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 Thursday, 13 June, 2002, 08:49 GMT 09:49 UK
Making online gaming pay
Counter-Strike: Condition Zero screenshot, Vivendi
Counter-Strike: People play but rarely pay
Online gaming is fun for everyone but the companies providing the sites and servers that let you play.

For them it is an expensive business that takes huge amounts of time, energy and money to keep up with.

To make matters worse, before now most have struggled to find ways to offset this expense by getting gamers to pay for the services they enjoy.

But as broadband net connections become more popular and more people play online, some games sites are starting to experiment with new ways to make gaming pay.

Big bills

Like almost every web-centred business, it has been a hard 18 months for websites and companies who make it possible to play online games.

Funds for expansion, or simple survival, have been hard to find and new sources of income have been even scarcer.

Although any firm that has survived has less competition, they are finding it hard to make money out of gamers because they have got used to getting everything, apart from the game itself, for free.

Click here to tell us if you would pay to play

It did not used to be like this. Rick Walker, aka Sky from games portal Challenge UK, said keen online gamers used to have to be rich to indulge their hobby.

Potential customers are loathe to pay still more to play games, especially when they can play for free elsewhere

Rick Walker, Challenge UK
"It wasn't uncommon for some of the top Quake players to have phone bills in excess of 600 for a quarter," he said.

But with the advent of unmetered web surfing and cheap broadband, online gaming is getting more popular. Now it is not just the preserve of a dedicated few.

"It has led to a rise in the number of 'casual' gamers," said Mr Walker.

"They might not join a team or compete in a competition, but they'll still play on public servers."

Boom and bust

The booming popularity is causing headaches for both gamers and companies.

For the top games, it can be hard for players to find a public server with free places.

Quake III screenshot
Quake can be a costly habit
For the games companies, public servers are an expense for which they get little in return, apart from the goodwill of gamers.

"The problem with the net community is that they do not understand the real costs of online gaming," said Dave Evans, new media director at Barrysworld, a popular gaming portal rescued from liquidation last year by retailer Game.

Gradually both players and game portal owners are realising that, if online gaming is to survive and expand, something has to change.

Now all the operators of the UK's larger games portals, Barrysworld, Telewest and BT, are experimenting with pay-to-play systems.

"The Barrysworld community is pretty sophisticated and everyone is aware that this is going to happen," said Mr Evans.

Pay-to-play involves a small monthly or annual fee for which subscribers get guaranteed places to play, access to bookable servers for their own games, the latest updates and special events.

These subscription services have been proved to work for games set in massive online worlds such as Ultima, Everquest and Star Wars Galaxies.

Fan furore

But there is debate over whether it will work for games such as Counter-Strike, Quake, Unreal and Return to Castle Wolfenstein that have huge online followings outside the control of one company.

Star Wars Galaxies screenshot, Lucas Arts
Online games like Star Wars Galaxies make money
"Potential customers are already paying for their connection, and are loathe to pay still more to play games, especially when they can play for free elsewhere," said Mr Walker from Challenge UK.

"The recent furore over the Big Brother video streams is an example of the sort of response the public might give," he said.

But the games sites do need a way to recoup some cash from the growing ranks of casual gamers rather than the dedicated fans.

"If all the service providers are chasing the existing fans, there's not enough business for us all," said Mr Evans from Barrysworld. "We need fresh players."

The pay-to-play trials show how tentative any changes will be, largely because no-one wants to get it wrong.

"Maybe we will introduce some sort of 'gold account' with special features for a monthly fee," said Willem Bisson, president of the Clanbase website, "but we don't want to be the first to try that out in the gaming world."

But if nothing changes, it could be game over for everyone.

Have your say

Click here to return

Would you pay to play online? Is there a way to make money out of online gaming?

I have played pay-to-play games [in the end i only played asherons call] before, and for those rich multiplayer "living" worlds I am happy to pay 10 a month of my hard earned cash. However, the Quake/Counter-strike/Wolfenstein shooter games, I would not pay. A new pricing model (and access model) is needed, perhaps 15 for the software, and the ability to play for free but not advance your character, so you can look at the world, get used to it and decide if the game is to your taste or not
Mark Borton, UK

I am not totally against paying. However I don't think it should be general charge for all. I don't think the majority of users on a 56k connection should be charged, basically because the quality of gaming is pretty poor. Others on a broadband or cable connection where the standard of game performance is much higher and can be almost guaranteed, I'm sure most would pay a small charge, as long as the service being provided had an adequate variety of games.
Rob, UK

The only online game I have ever played is Hearts. I am thinking about playing the Star Wars game and maybe Everquest or something like that. I'd be prepared to pay a subscription per month for that. As long as it isn't too expensive.
Morgan, NZ

If I was interested enough in a game, yes, I'd pay-to-play. It'd have to be really good, though, as it's much easier and cheaper for me to play on a local area network, even paying in a cybercafe, than it would be to play online. With Ireland's metered access, I'd be paying twice - once for the connection, and once for the game.
Drew Shiel, Ireland

I already pay every month for AC ($9.99) and in addition to the internet connection (ADSL) I find it a good investment in entertainment when compared with a night at the cinema, or going out to dinner for example. Like Mark, I personally wouldn't pay a lot for First Person Shooters online, but perhaps I would pay a subscription to an umbrella company which enabled me to pick and choose which of these games I wanted to play for my money. In my mind we should be paying for what is a great service and investment in hours of entertainment.
M Sterling, UK

I've been playing online FPS games since 1997 for free but recently my clan (team) has started paying for various facilities. We rent our own server and also pay a small fee to play in various leagues and cups. We're quite happy with this since we're getting a more interesting gaming experience than just playing on the free servers.
Pete, England

I have played and paid for online chess. The trouble with free servers is a lot of people cheat and use computer programmes to win. I don't mind paying 10 a month if the overall experience is good i.e. gameplay and the players themselves play in the true spirit of the game.
John Mcaree, UK

I'm not really rich, I can afford to pay for my cable modem internet access, but to me that $40 a month is paying for gaming.
Ben, USA

I would only pay up to 10 a month for online gaming because games are expensive enough as it is.
James, UK

I've never paid to play online, except for ISP fees of course, and I never will. Paying to play for games such as the Quake series and its modifications is impossible and will never happen on a large scale. It's too easy to find free public servers. As long as there are communities out there that support them, that's where I'll be playing.
Karr, Canada

I'm thinking what is the point of broadband users paying extra for the gaming ? I mean broadband is generally bought for faster gaming and nothing more. Come on, don't we pay enough for fast connections already?
Stuart Turner, England

The big difference here is that games like Ultima Online and the forthcoming Star Wars Galaxies use the monthly charge to expand and evolve the game further for the players. In contrast, games like Counterstrike don't develop as you play them, you are simply utilising the server space. I think the games companies are going to have to add something extra to games of this genre if they want people to seriously consider paying for the service.
Matt, UK

I would pay, but if I did I would expect fast servers with adequate capacity, and the swift removal of cheating players. Currently gamers put up with the lack of these facilities, because playing is free. I doubt they would be so tolerant if they were paying.
Phil, UK

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 Video games
Console wars, broadband and interactivity
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