PC digital distribution service Direct2Drive has expanded its reach to free-to-play games in the form of "starter packs," paid game downloads that bundle microtransaction-monetized games with predetermined sets of paid items.
"We saw a unique way to offer free-to-play content and help the consumer add value immediately," Direct2Drive content VP Sutton Trout told Gamasutra in advance of today's announcement.
The service's new "online games" section
now includes numerous free-to-play games sold at various price points up to $19.95. Rather than paying a fee for the game itself, customers are effectively paying a discounted price on the included virtual items. Trout says the starter pack configurations are mainly determined by the games' developers and publishers.
Turbine's Dungeons & Dragons Online
, which launched as a subscription game but became free-to-play last year
, is offered as a single $19.95 bundle. Wicked's Ace Online
, on the other hand, has half a dozen options.
Notably, Direct2Drive's "online games" page makes no explicit reference to the "free-to-play" model, and Trout says that's deliberate.
"In the same way an MMO is an online game, a free-to-play is an online game," he explained. "The monetization might be slightly different, but at the end of the day, [gamers are] playing online. We named it that [way] for a reason. It would be very confusing to tell our users, 'free to play channel,' and then ask for money."
Direct2Drive only earns royalties on items bought directly through its site; once players enter the game world, their financial relationship with the service ends.
"Just like any game we sell on Direct2Drive, they become part of that community," Trout explained. "They're not our user. The relationship becomes a direct one with the publisher."
One of those publishers is Outspark, whose successful fantasy MMO Fiesta
, developed by Korea-based Ons On Soft, is an early offering. Its $19.95 starter pack includes two items exclusive to Direct2Drive.
Outspark CEO Susan Choe says the Direct2Drive initiative could make her company's game palatable to core gamers who are traditionally suspicious of games offered for free.
"When consumers are used to paying for games, you can tell them they can play a free game that's just as high or higher quality than a lot of subscription games, then pay for the content you want later, but the gamer doesn't believe it," Choe told Gamasutra.
"It's hard to convince gamers -- who after all are consumers -- that just because something is free, it's not crap," she said. "This is just another way of explaining to gamers that if they take the time to download the game, it's actually going to fun and great."
Said Trout, "This is something we've been considering for the last few months, working hard to get it together. We felt it was a great value proposition not only for our consumers, but for the game developers themselves. They might have a great game, but some people just don't know about it.
He notes that with strong competitors like Steam and Impulse, differentiating factors like these are crucial.
"We feel this is something really unique and new," he said. "Quite honestly, we're the first to market with it. What does that mean? Will the rest of the market follow? I hope if they do, they take a long time."
Still, he points out, the online distribution market is big and still growing, and there's room for competition.
"It's a big market," he said. "We see tremendous growth for digital. With Xbox Live and the guys on the console side, I think the industry and the market understand digital is real, and it's becoming more so. There are still a lot more people who haven't done it yet but will."