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Girl Genius, Catena Cafe, City of Heroes, and the Freemium Model: How Much to Give Away?
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  • September 1, 2012
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gg-omnibusWhat’s the right amount to give away free in order to make money by selling extras? It’s a good question, and it’s one that a lot of digital media struggle with. Though the name is relatively recent, the “Freemium” model has gotten quite popular over the last decade or so. Baen gives away free e-books in order to sell more e-books and print. Webcomic artists have given away their comics online to make money from banner ads and print sales ever since there have been webcomics. Newspapers have been erecting paywalls of varying heights. And more and more computer games have been trying out the model of free to play but pay for upgrades—everything from Facebook games to MMOs.

The freemium model isn’t a panacea. Just today, NCSoft announced it is shuttering Paragon Studios and closing down the City of Heroes MMO—which went freemium a year ago in the hopes of finding a new lease on life—by the end of the year. (Found via Slashdot.) As a long-time City of Heroes player myself, I find it sad to see it go, though I can’t say it’s a surprise given how the player numbers were trending. But even before this happened, I was pondering a remarkable difference in the way a couple of webcomics I read go about it: Girl Genius and Catena Manor/Café.

Both of these comics are full-page comic book panel strips, and both are written and drawn by husband-and-wife teams—Phil and Kaja Foglio for Girl Genius, and DeBray and Tracy Bailey for Catena Café. (I know the Foglios have a separate colorist for their work; I’m not sure whether Catena does or not.) Girl Genius comes out three times a week, and Catena Café comes out once a week.

Girl Genius originally started out as a print comic book, but migrated to the web after the Foglios realized that the trouble and expense of putting out individual issues of comics was more trouble than it was worth when their real money came from selling trade paperback collections. As far as I know, Catena has always been a webcomic. Both of them started out black and white, then changed to color for most of their runs.

Both comics attempt to sell print collections, but there’s an interesting difference in the two lately. Girl Genius has continued in color for its entire run since it switched over after the first few issues, but Catena Manor was lately absent for several months while its creators planned to revamp it, and it returned as Catena Café with a rebooted storyline…but it’s returned to the ‘net in greyscale, even though the print editions will be in full color.

And this is what caused me to ponder the question of what the right amount to give away is. I’ve read both Girl Genius and Catena for quite a while. They both have fantastic art, and fantastic color work as well. Or at least, Catena did. (One of my favorite examples, from Easter 2004.) While the art is still excellent on Catena, the lack of color has lately quite turned me off.

It’s easy to see why they’re posting it without color, of course—they want to give people incentive to buy the printed books, which will have the color the web version is lacking. Part of the reason to give something away free is to make something extra available for money.

The problem is, the work you give away for free needs to serve as an effective advertisement for the extra things you sell. And while Girl Genius does this marvelously (the “extra” things are bonus stories and the like in the books, as well as other tie-in merchandise items the Foglios make available through their online store), I’m just not sure that the greyscale Catena comics will accomplish that. After having seen their past color work, the shades-of-grey new stuff just seems dull and ugly by comparison. And unlike the saga-based Girl Genius, Catena seems by and large a gag-a-day story-light strip, so the story isn’t as large an attraction as the art.

I may not be the best person to judge, of course. I’m not inclined to buy printed books for any webcomics, except in cases where I meet the creators at a convention and want to get them autographed. They’re just clutter, and I prefer reading those things off a screen where I can easily zoom in to see the art in more detail. So I can’t honestly say that I would have bought Catena printed books even if the comic was in color. I certainly don’t intend to when it’s not, so I just won’t ever see the strips in color I suppose. (I have bought a couple of Girl Genius print collections, but only because I could have the Foglios autograph them at the con. I also bought a Schlock Mercenary book for Howard Taylor to autograph and sketch in, and I’ve never even been able to get into reading that strip!)

It just seems to me that, in hiding their fantastic color artwork, the Baileys could risk making the comic less attractive to new readers, meaning they might get fewer who want to stay around and build an attachment, in turn meaning a smaller audience to buy the books. The Foglios’ (and their colorist’s) color work, by comparison, shines out from every page.

But looking at the other side of things, since the Foglios crank out comics three times as fast, they have a lot more stuff they can sell, which means their eggs are spread across a lot more baskets. And of course they had a pretty big audience already, meaning they’d have a better economy of scale on their works. So perhaps they can “afford” to give away more while keeping less back to entice people to buy.

And in the end, I may not have any right to complain, since, as I said, I wouldn’t have bought the print books anyway, and don’t plan to even if they are in color while the strip is black and white. (Though if they were to offer some of the things I would buy, like cloisonné pins—I’ve bought some of those from another webcomic I used to read, Alien Dice, and would do the same for Catena character pins—that would be different.) So if I were to stop reading the strip, they probably wouldn’t miss me. The question is how many people who would have become fans and bought books aren’t grabbed by the greyscale and just move on? But that’s not really a question anyone can answer.

All things considered, there isn’t any one “right” amount of work to give away for free. I might or might not like what they decide, but both the Foglios and the Baileys have to make their own decisions about what will work, and they’re the ones who get to decide in the end whether they were right to do so. I hope their decisions work out well for both of them.

And what of games like City of Heroes? CoH tried to boost its flagging popularity by going “freemium”, offering new gamers or returning old gamers some free stuff to lure them to the server, then try to sell them bonus stuff to get them to stick around. Unlike some other such free-to-play, pay-for-upgrades games, CoH gave quite a lot of free stuff to new or returning players without their having to pay a cent. But they’re still closing down by the end of the year. Did they give away too much? Did all those free players place an undue strain on the servers without attracting enough payers to keep things up? Or did the bleed-off of departing players finally just become too much to bear?

It’s pretty clear that finding the right amount to give away can be challenging, and not everyone will even necessarily agree on what the answer is. But that won’t stop people from continuing to try.

Girl Genius, Catena Cafe, City of Heroes, and the Freemium Model: How Much to Give Away? is post from The Digital Reader

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