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B-Side reprinted this article on 5 Alternative Revenue Streams for the Music Industry. (I’d link to the original article, but B-Side “cited” the source without a link, so I can only link to their repost.)

In any case, the article outlines 5 revenue models for the faltering music industry. They are:

  1. Free (ad or sponsor supported)
  2. Pay What You Want (donations)
  3. Pay By Popularity (price increasing with popularity)
  4. Subscription (Rhapsody style music services)
  5. Music Tax (ISPs add tax to offset industry losses = bad idea)

The article puts forth these revenue models after asserting that “iTunes isn’t the answer,” but I’d say that it’s a darn good start. iTunes was at least partially responsible for weening me off music pirating entirely (kids and declining music savvy also deserve credit). And while some of us in the game industry like to snicker at “old media” such as music and its antiquated business practices, the game industry is behind the music business in at least one way:

The iTunes model hasn’t been applied to games yet.

We’re still out there trying to get people to buy the whole album, rather than just the tracks they want. Services like Steam and episodic games like Sam and Max are great steps forward for the industry, but neither one allows consumers to instantly purchase and enjoy only the portions of the game they desire, like iTunes did for music.

One way to stop people loading up their Nintendo DS’s Revolution R4 card with 100 pirated games from BitTorrent is to give them all those games “for free” and charge a capped micro license based on which games they play and for how long.

For instance, if I play 10 minutes of Pokemon, 2 hours of Touch Darts and 50 hours of Puzzle Quest*, I would then be billed something like 10 cents, $1.20 and $20 (or whatever the cap for PQ would be). Couple that with electronic distribution’s removal of COGS and you’re right back to the same profit margins you already enjoy (on titles that cap out), with the added benefit of monetizing lesser played titles that would otherwise have been pirated.

While this may be new for traditional AAA games, casual games already have a fledgling version of this model courtesy of Double Trump’s Micro License scheme. Their PlayOn Arcade site has the details, for those interested in creating an iTunes-esque service for big budget, retail games.

* These are actual figures. I finished Puzzle Quest. 🙂

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Tech Digest has a writeup from a panel discussion at Virtual Worlds Forum Europe. In it, Jessica Mulligan, Executive Director of Player Relations at Cyber Sports, provides several interesting-but-unattributed stats and a couple quotes that support what F2P.biz is about.

Stats

  • Just 10% crossover between online games and social spaces (e.g. World of Warcraft vs Second Life)
  • 60 million active players of virtual world games (people who are paying money on a monthly basis).
  • Virtual worlds generated $4.5 billion in revenues last year. WoW, Westward Journey and Runescape are in this group.
  • Social spaces (Habbo, Webkinz, Club Penguin, etc) generated $400M last year.
  • Asia accounts for 50% of all virtual world revenues.

Quotes

We’re going to see more games under that business model [f2p, vis] than under the premium model.

In social spaces, web-based worlds are growing, while those that rely on you downloading a client are “stagnating”.

Interesting stuff, but without any sources to back up the stats or quotes, it’s tough to view this as anything more than cheerleading for the sector. For instance, I believe browser-based is a smarter choice than downloadable client, but I’ve heard little evidence to support Jessica’s notion that downloadable client games are stagnating.

Virtual Worlds Forum Europe is on now in London, England until tomorrow.

Editors Note: Since this article was posted, Jessica has been kind enough to reply (in the comments of this post) with the source for her stats and observations. Thanks, Jessica!

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NCSoft the MMO giant has credits that include the massively popular Lineage, Lineage II, Guild Wars, City of Villains/Heroes and the upcoming Tabula Rasa. But Dungeon Runners, one of only two free-to-play games from NCsoft, is unlike most of their other products. DR is based on a tiered subscription model, where users can play for free, or opt to pay a monthly subscription ($4.95) to access upper level content.

