The Free Trade

Free-to-play is a concept that's either exciting, terrifying or both.

Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz' widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial is a weekly dissection of one of the issues weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.

Any business as big as the videogames industry is inevitably going to face a range of complex trading challenges. Everyone working in the games business has a shopping list of problems which the market needs to surmount - ranging from "good" problems like the challenge of addressing changing demographics and developing markets, through to the "bad" problems like piracy and the increasing bitterness regarding the second-hand trade.

One of the biggest challenges which videogames are going to face in the coming years, however, is a slightly more abstract business concept. Ushered in by the digital era - not just by the technology, but by the subtle yet fundamental shifts in consumers' thinking created by that technology - the concept of Free is slowly gathering pace, and threatens to wash away many of the business models which have supported media industries for a century or more.

The notion of Free isn't new in economics, of course. It's well understood that as a commodity becomes less rare, its value tends towards zero. When something becomes sufficiently commonplace, you can no longer charge a notable price for it - unless you artificially create a market based around image and prestige (bottled water) or find a way to add value (pure oxygen canisters, flavoured water).

You can also create artificial scarcity to keep prices high, although there are obvious moral problems with doing that with anything other than luxury items - and markets, like networks, interpret this kind of interference as damage, and usually find a route around it.

The similarity of markets to networks in this regard is important, because it's exactly this trait which is leading us towards such a drastic re-imagining of the economic basis for media industries. Media has always been maintained as a scarce, high-value luxury item. Physical media created an artificial scarcity which enabled prices to be kept high, and while the market did route around this to some extent - cassette to cassette copying of games and music is a good example - in general, the barriers held firm.

Digital technology has changed that scenario entirely. The advent of the internet completely removes the rarity value of information and media. Modern swarm technology, like BitTorrent, makes it possible to "create" and distribute hundreds of thousands of copies of a piece of media in a matter of minutes or hours for practically zero cost. That's not just a geeky technological consideration - it totally changes the game, and shifts the perception of media's value in the perception of consumers. Media's value tends to zero. The concept of Free steps in through the back door.

This isn't just about piracy, but piracy is at the vanguard of where this is leading us. The industry overstates the economic impact of piracy today, but tends to underestimate its impact tomorrow. Pirates can distribute your software more quickly, to more people, at a lower cost and more efficiently than your own distribution methods can - and the product they distribute is often more functional and appealing, with fewer restrictions on consumers' use of it, than the one you're distributing.

Thankfully, due to the moral and legal implications, most consumers still won't turn to piracy for their media. This is, however, only a short stay of execution. Even those who don't turn to piracy are having their perception of the value of media changed by the existence of that piracy. The games industry is like a stall selling bottled water, which has suddenly had a free water cooler set up next to it. Initially, most customers will probably still buy bottled water, but their value perception will inevitably be changed by the availability of essentially the same product for free next door. The stallholder will eventually be forced to change his business - offering more value, reducing prices, or starting to sell something very different.

The hardware dongle function of videogame consoles protects that part of the industry from rampant piracy, but it can't protect it from the "water cooler effect". On other platforms, where piracy is easier, the effect will be even more pronounced - and that's where Free takes over.

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