‘World Of WarCraft’ Free To Play…Until Level 20

Ok, this is officially diabolical. Blizzard used to offer 14-day free trials for “World of WarCraft,” its insanely popular MMO. I have little doubt that many people downloaded that trial, expecting to get some free entertainment for two weeks, and ended up in the throes of a hardcore addiction. But there may have been other people who downloaded the time-limited trial and went on vacation or something, only to come back and see that their time had run out. Those are the people Blizzard is targeting with its next initiative: the “World of WarCraft Starter Edition.”

Available through Blizzard’s site (which is presently down due to massive amounts of traffic), the Starter Edition lets players build a character up to level 20 without paying a dime. The deviousness of the concept comes from the fact that once you’re level 20, you feel some sort of attachment to your character. Let’s say you’ve got a family and you can only play a couple hours each week. That level 20 character could take you a month or more. And, by then, you wouldn’t want all that work to go to waste, would you? No, of course not. And this is why Blizzard is very, very rich.

Interestingly, the Starter Edition actually includes some of the content from the first expansion pack, “The Burning Crusade,” letting players create characters with the two new races from that expansion. Once you hit 20, though, you’ll have to pony up the dough for the “World of WarCraft Battle Chest,” which runs $20.

It’s fascinating to see another company shift towards the free-to-play model. Last week, Valve threw its hat into the ring, making “Team Fortress 2″ free to play, with profits coming from in-game purchases.