Sunday, August 26, 2007

What Does "Free" Mean?

This came up on TopMudSites recently and I felt it was worth a mention.

Essentially the argument was about what constituted fair use of the word "free" in the MUD world, for example:

- a MUD where a player can play as long as they like and never be forced to pay
- a MUD where a player can pay to get items that could also be gained without paying
- a MUD where a player gains no in-game benefit from paying
- a MUD that refuses to accept any form of payment altogether

Karinth, of course, resides happily in the third section of that. But in the wider community as a whole, where's the boundary? Is it misleading for a MUD to call themselves "free to play" when there are some parts of game content that can only be experienced by those who have paid for them?

According to lawyers, not really. Commercial laws allows for the use of free in those circumstances due to the content being free (as opposed to everything in the MUD). Similar to how retailers can offer a special of "buy one, get one free" - clearly, there's no real difference between that and simply selling two products together at half the normal price: the buyer ends up subsidising the "free" product with the one they paid full price for, and that string can't be cut. The free part only becomes available once the price is paid.

Of course, the MUD community doesn't like commerce at all, for the most part. MUDs are meant to be a hobbyist utopia where mean Mr. Moneybags doesn't go, leaving them pristine and untouched by greed for eternity, or so the story goes. This, I think, is where the problem lies: it's all well and good to set high standards for yourself, to take the moral high ground, to proclaim that you're defending the gaming rights of the poor student or whatever else - but at the end of the day, you have to realise that you're putting additional restrictions upon yourself that do not apply to anyone else (assuming license compliance and all that).

I'm not disparaging "totally free" games - I am very proud that Karinth is one - but we have realised that we are doing so at a cost, that we are competing with paid individuals and that we are deliberately limiting what we can do. Like it or not, the MUD community faces many challenges, and not all of them come from outside where the much talked-about World of Warcraft can be found. Things aren't the same as they were ten or twenty years ago, and "big" business is a part of the community now. We can compete with it, knowing that we have placed ourselves at a disadvantage in some ways, but we certainly can't ignore it and pretend that our community is full of fluffy happy bunnies that want to see each other succeed.

Even amongst MUDs now, there's really no such thing as a free lunch.

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