Today, the Icelandic Chess Guild, one of Europe's largest chess playing organizations, has announced that Chess will be adopting a “free to play” model where membership fees will no longer be required.
“We just thought it was time,” commented ICG’s CEO Natan Magnusson. “Chess has been enjoying a fantastic explosion of interest from people around the world, so we thought it would only make sense to remove any barriers from people wanting to enjoy the greatest game ever.”
Shortly after this announcement, ICG’s popular online chess site, GuildChessOnline.com, was updated to allow members to register for a free account and download the client software without needing a credit card.
“This is fantastic!” said Pavel Sedov, a college student and budding chess aficionado. “I’ve always wanted to play more chess and participate in some tournaments, but I could never afford the software or the fees.”
“I think the ICG deserves a pat on the back,” said Gloria Manheim, a nurse who likes to play Chess on her iPhone when on break. “In a world where everything has a price tag, it is nice to know that some people aren’t in it for the money.”
ICG’s announcement was not without controversy, however. While it is true that members will no longer have to pay to play, ICG also unveiled its new online “Pawn Shop” where members can purchase items for a small fee, such as customized Chess pieces and boards.
“Running a site like GuildChessOnline.com is not without its costs,” replied Magnusson. “We just couldn’t afford to run it without attempting to recoup some of our expenses, not to mention having revenue to expand our services. We thought adopting the popular ‘micro-transaction’ model was the best way to achieve this,” he added.
Some members of the site are not convinced about the wisdom of this new approach. “This is a joke,” commented Barry Greenburg, a long time member of the ICG and its chess site. “It’s free! No wait…it’s not. Which is it?” he asked.
Aaron Smith agreed with the critique. “This is silly. Equality is key to the Chess experience. Everyone uses the same pieces and the same board. Now I have to look forward to people playing with purple pieces? Maybe even a board with orange and yellow squares? And what about the poor guy who can’t afford to customize his experience? How is he going to feel?”
Magnusson dismissed such complaints. “This really isn’t a big deal. Most items in our Pawn Shop will only cost a few dollars. However, we recognize that not everyone will be able to afford that, so we are also going to be unveiling a new currency we call “Pawn Points. You’ll earn these 'PPs' in tournaments and can then spend them in our Pawn Shop. Most items will only cost 10 or 20 PPs, with the real world valuation of a Pawn Point equaling about five US dollars, so it’s not that big a deal.”
“This is really nothing to worry about,” added Harald Dolph, the Icelandic Chess Guild’s CFO. “We thought this through carefully. For example, players will not have to worry about obnoxious chess pieces or stuff like that. Most of the customization items will be quite tasteful.”
To prove his point, Dolph showed off a new line of customized Bishops that will soon be available on GCO. “Most people are probably familiar with the traditional Bishop that sports a bishop’s miter and cross. Well, we asked, what if you are not a Christian? So now players will be able to buy Bishops that have a Star of David or a Crescent Moon and Star instead. And even non-believers will have a choice with our secular ‘Bishop-like’ piece – we like to call it ‘the Counselor’ - that has no religious imagery whatsoever. So, you see, we are just bringing some harmless cosmetic choices to the game, choices that should help players become even more invested in the game.”
Some are not convinced by the ICG’s enthusiasm and assurances. “Why is this necessary at all?” asked Stan Michaelson, an International Master and webmaster of ICGNews24-7.com “This is not what the player base wanted. We asked for improved server performance for live games and instead we get this? I shudder to think what might come next.”
His concerns may not be unfounded as mere hours after the unveiling of the new F2P website, an internal ICG document was leaked to the media, via a throwaway Yahoo email account, that revealed extensive plans to monetize large parts of the GuildChessOnline.com experience. While it becomes clear that not everyone at the ICG is on board with this aggressive vision, it is also quite clear that ICG has plans beyond merely cosmetic items.
One senior ICG official, whose identity we will not reveal, even argues that players should, at some point, be able to purchase winning endgame positions. “If a playr [sic] amasses a large amount of PPs, why shouldn’t he/her be able to splurge on something really great, like changing the endgame position to something more favorable? If the other player objects, well, what’s stopping him/her from purchasing a counter-endgame position? Not only could this generate a lot of revenue for us, it could also open up a whole new level of strategy for our devoted player base.”
Another official argues for being able to purchase pieces with special abilities. “What about a King that can smite a single piece across the board without moving? Or a Rook that remains invulnerable to attack for a turn or two? By allowing players to customize their chessmen, we can add a wonderful RPG aesthetic to the game and perhaps attract some of the WoW [World of Warcraft] crowd.”
These ideas, however, were vehemently argued against by other ICG employees. One wrote: “Do you guys realize that we are talking about fundamentally changing everything we love about this game? Why did we work so hard to get to this point only to undo all our efforts with such an unseemly approach to making a profit?”
Despite such opposition from more than a few employees, it ultimately becomes clear that the ICG is committed to an aggressive F2P path:
“While we appreciate the strong opinions on both sides of this debate,” remarked a very senior ICG official, “everyone must realize that we are a business before we are a game. While I would love to keep our operation as it currently stands, to do so would be tantamount to financial suicide. If we are to continue with this marvelous venture that is GCO, we need to continually adapt the game, and our financial model, to changing circumstances. After all, if we are forced to close shop…how does that benefit our devoted players? Where are we then?”
That remains to be seen, but it is clear that after the leaking of this memo many GCO members are not pleased. “Screw it!” exclaimed Rob Hutchinson, long time ICG member. “That’s it, I’m out. If this is the way ICG wants things to be, I’ll take up a different hobby, maybe checkers. I hate checkers, but it’s the principle that counts!”
Many other ICG members seem equally angry, even to the point of launching an ad hoc denial of service attack against GCO. “What we saw were large numbers of players suddenly flooding our servers and agreeing to games and then, just as quickly, agreeing to draws,” explained Karita Jostad, ACG’s senior IT official. “What this did was overload our mainframe with a bunch of ‘spam’ games that it needed to rate and then add to the database, slowing the whole system down. Your basic DoS attack.” Jostad shrugs her shoulders. “Time for the ban hammer,” she replied with a smirk.
Magnusson was not perturbed. “Innovation takes time to set in and the predictable reaction is always to resist change, but change is inevitable. Once they give us a chance, they’ll learn to like it.”
Checkers Goes F2P!