NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Electronic Arts, one of the leaders in the electronic gaming industry, is flying into uncharted territory.
In an experimental move aimed at cutting distribution costs, the company is giving away a series of follow-up missions to Wing Commander: Prophecy, one of its most successful game titles of last year, free via the Internet.
While it's not unusual for gaming companies to issue add-on missions to popular titles, sometimes even complimentary ones, the scope of Electronic Arts' (ERTS) generosity is something almost unheard of, say industry insiders.
"There's no precedent for a company giving away the latest installment of one of its top lines," said Gary Whitta, editor in chief of PC Gamer.
Wing Commander: Prophecy earned EA's Origin subsidiary nearly $2.86 million from January to June, according to estimates by market research firm PC Data. The game is the fifth in what has become one of the industry's most loved space adventure sagas. The games have become so popular, in fact, that Twentieth Century Fox plans to release a feature film based on them in December.
The add-on missions, dubbed Wing Commander: Secret Ops, will be released Aug. 24, and run an episodic fashion over a seven week period. The first three days of each week, the storyline will be set-up, with the missions available each Thursday.
While the typical weekly download size will be less than 1MB, the first mission pack, which includes the game's engine, will be between 50-60 MB, which will take a typical 28.8 modem about six-and-a-half hours to download. If you want speech files in the game, the file size jumps to roughly 110 MB.
Origin says it's giving away what amounts to a free game (which would probably sell for between $40 and $50 at retail) as a way of thanking the series' loyal fans and to test its Internet delivery system.
"People should not expect us to give away games like this," said David Swofford, Origin's director of communications. "This is a prototype -- an experiment -- to see if this is something that works."
If it does, the potential cost-saving ramifications for Electronic Arts are substantial. Rather than publishing add-on mission CD-ROMs in the future, the company could offer them for a price over the Internet, sharply reducing production costs.
In recent months, Origin has generally opted against releasing add-on missions for its games, issuing just one (for its Jane's line of military simulations) in the past 18 months. Other gaming companies, though, such as Sierra (CD) and Activision (ATVI), often issue retail versions of add-ons, charging $25 and more for the extra gameplay.
Analysts say EA's position as a market leader affords it the luxury of passing up the guaranteed revenues of a retail add-on pack to try something different.
"EA is in a position to be able to do some very interesting experimental work because of their position," says John Taylor, managing director and analyst at Arcadia Investment Corp. "The wind is at EA's back this year. They've been doing quite well financially. And if they want to use that to underwrite or experiment with this type of thing, it seems to me that they can do it without a lot of risk."
Swofford hastens to point out that Origin is not getting out of the retail market. There will be a "gold" version of Wing Commander: Prophecy, combining the original game and all of the Secret Ops missions, released this fall. And the company hopes to release a complete retail sequel to the game late next year.
-- by staff writer Chris Morris