - Step 2. Profit?
Friday, March 09, 2012 - 06:11 AM
OTM producer PJ Vogt and I have been very public about our love of a video game called Team Fortress 2 (or as we nerds call it, "TF2"). So much so that in April of last year, after much goading and pleading by the two of us, Bob spoke to Robin Walker, a developer for Valve Software, the company behind TF2. Specifically, we wanted to talk to him about the frequent statements that Valve has made to the press about how in order to beat video game piracy, content providers just have to make their product more enticing than the pirates could.
ROBIN WALKER: I think it’s looking at the things that pirates are providing and asking yourselves how you can provide something better than that. So, to pick an example, if you purchased a product from us, we're going to continue working on that product after we've released it. We're sort of making that initial purchase of the product significantly more valuable over time. And so, if you somehow manage to get it for free initially but not in a way that lets you plug into that system, you know, that’s going to be a big hassle for you as you continue to try and figure out how to get each of those incremental improvements over the next few years for free, as well.
And Valve really does put a lot of work into TF2, especially for a game that was released over four years ago. The company continues to create new weapons and items, which can either be found in-game, traded with other players, or purchased from Valve's "item store" for prices anywhere from $0.99 to about $8.00. Valve also does occasional updates that will add a raft of new features and items for a particular character class (and usually come with secondary content to please the fans like the "Meet the Sniper" trailer below).
In June of 2011, Valve made TF2 "free-to-play." Where you had to pay between $10-$20 upfront to purchase the game before, you could now download the game and play online at no cost. The only cost would be if you wanted to purchase items rather than finding them in-game or trading for them. This seems like a step that a company who plans to back away from a product and move on to other things might take.
Earlier this week at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Valve's Joe Ludwig ran a session where he basically said that TF2 had transitioned entirely from making money via the upfront cost of the game to microtransactions for weapons and other items. According to the site Gamasutra, the experiment was a rousing success -- since going free-to-play in June, TF2's revenue has increased twelvefold. Gamasutra's article is a fantastic roundup of all the ways that Valve has managed to keep the TF2 community engaged lo these many years, so I won't try to sum it up here.
Although this approach is novel, it's certainly not unique to TF2. The massively popular World of Warcraft also went free-to-play last year, following the same model of users paying for upgrades and items. Many top tier games will make money on the back-end by creating new downloadable content for purchase. The incredibly popular indie game Minecraft has been adding content and gameplay modes for free since its release (and slowly raising the initial price for purchasing the game). But Valve's announcement that TF2 has seen such a sharp increase in revenue could presage a dramatic rethinking of the way games are sold and profitability is achieved.