I remembered hearing about Battlefield Heroes a while ago. It was an interesting idea: they were making a decent-looking first person shooter, and it was free to play. You could buy stuff in-game, but it was just avatar customization stuff that had no effect on the gameplay. The question I wondered back then was: would avatar customization make enough money for them to pay salaries? It seemed unlikely. One possibility is that they’d get millions of players, but keep their servers load lightweight (people would play peer-to-peer, which would cost them nothing). Then, even if a few percentage paid for avatar customization, they might do okay. But, it would require phenomenal success (in terms of the number of players). I thought I’d keep an eye on them, just to see what happened.
Well, recently, they announced some changes in their system. You can still play for free, but the changes make it harder to do well in the game unless you’re paying for in-game upgrades. The game has two ways to get upgraded weapons: Valor Points, which you earn by playing; and Battle Funds, which is what you get when you pay real-world money. The new update effectively reduces the value of Valor Points and increases the value of BattleFunds.
I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt here, and say that they thought their business model would work, but after a while, decided they needed to boost their revenue. It didn’t really seem possible for them to survive on just avatar-customization alone. The whole “pay real-money for in-game upgrades” is quite a balancing act. On one extreme, players pay money for purely aesthetic changes (avatar customization). You get lots of players, people are happy, but the company is earning very little money per player. On the other extreme is a system where you can’t be an effective player in the game without paying money — the game is really a demo unless you pay some real-world money. You get fewer players, and people get more resentful over the bait-and-switch of “free to play, oh wait – you’re nerfed unless you pay” which harms the company/game reputation, but the company earns more money per player. Then there’s the balancing act of staying in the middle ground – trying to earn enough to survive and pay employees, but avoiding guilt and negative stigma of the bait-and-switch. I guess I’m not that surprised to see them shift towards a stronger pay-model, since their initial business-model seemed overly optimistic.