Could any other game compete?
December 8, 2009 - What if, instead of shipping a $60 retail game, Microsoft and Bungie gave Halo: Reach away for free? What if, instead of shooting for a multi-million seller that makes millions more through downloadable expansions, Microsoft bet big on free-to-play gaming and its micro transaction business model? What if you didn't have to pay a dime to play Halo: Reach?
I'm not the first person to pose these questions, and the way free social gaming has been going on Facebook I doubt I'll be the last. The traditional way of thinking says that Microsoft would have to be crazy to give its flagship product away for free and hope upon hope that the profits still roll in. It's becoming quite apparent, though, that the traditional way of thinking isn't necessarily the best in all situations. Electronic Arts recently doubled down on the social gaming market by acquiring Facebook game maker Playfish for over $300 million. Zynga, the maker of Mafia Wars and FarmVille, boasts 100 million unique users and 1 million microtransaction purchases every month. So again I'll ask: What if Halo: Reach was free?
The business model has already been defined, it is only a matter of Microsoft and Bungie following the new playbook. Here's how it would work: Microsoft gives every Xbox Live Gold Member a free copy of Halo: Reach. It contains the full suite of tried and true Bungie matchmaking playlists with a good assortment of game types. In other words, it would look and feel exactly how you expect Halo to. Instead of coming with a couple of dozen maps, instead it comes with just a few -- kind of like Battlefield 1943 on the Xbox Live Arcade. Millions play it. Most players get hooked. Some tell their friends who in turn tell more and soon you have a community that might not rival that of FarmVille, but is quite sizeable nonetheless.
The business side of things comes through microtransactions. You get the game for free, but if you want more maps or goodies then you'll have to dish out a few extra bucks for each one. It really isn't any different from the current model aside from the fact that you start off with less. Not everybody would buy the maps, but the potential customer base is much larger than traditional models. Toss in a few loading screen ads and you've got yourself a business.
At the time being, giving Halo: Reach away might be a pretty big gamble, but its one that could flip the entire industry on its head. Fortune favors the bold, and its hard to think of a bolder move that a videogame publisher could make. Could any other first-person shooter -- save for perhaps mega-franchises like Call of Duty -- survive financially at full price when the consumer has the option of Halo for free?
It's just a theoretical question, but what if?
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