Free To Play spent an hour with Dallas Snell, NCsoft’s Director of Business Development, discussing Dungeon Runners, the free to play model and the future of NCsoft. Dallas has been a prominent figure in the games industry since 1983 having to contributed to over 20 titles during his time at Origin and EA. After a short sabbatical from gaming, Dallas returned to the industry in his current role based in Austin, Texas.

The earliest version of Dungeon Runners began as a different project entirely back in 2001, before being put on the back burner, where it remained until 2002 when it was dusted off to be a game titled Exarch. That too was eventually put to rest until Dungeon Runners was resurrected in its current incarnation about 18 months ago. Today the team consists of over a dozen internal employees with a heavy contingent of art outsourcing.

The decision to resurrect Dungeon Runners and make it a free to play game (versus a full retail MMO) came from NCsoft CEO Robert Garriott and Chris Chung, the former ArenaNet General Manager, who operated out of Korea at the time and therefore had early exposure to the free to play model. Chris is back in Austin now and looking to push NCSoft further into casual MMO development, replicating the success of Korean companies like Nexon.

There’s been speculation that NCsoft chose subscriptions as the primary revenue model in Dungeon Runners due to a belief that North American players preferred that model to microtransactions. However, that was not the rationale for the subscription decision. Instead, Dungeon Runners’ optional subscription fee was chosen simply because a microtransactional model wasn’t yet set up in the Dungeon Runners code base. To remedy that, the team is currently working on getting microtransactions running within Dungeon Runners before the game is launched in Korea.

Dallas made frequent mention of NCSoft’s embrace of “Web 2.0” development philosophies. In particular, NCsoft’s use of the free to play model, Dungeon Runners as a testing ground for future products and the company’s strong commitment to reducing barriers to entry for all NCsoft products were all offered as proof of the company’s Web 2.0-ness.

Dallas often referred to Dungeon Runners as an experiment, saying that although Dungeon Runners currently utilizes subscriptions, within a couple of months in-game advertising will become a part of DR. In fact, the ads are already in the world, but visible only to testers, NCsoft and Double Fusion (the in-game ad provider). F2P.biz was asked not to reveal how the ads will be implemented, but expect an announcement from NCsoft soon. If all goes well with the ad experiment, Dallas says NCSoft will consider the possibility of scrapping Dungeon Runners’ subscription fee all together.

On the other hand, by their own account NCSoft is seeing higher than normal conversion rates with their current subscription set up, so perhaps Dallas won’t be so quick to abandon it.

What are those great numbers?

Among active users (online within the last month), Dungeon Runners has a high free:paid ratio – i.e. there’s a larger proportion of paid to free users than among most f2p games. Dallas cites Runescape with a 5:1 ratio (free to paid, online at any given time), and says that DR is hitting 3:1, or after content updates, as high as 2:1.

Additionally, NCsoft expected a monetization rate of 1-3%, but their numbers are reportedly “significantly higher” [Dallas declined to give a specific number]. Dallas claimed not to know the cause of the higher monetization rate, but one contributing factor may be that the large majority of in-game activities or items are available only to paid users. Dallas acknowledged this and went on to say that the dev team is strongly considering raising the ceiling for free users as currently only 1-2 hours of free play will result in players hitting the ceiling with respect to what they can get for free.

Further to NCSoft’s recently announced plans to release free to play content on the Sony network, Dallas talked about his company’s goal of becoming “device agnostic” in order to break down the segregation of gamers between platforms. NCsoft plans to build their own cross-platform community service, with friends lists, inter-game messaging, and other features similar to Xbox Live. NCsoft also intends to release desktop, facebook and mobile widgets to extend gamers’ experience.

According to Dallas, NCSoft thinks of Dungeon Runners as a “MMO light” or a game that straddles the gap between casual and core gamers. In Dallas’ opinion, the success of products like Runescape makes it likely NCSoft will develop even more accessible games – perhaps even browser-based – to further minimize the barriers to entry.

With 40+ data probes plugged into Dungeon Runners, NCsoft approaches the product as a testing ground for ideas to be built into other games. The probes measure everything from time played, rewards frequency, item usage, leveling curves and dozens of other useful metrics. Outside of the game, account-level metrics are tracked in a publisher module that will allow NCsoft to track and analyze a single player’s activities across all their products.

