- Associated Press - Monday, December 27, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Animation website Xtranormal _ whose cartoon-making tools have spawned viral videos of cuddly puppies debating such topics as quantitative easing and the iPhone in stilted monotones _ is no longer offering free, unlimited use of its tools.

The change reflects the higher costs of running Xtranormal as the site’s popularly grew.

More than 2 million people now use its simple moviemaking tools, up from about 500,000 in June. According to Xtranormal, those users have published about 9.3 million videos so far. Some of the videos have received thousands or even millions of views, further boosting Xtranormal’s popularity and usage.

Until Thursday, Xtranormal charged for special characters and backdrops, such as an animated version of pop star Lady Gaga or a prison cell setting. But it made a number of characters and settings free to use, and only about 1 percent of users bought items. Now Xtranormal charges for all characters and sets, and for publishing videos for sharing, which used to always be free.

The minimum purchase is now $10 for 1,200 points _ it used to be $5 for 300 points _ though new users get 300 for free and can earn points for such tasks as getting friends to use Xtranormal. Characters and backdrops, known as sets, cost 37 to 150 points, and publishing costs 100. A previously free movie using two puppies standing in a field, for example, would now cost 325 points, or about $2.71 when buying the minimum number of points.

Then, as now, the videos don’t include ads beyond an “Xtranormal” logo in the bottom left corner, and any characters and sets you buy are yours to use in other movies.

Users who signed up for the site before Thursday and already paid for characters or sets will be able to publish videos using those items for free until Feb. 1.

Bruno Langlais, Xtranormal’s vice president of marketing, said the company had to impose the new charges so it can become profitable quickly. Xtranormal expects to turn a profit for the first time in the first half of 2011.

Every movie users make costs Xtranormal, he said. This rises as the site gets more users.

“At some point, we’ve got to make some money,” he said.

It is still possible to publish your first video for free, but you’ll need to choose a cheaper set or use just one character instead of two.

And you can still preview a cartoon you’re making for free, but you will now have to pay each time you want to publish a video, which is needed to post it on YouTube or blogs for sharing.

Xtranormal, which has offices in Montreal, Boston and San Francisco, had already shifted its business model earlier this year. The company, which began in 2005 by selling its animation software to filmmakers for storyboarding, began focusing on a “freemium” model in June. Many more people discovered the site and tried it out because enough of it was free and easy to use.

The latest change could backfire, though, if current users _ those who boosted the site’s popularity through their videos _ become incensed by the change and stop using it.

Langlais doesn’t believe this will happen: He said Xtranormal polled users before making the change and found them supportive.

He also pointed out that Xtranormal has revamped its online video-making tool to showcase more of the options users have when creating cartoons and, perhaps, entice them to buy more characters and sets.

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