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Pay to play - how far are we willing to go?
Pay to play gaming has been coming for some time now, and finally it seems that the major online providers are there. With the demise of big names (in the online gaming industry at least) of Barrysworld, Gameplay/Wireplay, NetGames UK, UKCCL (dialup/servers and league) maybe it is time for us to start paying for use of game servers and other services operators introduce.

Online gaming has been around for some time now, and short from being am Olympic event, the people that take part in it believe that it's a past-time with a difference. When you play there is both a fun element (arguable for some) and a greater competitive element. Computer gaming has always been touted as a competitive arena. The number of advertisements that say "frag your friends" or other variations are common to us all, and this competitive element brings out the best (and worst) in people. People who aren't just spotty teenagers, but grown men with wives have all become interested (and addicted) to the world of multiplayer gaming (both online and offline).

Coming from a Duke Nukem/Quake background, I prefer First Person Shooter (FPS) games, however the world of Real Time Strategy (RTS) gaming is just as big, if not bigger. FPS games are more commonly played over here, however in the Asian subcontinent RTS is a real alternative to Quake 3 or Unreal Tournament. Multiplayer gaming as we now know it first came into real popularity with the advent of Quake 1 and then QuakeWorld. Servers started to come up which ran on university JANET connections, players who had leased lines at work and people that worked at ISPs. My first Quake games online were on Demon servers, however at the time there were ClaraNet and Direct Connection ones up too. I never thought twice about the cost of playing (except of course, the phone bill). It was easy enough, you just jumped on a server and started to run around oblivious to the actual requirements posed the person who is hosting the server. So why, after so long do we need to start paying to use a service that has been run for years without needing my money?

Large gaming ISPs (such as Barrysworld) make money from people dialing up to their service. They have other revenue sources such as online advertising, merchandising and so on. With more and more people ditching their modems in favour of broad band technologies this means they aren't able to rely on their dialup as a primary source of income. Of course there are millions out there that still don't have access to broadband connections, but this number is increasing all the time.

From a personal stand-point, I have both ADSL and ISDN connectivity from my house. For the most part the ISDN is a backup should the ADSL go down, however BTOpenworld have been slightly more reliable than I had for seen and I rarely use the ISDN. With the cost of Broadband going down and the reach of ADSL going up (RADSL can cover a radius of around 5.5Km), and cabled areas increasing in an ever increasing rate (or so we are led to believe), modems are becoming obsolete. ISDN is ofcourse a very old technology but is widely used by businesses. Businesses use larger ISPs such as Demon/EasyNet/etc as their provider, so gaming service providers have a small market there.

I spent quite a bit of time thinking what market gaming service providers (GSPs) are trying to attract. The obvious one is of course gamers. Gamers are relatively knowledgable computer users and have heard such things as ADSL and cable modem. If they are hard core gamers they will, almost certainly try and get one of these technologies. If they aren't able to then they will be forced to use a dialup connection. The number of these gamers that aren't able to get broadband is rapidly dropping and nearly all of the famous names in online gaming circles have broadband. Again, we are back to the market for GSP dialups shrinking on a weekly basis.

Even then with BT's Surftime and other gimmicks, gamers are able to play on servers with an acceptable latency. With no phone charges incurring most gamers don't mind playing with an extra 20ms and switch over to a GSP's service whenever they have an important league game. Whereas back in 1998-1999 you could quite easily see the popularity of a GSP by observing the hostnames on IRC, if you use the same method today you will see a shortage of GSP hostnames in comparison.

Next we have online advertising. With the "online industry" in such a bad state, advertisement companies are also facing some of their worst times in their short life. Adverts have always been a dodgy business with companies rarely paying up what they really owe the webmaster, but rates have decreased over the past year and many websites have had to increase the number of adverts present on their website in order to generate the revenue to stay alive. (This is one of the reasons we don't use a banner company on UKGamer).

In the past year GSPs have gone down a new avenue of generating cash. Renting out gaming servers to teams has become big business with both GSPs and companies that just provide this service (such as World War X). Infact demand is so high that World War X report a huge waiting list for servers and don't have enough hardware to keep up with the demand. This was the first large step towards paying to play, although it was voluntary at this stage.

A couple of months ago I was approached by a friend of mine telling me that an old gaming ISP who had died out several years ago. He told me that it would be restarted as a pay to play service. I had already knew that pay to play was coming at this time but only had a vague idea of the time scale. What was evident from their plans was that they would need to provide a level of service not expected from free GSPs. Once you start taking money from people they expect to see service. The old excuse "you aren't paying for it, so don't moan" would not work anymore.

I was wondering what gamers thought about this, so I got a few of the well known faces in gaming and asked them a simple question.
[rocker] With pay to play GSPs in the final stages of launching their services, how much would you pay for playing on servers, on top of the cost of your internet connection?

[4K^Q50] Well it depends what we were getting in exchange, Thrustworld seems to offer a better deal than the BY one. I'd say the prices they are charging are about right to be honest, they have to be careful not to go overboard with it and make sure people are not paying just for something they have been getting for the past 5 years for free.

[Luke] Nothing.

[blokey] Up to about 10 quid a month for the access to servers I've got at the moment (e.g plenty of public q3 servers for 1on1/tdm/ctf, servers for organised matches and a league to play in).

[GeN] I don't know much about it, with anything depends on the quality of service u get, and what u get out of it.
A mixed reaction from the people I managed to grab, although it is clear that people will either pay nothing or pay something for a decent level of service. The latter view is hardly unsurprising, however the number of people that hold this second view is questionable. GSPs will need to gain momentum by either showing off their service and the performance they can offer or by giving gamers a clear incentive to part with their money.

A couple of the GSPs have already started sponsoring clans in the hope that the image of the top gamers supporting their services will help them sell it. Thrustworld already sponsor 4Kings. However clans that are not sponsored will be looking for some sort of incentive, and Thrustworld have already said they will have 5,000 worth of prizes per month for it's leagues. BlueYonder will have to announce something similar to compete.

Two service providers I haven't mentioned a great deal so far are Jolt and NetGames UK. Jolt servers are well maintained from what I have seen of them and they have a decent reputation for performance. Jolt already offer ADSL/RADSL along with their traditional dialup so maybe their path to pay to play is slightly longer than the rest.

At the time of writing NetGames UK have replaced their website with a logo containing a message of "we will return with a pay to play service". I've always seen NetGames UK as a dark horse of the UK GSP market. They have been in the market for long enough and in the early stages their service wasn't great and coupled to the fact that they weren't on QuakeNet they alienated themselves from their core audience.

Should pay to play GSPs provide prizes, recognition and something other than just fame within the community then I think we will all find a way of footing the subscription costs. As for how much I think is a reasonable amount for the privilege of playing on game servers, I would say no more than 6 a month. However if one company is able to provide a decent service for free then pay to play GSPs will be in trouble. We all love paying nothing where we can.

We are entering a period of uncertainty. Online gaming is growing in popularity and all GSPs have to make money to survive. Hopefully gamers will have the choice between free gaming and paid gaming.