In Dallas’ eyes, retail may soon become “extinct” with digitally delivered gaming ruling the day. He spoke candidly about the struggles facing music and film and how games are uniquely structured to develop their own delivery solutions. To that end, products like Guild Wars and Dungeon Runners are blazing trails for NCsoft.

Finally, as already mentioned, a recurring theme from Dallas was his commitment to lowering the barrier to entry in all NCsoft products. As evidenced by their free to play experiment, NCSoft strategy is to grow their customer base as widely as possible, then monetize the largest possible proportion. Most flatteringly, Dallas said his officemates all had printouts of F2P’s article, Top 10 Ways to Reduce Barriers to Entry, and were treating it as a white paper of sorts.

Thanks to Dallas Snell for his time and to Opal Lertutai, NCsoft PR, for setting us up.

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From this post on NCsoft’s Dev Corner, Richard Garriot discusses NCsoft’s plan to build free to play console games.

PS3 NCsoft games would incorporate “traditional subscription models, micropayment systems and free-to-play games with membership options,” according to the CEO.

Elsewhere in the post, Garriot indicates we might see the first NCsoft PlayStation 3 game by Christmas of next year (2008) – a product that sounds likely to be a re-use of one of their existing IPs, i.e. City of Heroes, Guild Wars or Dungeon Runners. He notes that original IP console games will take 2-3 years (i.e. 2009/2010).

Garriot also suggests that NCsoft intends to start a new studio to handle console development, but more likely is that the work will be farmed out to existing studios, not a new one.

“…We are also looking at specific projects that we may house in other studios. This includes our Austin offices or our other currently existing studios. Console game development won’t just be at one single location,” he added.

Garriot hints that Xbox 360/XBLA is not NCsoft’s first choice for their F2P products due to the restrictive nature of Microsoft’s Live infrastructure. Aspects of my earlier post, The Economics of a Free To Play Console Game, may be relevant here as I examined the feasibility of doing a F2P XBLA game.

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At last month’s Casual Games Conference in Seattle, I spent about 30 minutes chatting with Daniel James, CEO of Three Rings. Daniel told me an interesting story about how Puzzle Pirates, the hit Java MMO, has accelerated user base growth.

Puzzle Pirates utilizes few other distribution portals outside of http://www.puzzlepirates.com. But one site Daniel has had phenomenal success with has been Miniclip.com, the browser-based games portal.

In Daniel’s experience, a stunning 1 million out of Puzzle Pirates’ 3 million players have come via Miniclip alone.

Because Miniclip users are younger, they don’t monetize as well as other players. Daniel’s estimation was 1% monetization for Miniclip users vs 5% among the rest of the Puzzle Pirates user base. However, according to Daniel a secondary wave of word-of-mouthers join Puzzle Pirates shortly after each wave of new Miniclip users and the conversion rate among this secondary wave is much better.

I bring this up now because of this very recent Ypulse article, which contends that Miniclip has been the primary growth catalyst for games like Club Penguin and Runescape as well. A degree of influence not surprising given the “explosive growth” of the Miniclip.com site itself, as illustrated on this chart.

Here are some quotes from the Ypulse article:

Without Miniclip, it is likely that there is no Club Penguin phenomenon. The product launched in October 2005 and was able to eke out a base of about 25,000 users. A few months later, the game was posted on Miniclip and experienced explosive growth. By September, the product had over 2.6 million users. Runescape’s user base saw a similar, if slightly less dramatic, increase from a niche game to a multi-million user success.

With a core demographic of 10-24 year olds, Miniclip has built a portal with the power to instantly launch a youth brand. What network TV was for The Transformers, so Miniclip has been for Club Penguin. Great products can travel virally, but the task is a lot easier if the starting point is 30 million exposures.

