Alternative Access

Alternative Access
Destroy All Consoles

Ray Huling | 28 Jul 2009 12:30
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"The Cloud" basically means "a hell of a lot of interconnected servers." Streaming services don't just place Cloud Power in the hands of end-users, but in developers' hands, too. "You could potentially scale the quality of the games as high as you want on the server side, and that's something no developer has ever had," says Urbach.

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It may also be something no developer wants to have, given the kind of effort it will require to take advantage of that power. And it's not clear what kind of visuals customers really want.

Aligning developers' and players' demands will take some doing. OnLive advertises traditional console games on its site, but if streaming obviates development for consoles, why would games remain the same? It's likely that developers will turn to business models already in place to determine how they should approach making games for this new service.

No Free Lunch

This where the free-to-play model comes in. Free-to-play games draw numbers that dwarf those of top-selling disc-based games. KartRider, a free, Korean racing game, is more popular than World of Warcraft by millions. Operator Nexon makes money by charging players for upgrades to their karts. Taking advantage of staggeringly huge audiences requires certain niceties of development and pricing, however. "Whenever you deal with free-to-play, you obviously have to be very careful with the math," says Perry.

No game is truly free. Somebody pays for bandwidth, to say nothing of development and maintenance costs. Fortunately, free-to-play enables a type of economic jujitsu. "Scaling up your audience dramatically, that's step one," Perry says. "Step two is coming up with a model where there's no limit on what they can pay you."

Eliminating an entry fee - the price of the game - makes it possible to charge customers infinitely. A price of $60 per disc guarantees a fixed revenue; no less, but also no more. Perry calls this the "moneywall" - it keeps players away from the game and establishes a limit on revenues.

Free-to-play lets players spend as much as they want on a game. While some players spend only a few bucks, others spend thousands. In order to satisfy that kind of demand, developers have to maintain special production schedules. "You launch the game with enough content to keep the people happy for now, and you iterate every six weeks," says Perry. "If you talk to a really good social company, all the good ones are down to about a week."

"The most impressive ones," he says, "the state-of-the-art ones, are down to once a day."

Game developers will have strong incentives to apply the free-to-play model to the new streaming services. At Unity, Helgason has seen some surprising successes. Unity's development tools underlie streaming games, such as Cmune's Play Paradise Paintball and downloadable games such as ZombievilleUSA for the iPhone. "Some of our customers are making a lot of money, and they're just kids," says Helgason, "And it's nice to know their return on investment is hugely higher than most of the stuff that comes out of EA."

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