The penny drops

You can ‘pay what you like’ for Eidos’ new Championship Manager. A brave new step in games’ business model – or a headline-grabbing gimmick? Tim Ingham reports…

You don’t get something for nothing. But for a penny? The world’s your oyster.

Radiohead’s decision to ask fans to ‘pay what you like’ for the digital version of Mercury-nominated album In Rainbows two years ago was a leftfield move, even for a band known for their sonic experimentalism.

It left the music business – particularly LP distributors like EMI – reeling. Would it work? How many more albums would it sell? How many sales – let alone column inches – would it attract?

Now, of course, that shock pricetag (and those panicked questions) have reached the games industry, with last week’s news that Eidos is asking fans to pay just a penny for its new Championship Manager.

The firm is hopeful it can attract exactly the sort of attention – and subsequent No/1 success – that was thrust upon the Oxfordshire band when they released their near-gratis LP.

When the idea was first discussed internally, the In Rainbows move was brought up, obviously,” explains Roy Meredith, boss of the games creator Beautiful Games Studios.

But it wasn’t a direct copy of that. We were aware a good deal of publicity came from Radiohead’s move, and that was a factor. But the reason we’re doing this is we spent two years on the game, and wanted to reward our fans for sticking by the franchise. The two scenarios are quite different.”

He ain’t kidding. For while the consistently enigmatic, commercially indestructible Radiohead made their announcement at the top of their game, Championship Manager looked near-certain for another season in the dugout of chart success before Eidos’ shock move.

The title has long sat in the shadow of rival Football Manager – and even suffered the shame of being conspicuous by its absence on shelves last year, when Eidos skipped the chance to rush out an unfinished CM ’09. If one game could do with turning the heads of penny-pinching fans and the media this September, it’s CM.

Meredith says that Eidos is looking to tempt in two groups of gamers with the move: committed Champ fans, and lapsed CM gamers. (He also admits that he wants Football Manager acolytes to try the title, but politely adds that he has no interest in deteriorating their fanbase”).

Keeping pirates at bay?
Radiohead’s decision to release In Rainbows for a nominal price online was partly motivated by a keenness for people who would have ‘stolen’ the album for free from BitTorrent sites to make a legitimate purchase. Eidos is hopeful it can emulate Radiohead’s success – especially as some have put the level of piracy at nine tenths of the game’s audience.

It’s certainly a secondary benefit of doing this,” says Roy Meredith. Some DRM activities work reasonably well and others hamper the efforts of genuine players. We saw what EA did with Spore and how it frustrated genuine fans – and we felt for them.

"Then a few months later, it was declared one of the most pirated games anyway. There’s an advantage of doing things this way, particularly in territories where piracy is rife like Brazil. It almost costs the same as a pirate copy, and is guaranteed to be free from bugs, glitches and viruses. It’s a secondary advantage, but not our main motivator for the price.”

But just how much attention will the move get the game? And, more importantly, what effect could it have on the pricing structure of the industry as a whole?

Music Week editor Paul Williams remembers the day Radiohead made their announcement well – but says the news had very little effect on anyone but, well, Radiohead.

It was a huge surprise,” he says. But so far, a couple of years on, it’s remained an isolated incident. No acts of any real standing in terms of how much they sell have repeated the exercise. It’s worth noting that the same album came out at full price a month later at retail, and sold just as many as previous Radiohead releases in that form.

The biggest benefit was the awareness it created as a marketing and PR stunt.

The Sun, The Mail, The Mirror and others who wouldn’t have written about the album except in a review were discussing it at length.

That would have increased interest in Radiohead and their back catalogue. Think of it like a supermarket loss leader – they got people ‘through the door’ with this deal, and then they picked up more, previously unlikely sales from them as a result.”

Eidos will be hopeful that previously Champ-adverse consumers will form an allegiance to the game after trying it on the cheap, and invest in future titles year-in-year-out. But, should the games industry follow the music business, it looks as though Eidos’ decision is perhaps not quite the industry-changing drama it may have been.

One thing looks certain, however: It may not be a fully original move, but the press attention enjoyed by Radiohead may yet be mirrored, on a smaller scale.
You don’t get something for nothing? Try telling Eidos that; as it watches the revival of interest over a flagging franchise – and the column inches – tot up.

As Williams says: I wouldn’t be having this conversation with MCV if it didn’t get the press talking.” Quite.

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