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The following 10 revenue models allow some or all of their associated game or virtual world to be played for free. The ordering is quite unscientific and I’m sure I’ve missed something obvious or messed up a detail. I leave it to the internet to correct me.

1. Virtual Item Sales
A well familiar revenue model first established in Korea and now the dominant model in Asia. Nexon – makers of KartRider, MapleStory, Audition and more – are widely seen as the leaders in this area, doing $230M of gross revenue in 2005 (the most recent year for which they’ve released figures), with 85% of that revenue coming from virtual item sales.

Virtual item sales is the practice of allowing users to purchase functional, decorative, or functional & decorative in-game items for use in and out of gameplay. A virtual item system usually uses two currencies – an attention currency (users earn virtual money via in-game activities) and a real money-based currency (users buy virtual money using real money). Typically, 5-15% of users opt for the latter currency and the influx of real world money is what provides the virtual item sales revenue stream.

What’s so compelling about virtual item sales is the unlimited ARPU (average revenue per user). According to Daniel James, CEO of Three Rings, some hardcore Puzzle Pirates users have poured more than $10,000 apiece into the game via virtual item purchases. To reach that contribution level via a World of Warcraft-style $15/month subscription would take a user 55 years.

While extremely shaky sources peg the overall size of the virtual item sales market at $1.5-2B this year, without an NPD-esque measurement organization there’s no way to verify that number.

2. Subscription Tiers
Runescape, the Java MMO from Jagex, is one of the leaders in the tiered subscription space. A tiered subscription model allows users to play the core game for free, but those that desire access to elite weapons or other game content, must pay a small ($5/month) subscription fee. Over 1 million of Runescape‘s 6+ million users have opted into the tiered subscription program, grossing $60M annually for Jagex.

Dungeon Runners, an NCsoft free to play MMO, offers a similar $5/month subscription package that affords players access to the elite items, a bank and the ability to stack potions. It also gives subscribers server queue priority.

3. Advertising
Several different forms of game-related advertising revenue streams have popped up in recent years. Firms such as Massive, IGA and Double Fusion do big business in in-game advertising for clients such as EA, Activision, THQ and Microsoft. Game ad agencies typically serve up static ads (ads that ship with a product and never change) or dynamic (ads that are updated in real time via the net) within game products that are contextually appropriate for advertising (i.e. sports, racing, or contemporary shooters).

The size of this conventional in-game advertising market is currently pegged at $100-200M, according to well-placed industry sources. However, the number and quality of games with dynamic advertising enabled is escalating dramatically. So much so that Yankee Group predicts the in-game ad market will reach $732M by 2010.

But other, more emergent forms of in-game advertising have been at the forefront of enabling free to play. Examples include:

4. Real Estate or “Land Use Fees
Second Life is the biggest legitimate player utilizing this revenue model whereby virtual land is sold leased to individuals. Monthly lease fees range from $5 to $195, depending on the size of land in question. Users may also purchase their own island for a one time fee of $1,675 in addition to a monthly fee of $295.

Approximately 70% of Second Life’s revenue comes from land sales and maintenance fees. Of course the virtual land ownership revenue model doesn’t come without headache, as the Bragg vs Linden suit has proven.

Entropia Universe uses land auctions as a revenue stream, but a recent headline-making $100,000 land sale has been called into question as the successful bidder is an employee of Entropia‘s developer, MindArk.

5. Merchandise
In what’s become a phenomenon of Furby proportions, Webkinz plush toys and their associated Webkinz World have taken the pre-teen set by storm. Users purchase a $15 Webkinz plush toy at retail and enter a secret code to activate the associated virtual character in Webkinz World. Beyond the retail plush toy purchase, there are no additional fees for playing in Webkinz World.

Two million Webkinz toys have been sold since April 2005, with more than 1 million of those users registering their pet online. That’s more than US$20M in retail sales in just 24 months. Products such as Bratz/Be-Bratz are quickly jumping on this bandwagon.

