Free things are great, right? I mean, they're free! Except a lot of free things are free because you wouldn't pay money for them. Like all those papers they give out on the stairs while you're trying to get the tube in London. And at least half of all the free games on the internet. So you'd be forgiven for feeling a little bit sceptical when you hear that there's a new matchmaking website called SkillGround that reckons it's offering retail-quality games, for free, that you can play against other people for real money.
The company started out as a conventional game publisher called Groove Games, but the latest hardware transition triggered a change in philosophy. Instead of taking on the rising costs of making conventional videogames and eking out a moderately successful existence as a fairly small conventional publisher, why not create an entirely new market? And since one of the chaps in charge of Groove Games happened to also be in charge of a company called CryptoLogic, which is one of the four biggest providers of software to the online gambling industry, why not leverage that expertise to create something new in the conventional gaming space? And thus SkillGround was born, with the intention of offering retail quality games, that you can download quickly and play for free against gamers of a similar skill level - for money if you like.
These games straddle the ground between free Flash games on the one hand, and proper competitive online games on the other, with a bit of online gambling thrown in for good measure. The way it works is you log on to the company's website; you register, and you download one or more games. And then you play them, for free, against other people, for money if you like. If you want to play the games for free, you'll have to sit through a 15-second advert, but it's hardly more intrusive than a conventional loading screen.
The games are designed to run on moderately-specced PCs, and they're designed so that the core components will be downloaded first, to get you up and running as quickly as possible, with the bells and whistle bits to follow. So while it might take half an hour to download one game in its entirety, it'll only take you ten minutes to download enough to start playing, and the rest will carry on downloading in the background while you're shooting real people for money.
The games are clearly designed for a certain type of casual play, but they're also designed with scope to delve much deeper into their intricacies. Essentially, SkillGround is going after the reasonably hardcore gamer, but also beyond, so there are practice modes and tutorials to make the games accessible, and playing them will earn you experience points that you can use to unlock more characters, or weapons, or levels, to keep you coming back for more. And although they're clearly geared towards a certain type of casual play, they're proper games, developed by proper developers.
Take Warpath, for example, which is a sci-fi deathmatch arena FPS. It's been created sci-fi deathmatch arena FPS specialist, Digital Extremes - the developer behind Unreal Tournament 2003 and 2004, Pariah, and the forthcoming Dark Sector (which you may remember as one of the earliest next-gen games to get an airing). The game was originally given a full retail release by Groove Games, meriting only average review scores. Most of the criticism, though, focused on the fact that it was derivative, or formulaic. That matters less when you're not paying to play it, and when you're putting money on your performance, the most important thing is that a game is slick and polished, and Warpath absolutely is.
The other three titles that are currently available are of a similar quality: they're not likely to win awards for originality, but if you're looking for a decent, reasonably refined take on popular genres, then you can't go far wrong. Kung Fu: Deadly Arts is a beat-'em-up created by the company's internal development team, Bedlam (staffed by several ex-members of Rockstar's Toronto studio); LA Street Racing was developed by Hungarian developer Invicta; and Close Quarters Combat is a gritty realistic contemporary combat title developed by Zombie Studios, which is the team behind America's Army and various other contemporary combat titles in the Shadow Ops, Delta Force and Rainbow Six series.
You might have noticed that those four games cover a fair spectrum of genres. Another one will be added in August when Gusto Games will bring Ultimate Tour Golf to the platform, and it'll be well-suited to the online gambling part of the SkillGround equation. Indeed, budding golfers will be able to gamble on matchplay games against opponents; they'll be able to take part in score-based league tables for cash prizes comparison over a full round, they'll be able to gamble on particular holes, or for the longest drive; and they'll even be able to choose whether to sign up to an ongoing hole-in-one competition every time they play.
Future titles will even feature licensed IP, from third-party publishers - though the company has yet to go public on what that IP might be. What they will say, though, is that the SkillGround versions of these big name videogames will be specifically tailored to the casual-but-deep ethos behind the website - as well as offering the publishers of those games a share of SkillGround's revenues, which are derived from advertising, and a percentage of the bets that people place on the site.
Talking of the bets placed on the site, one player has used the beta phase of the site's development to rack up winnings of USD 3,000 since it launched in December last year. Obviously, with reasonably big money at stake, cheating will be strictly clamped down upon. Encrypted servers and fingerprinting of PCs will help, but the company will also be saving every piece of play data, so if any unusual behaviour is reported (or spotted by their detection algorithms), they'll be able to play the data back to check it out firsthand. And with real money at stake, players will no doubt want to make sure that they're in for a fair challenge, which will be ensured via a skill ranking (that'll be specific to each game, and specific to free and cash games to prevent player's from hustling others).
And that, in a nutshell, is SkillGround. It offers reasonably decent games, a matchmaking service to arrange games with other people, and the opportunity to gamble on your performance. And if you've just tuned in and are wondering whether Eurogamer's suddenly started running advertorial, relax; we haven't. It's just difficult to be too sceptical about a company that is offering all of this stuff for free. Ultimately, if you don't want to, you don't have to pay for any of it. And free things are great, right?