An article on Game Informer’s website stated that Lord of the Rings: Online’s revenue was tripled after adopting a free-to-play model supported by micro-transactions. That is to say that the game client itself can be played without a monthly subscription fee, but that certain exclusive in-game items or what not may be bought for a small price. This sales model has been more frequently adopted by MMOGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games), and appears to be quite successful.
A notable exception to this pattern is Blizzards’ monumental World of Warcraft, with the latest expansion, Cataclysm, breaking sales records. However, for less successful games, a free to play model seems to be a reliable way to draw in players who otherwise may only see Blizzard Entertainment’s giant. The free-to-play model also removes one great drawback of the MMOG genre: the monthly fees. Though it may seem illogical that removing these fees, normally justified as server maintenance costs, can actually add to revenue without hurting the game servers’ reliability, there appear to be enough die-hard users to support the game using micro-transactions. Even members of the WoW development team have expressed interest in switching to a free-to-play model at a later time, or when another MMOG from the company is available or in progress.
For the time being, however, the largest of the genre remains with a standard sales model, but the winds of change can be felt. As digital distribution begins to catch up to and outpace physical sales, the popularity of the free-to-play model comes as little surprise. As games reach out to ever-larger and more diverse audiences, it could be a matter of only a couple years before the art of selling a game has become an entirely different animal, and if the success of LOTR: Online is any indicator, that animal will be quite successful.