Another successful merchandise-based revenue model is collectible card games, or CCGs. Neopets launched a CCG in 2003 and just this week MapleStory became the latest free to play game to go this route, announcing a partnership with Wizards of the Coast. Consumers purchase real-world MapleStory collectible cards that come with codes redeemable for exclusive in-game content in the MapleStory MMORPG.

6. Auctions & Player Trades
In June 2005, Sony set up Station Exchange on select Everquest II servers. Station Exchange facilitates player to player trade of in-game items – including the provision of an escrow service – in return for a 10% closing fee as well as listing fees ranging from $1 (items and coins) to $10 (characters).

While Station Exchange recorded only $274K in net revenue in its first year of limited release, it was enough for Sony Online President John Smedley to declare it the future of RMT. Read the SOE Station Exchange whitepaper for more.

Entropia Universe – a world in which virtual items actually decay with use and require real money to repair or replace – utilizes first party auctions as their primary revenue stream. This means that instead of merely facilitating player to player auctions and taking a cut (a la Station Exchange’s eBay model), Entropia auctions items directly to their players.

Entropia items sell for ludicrous sums, with rare weapons auctions closing at $26,000, land auctions for (allegedly) $100,000. The May 2007 auction of five in-game banking licenses brought in $404,000, total. Ironically, Entropia takes no fees for player-to-player auctions.

In the wake of this success, watch for third party virtual item auction houses such as Dan Kelly’s Sparter.com to offer developers and publishers a cut to ensure the (exclusive?) cooperation of their products.

7. Expansion Packs

The best known example of expansion packs as a primary revenue model is the Arenanet product, Guild Wars. Likened by Richard Garriott to a series of fantasy novels, Guild Wars relies not on monthly subscription fees for its revenue, but on the sale of successive expansion packs for $29.99.

The game’s creators argue that the thin-pipe origins of their technology allow their game to be run far more economically than competing titles, enabling this no-subscription free model.

Over 3 million people have purchased the previous three Guild Wars products (Guild Wars, Guild Wars: Factions and Guild Wars: Nightfall) with those numbers set to surge again with the release of Guild Wars: Eye of the North on August 31, 2007.

8. Event or Tournament Fees
Netamin’s free to play, ad-supported Ulimate Baseball Online uses event fees as an additional revenue stream. UBO‘s Pay to Play tournaments cost $5 per player to enter and offer cash prizes up to $4,500.

Shot Online, a free to play/virtual item sales golf MMO, also charges users to enter tournaments.

Third parties such as Valve’s Tournament.com and Groove Game’s Skillground.com are getting into the pay to play tournament scene as well. These sites charge charging entry fees for game tournaments for games such as Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike.

9. TrialPay
At the recent Virtual Goods Summit and again at the Seattle Casual Games Conference, I bumped into representatives from TrialPay. TrialPay is a third party facility that allows customers to pay for products (i.e. games) by trying or buying from advertisers.

What this means is that when you go to pay for a casual game or purchase virtual currency, you can instead select from a demographically targeted list of special offers. Trying or buying one of these offers – from merchants such as Avis, Geico, Vonage, etc – allows you to get your game purchase for free, as the offer merchant has paid the game provider for acquiring a new customer on their behalf.

TrialPay claims that this allows game developers to earn more per user, as some offers pay game developers upwards of $50 per user (as opposed to the $20 a casual game might normally charge).

Someone from TrialPay can jump in and give me a more relevant example of their system’s use in the game space, but all I could find was a casual games company called Dreamquest Games.

10. Donations
Clocking in at last on the list is of alternate revenue streams is player donations. Raph Koster recently blogged about meeting up with the Kingdom of Loathing guys at ComicCon in San Diego. Raph reported that while KoL‘s revenue is “definitely indie,” their primary revenue stream of player donations is a sustainable one.

According to Wired, the donation revenue has allowed creator Zack Johnson to quit his day job and hire six employees to help improve and maintain the product.

That’s what Maid Marian founder Gene Endrody would call a “lifestyle business,” but I suspect most of us wouldn’t scoff at it or any of the above revenue models.

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