20/03/2013 08:37 GMT | Updated 14/05/2013 06:12 BST

Star Wars and Selling Things for Free

Head south of the river and just past the NASA exhibition at SXSW, you'll find a sprawling events centre with every foot of it dedicated to gaming.

Inside the lights are turned down low, so everything is in a half dark, half lit, blue / green LED glow. It had all the usual suspects - Koreans playing Starcraft, kids playing Nintendo Wii-U and a nod to the old school Magic the Gathering card game tournament. But we weren't here to see the new Tomb Raider reboot, or play Hawken - the posters of which are plastered on every spare inch of space here in Austin. No we were here to talk Star Wars.

Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) is a massive multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG, or just MMO these days, thank God) and its the second most popular in the Western world next to World of Warcraft. Set in the Star Wars universe it has an obvious appeal being part of the most popular sci-fi franchise in history. It's a heavily story driven game, highly detailed, even to the point where every character interaction has been voice acted. This is a game with serious production costs, and back in November they made the radical move to provide a free-to-play option.

Free games are nothing new, but high quality free games are. Usually it's some tat like FarmVille that looks cheap and the gameplay is ridiculously basic. While there are some fairly minor restrictions, SWTOR allows free-to-play players to play the entire game. All the way to level 50, the highest level in the game so far. They are literally giving their product away for free.

So how can they do this?

There are two ways they can make money from their players, that's either using the old subscription option where people pay a monthly fee, or through micro transactions in-game. It means that if a player is uncomfortable to paying out £10 a month indefinitely for the right to play the game, they can play a slightly restricted version and only pay for the bits they want. For example if they just want to play player-vs-player (PvP) they get free access to a couple of matches per week, and can buy more as they see fit. There's also plenty of gear, some entirely cosmetic that hold no real gameplay advantage, for people to tuck into.

So, the makers of the game held a talk panel to discuss their move to a free-to-play and micro purchase model, as well as showcase their first expansion pack. They said that providing a free option has been hugely successful. In fact many of the free players quickly fall in love with the game and become monthly subscribers. You can see why, it's because they've made the entire process so easy. It costs nothing to download, and of course you're downloading it so you don't even need to leave the house. Then you become invested in the game, in your character, and eventually subscribe. I know this because its how they got me.

In terms of user experience, it's brilliant. How many products can you have for free, use for free, and only pay if you choose to? Anyone who has a slight interest in their product can not only trial or test run it, they can have it. It takes an utmost confidence in the quality of your product to do it. You have to be sure that when given the choice, people will pay for your product that you've given them for free.

Gaming is not the only business that's reaping the rewards going free. Up until very recently Spotify had a free option that came with some restrictions, like not being able to use it on your phone. They've now started to phase this out, but it worked. Once you start using an app it very quickly becomes the one you want to use all the time, and reasonable pricing means its just easier to pay the money and subscribe.

With 3D printing technology improving as it is, as well as the prices falling to within reach of the average consumer, it might not be long before we start to see companies that create physical products move to a subscription model and try free-to-print.