Free is a small word with big connotations. Free means freely available, free to choose, free of monetary cost or commitment. Free often means throwaway, low value, nasty or disposable.
Free stuff has generally two strategies behind it. The first is up-selling. Buy two, get one free. Free parking when you purchase $10 of goods in-store. Sign up to our movie postal service now, get the first month free. The second is as an advertising conduit. Television, radio and Google all work on the basis of free content delivering advert dollars.
And yet free is increasingly associated with unlimited supply. File sharing has made music effectively free both directly through piracy and - as a response to piracy - indirectly through Napster, Last.fm and Spotify. Several of the major entertainment media companies have attempted to directly engage with Free as a model, from Hulu and BBC iPlayer to on-line only newspapers and RSS. Many of them are finding it tough going as the advertising market has become depressed in the recession.
However that is not the only problem they face: Free also tends to attract many more content creators as the costs of production and distribution plummet. Millions of Youtube clips, thousands of self-published blogs and podcasts all compete for attention with 'official' media channels.
The bulk of free content is low-rent and meme-based, but increasingly it is not. There is some evidence to suggest that while the Google-web of organised searches and blogosphere tagging was at least partially responsive to official media channels, the Twitter-web of real time conversation is way more unpredictable may be better suited to distributing more than just prank Youtube clips.
Games and Free
Of all the major media, I think video games have the most to lose and the most to gain from the oncoming storm of Free. To date the silo strategy nature of console development combined with high-voltage PR from major publishers has acted as an effective deterrent against gamers getting the idea that their games should be free. But outside those walls a different - and ultimately cataclysmic - change is occurring.
I am neither the first to predict this nor to try to build a business on it. There's Kongregate, Addicting Games, Social Game Network, Playfish, Zynga, Big Point, Jagex and numerous other companies busily selling this idea of Free. They operate through web-based games, in PHP, Flash, Java and Silverlight and dsitribute across the open web, across social networks like Facebook, and many have been doing so for quite some time.
To date the games press mostly ignores free games. Unlike web-based and Flash games (which many game developers and publishers have simply ignored as not worth watching), console and large-scale PC development delievers high production values and that makes for good news story. Comparing a big-budget franchise with a free Kongregate ball-bouncing game seems ridiculous and it's more fun to write about E3.
The first true cross-over point for most game developers came along when Apple unveiled the App Store on iPhone last year. Apple presented a pretty capable platform, able to deliver at least graphics of Super Monkey Ball proportions, along with a generous business model and relatively piracy-free distribution. Many developers, finding console development to be an increasingly high-stakes game of Chicken, jumped in feet first and busily released games. So did many of the free web game companies.
There have been some, though not many, games that have managed to be successful on iPhone by charging at a decent price, but the overwhelming appetite from users is for free stuff. iPhone, unlike its competitors such as the DS, positively falls over itself allowing developers easy access to customers. Meanwhile all the available data suggests that prices for all applications trend toward free quickly. While some games do manage to do very well at 2 or 3 dollars in price, companies like SGN have had literally millions of downloads of their iBowl and other applications.
Elsewhere in the free games sphere, the numbers are equally staggering. Zynga, a social game company, gets 10 million players of it free games every day. That's probably about the same all of Xbox Live, and Zynga are just one company among many.
Many will say that this indicates that there are lots of bums out there who will look for anything for free, but I think they're missing the point. While console gaming continues to be strong, the business model for PC games is in quite a state of disrepair. Free games conver the range of genres from simple casual games to pretty complex RPGs free-to-play MMO's, and they grow both increasingly sophisticated and are starting to manifest some genres of their own.
Movies and Television
In some respects, I think that the gaming landscape is becoming a lot like the split between movies and television. Not 100% alike, but there are some similarities. The essential difference between movies and TV is that movies are a retail product and TV is a service product. Movies are sold as a ticket to the cinema, a Blu Ray disc or a download from iTunes. TV makes its money via advertising and in some cases via subscriptions. There are some blurs between the two (movies end up on TV eventually, TV sells DVD boxed sets) but it's a simple enough distinction.
Retail games are increasingly the movies of the games industry. They compete on high value and spectacular productions in an attempt to sell millions of units. (An incredibly risky business that will only get riskier as long as the separation of console formats exists).
Whereas service games (with the singular and seemingly non-repeating exception of World of Warcraft) are largely free and compete along different lines. Service game attraction is about continued and evolving engagement, such as RPGs and Poker. Users come back regularly and the game provides and endless stream of content, social interaction and advertising to the users.
Monetising a service game is something that scares many developers and publishers. Traditional games industry people understand retail because the transaction is simple, but the idea that people would pay money to subscribe to a games service or buy virtual currency within one is still very alien to most. And yet that is precisely how service games thrive.
What's often not said is that, of the movie and TV sectors, TV is larger and much more valuable. TV has more users and those users interact with its service much more regulary than they tend to with movies. Movies are of use to TV because they generate a lot of news, celebrity interest and so on, but the real money is with the service and not with the retail.
Will games be the same? If I were to look around at the games industry and fans of today, I would say no. Today's hardcore gamers are still hooked into the console model and it's what they know.
Look to tomorrow's gamer, however, and I think the answer is yes. Tomorrow's gamer plays free web games already, is much more social than today's gamer and gets a lot of value out of virtual worlds. They are growing up in a culture of free games in much the same way that I grew up in a culture of free radio and TV shows. Their attitude to paying for games, like mine to paying for music, is the deciding factor that will swing gaming's future heavily toward Free.
I think there will always be a place for high profile games, but like movies I think they are increasingly going to be regarded as a significant minority sector of a larger whole than the dominant whale regarding its free counterpart as a weird barnacle of no consequence.