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2009 Is The Year... Of Cheaper Games

Feature: A small price to pay

Methods of paying for games have been diversifying for years now. The success of massively multiplayer games has led to subscription models and micro-payments for materials, while the prevalence of broadband has led to both legal and illegal digital distribution. More publishers are beginning to experiment with new ways of selling their games, both as a way of combating piracy and a way to reach new audiences.

This is no more obvious than with Battlefield Heroes, the free-to-play multiplayer shooter from Electronic Arts. Playable via your web browser, it's funded by in-game ads and micropayments. Players can purchase upgrades and items to customise their character's look, without providing any advantage against other players.

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This and Quake Live are the start of a new distribution model, one unaffected by piracy because people can already play them for free. Online gaming is catching up with the business model used by the rest of the internet.

Massively multiplayer games are also trying new things. Western MMOs have traditionally stuck to the monthly subscription model, but games like Empire of Sports, a fun mix of sporting mini-games like tennis, 11-a-side football, and basketball, are mimicking Eastern online worlds by planning to offer their service for free.

Mega publishers Electronic Arts are also prepping BattleForge, a massively multiplayer real-time strategy game. While there's a standard up-front fee to buy the game, it's not using a standard subscription model. There's no monthly fee, instead, its strategy involves building a deck of cards that represent your army's strengths. You expand these by using micropayments to buy new decks of cards and trading them with other players.

Some other business models will be more familiar to gamers, but they're being used for new purposes. CitiesXL is an online city-building game where you're able to build your metropolis on a planet populated with cities that are being run by your fellow players. But the developers MonteCristo, veterans at making management games, also plan to release downloadable content in the form of Game Expansion Modules, or GEMs. These will plug into your existing game, letting you be not just Mayor of a city, but the manager of, say, a ski resort. After designing your snow-capped holiday destination, you'll then be able to manage it, place it in your city or offer it to your neighbours as a place for the would-be tourists to partake in.

There's almost no limit to this. It's a method of buying and including new games within a single, persistent world and would essentially allow CitiesXL to include every other management simulation ever.

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It's easy to look at these new distribution models as a cynical attempt to prevent the problem of piracy, but there's nothing negative about it. This isn't like the much-maligned DRM being foisted upon us, putting more barriers between us and the games we want to play. This is publishers and developers responding to the way their audience actually want to pay for things - and it means nothing but good news for gamers. When Battlefield Heroes is released, you'll be able to play the full thing to discover whether or not you like it. If you don't, you need never touch it again and it hasn't cost you a thing. If you do like it, then you can keep playing every day and it still doesn't need to cost you anything. Free is a very small price to pay.

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