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Sony's DC Universe Online now a 'freemium' game

September 19, 2011 | 12:23 pm

DC Universe Online Joker

It's no joke. Nine months after launching its subscription-based superhero online title, DC Universe Online, Sony will be throwing open portions of the game for free in October in an attempt to garner more players.

The move comes as traditional multiplayer online games that charge monthly fees come under economic pressure from social games, which are initially free to play, but sell virtual goods and premium game perks to players who want to advance more quickly.

Starting in October, Sony said it will offer three tiers of the game, a free version with limited features, a premium tier for those who spend a total of $5 or more on virtual items for the game, and a "legendary" tier with access to all the features in the game for $15 a month.

John Smedley, president of the Sony division that developed DC Universe Online, had hoped that the game's target audience of young, male players would be willing to pay for the game, which cost Sony about $50 million and took more than five years to make.

After launching the game in January, however, "we discovered a new type of online gamer," Smedley said in a statement announcing the change. "We've listened to our community, and we've determined that the free-to-play model is the best fit for DC Universe Online."

Some analysts believe that online games that charge monthly fees will wane while games that sell virtual goods will grow over the next few years. One research firm, IHS Inc. in El Segundo, estimated that North America/Europe sales of virtual goods from games such as CityVille, Moshi Monsters and Maple Story will grow from $1.13 billion last year to $1.8 billion in 2015.

Subscription game revenues, meanwhile, are expected to dwindle, from $1.58 billion in 2010 to $1.33 billion in 2015, according to IHS forecasts.

The decision by Sony, an early pioneer of subscription-based online games, attempts to capture three segments of players -- a growing audience that expects online games to be free, a smaller number willing to spend money for game perks and a shrinking number of players who will splurge for a monthly subscription.

"Consumers are being asked to pay for a million different subscriptions that didn't appear on their budgets 10 years ago," said Aram Sinnreich, a professor of media studies at Rutgers University. "Whether it's Xbox Live, broadband Internet, cellphones, music or games. It's death by a thousand cuts on a budgetary level."

RELATED: 

DC Universe is $50-million gamble

Online game subscriptions wane as virtual goods sales gain

-- Alex Pham

Photo: The Joker in DC Unniverse Onlne. Credit: Sony Online Entertainment

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