By
Jeff “Ethec” Woleslagle, Executive Editor




While Western eyes are watching E3, the other side of the Pacific -
China in particular - has a few surprises of its own. Ten Ton Hammer
has the scoop on one such happening at ChinaJoy: THQ / Relic, in
partnership with Shanda Interactive Entertainment, is showing a
free-to-play version of the bestselling WWII RTS style="font-style: italic;">Company of Heroes
(CoH).



In China.



This week.


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Company of Heroes is
heading to China as a free to play game.

The Korean version will go live in a few months and international
versions will follow soon after. If you need proof - catch a flight to
Shanghai - it’ll be playable on the floor at ChinaJoy today.



While you’ve recovering from the WHAT?! factor,
here’s the rationale behind the China move as explained by
THQ Asia Pacific Senior Development Manager for Online Games James Jung
(whose claim to fame is moving over 490,000 copies of style="font-style: italic;">Age of Empires in
Korea) and Relic Entertainment General Manager Tarrnie Williams (a
major force behind major games franchises like EA’s style="font-style: italic;">Need for Speed and style="font-style: italic;">Medal of Honor).
Together, the two alone bring more than three decades of game
experience to some already talent-rich and marketing-saavy studios.



You might think that CoH is a bestselling title in China to cause Relic / THQ to consider such a move, but
you’d be wrong... at least about the
“selling” part.  “We know that
there are at least one million pirated copies of the game in
China,” Williams admitted, noting that every time a patch is
released, more than one million updates are applied from Chinese IPs -
this for a game that’s never been released at retail in
China. In Sun Tzu fashion, THQ / Relic thinks it can turn this
retailing weakness into a strength.



Jung explained their strategy with a metaphor: cracked out of the box
games and private servers have been a thorn in the side of every online
game, whether multiplayer or massively multiplayer.  However,
for many players, this option is simply a training ground where new
methods are tested before the foray into the higher level of
competition the players would experience on a legitimate server.



By offering an option that utilizes how the Chinese enjoy their games,
THQ / Relic believes, will make all the difference between a
player’s deciding to buy in or pirate out. That, plus the
idea that two pirates must operate in lock-step to successfully pirate
the game. But even when pirates coordinate well, Williams hopes to keep
pirates a step behind. “The key to any online game is new
content,” he said.



A partnership with the well-established, first-generation Chinese
publisher Shanda Interactive also brings a substantial amount of
free-2-play revenue model experience to the table and the right
connections to succeed in what has been a very closed and tightly
controlled market, which in some aspects is very much what China
remains. Williams actually views the insular nature of the Chinese
market as a competitive advantage, explaining that a limited number of
foreign entrants are allowed into the online games space in China -
therefore their competitors are both a known quantity and, likely, not
direct competitors in the RTS niche - the world thinks Korea when they
think RTS, not China.


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 Relic Logo

That’s not to say that the game isn’t
distribution-friendly. On the contrary, Williams explained that the
biggest hurdle to localization isn’t interface or design
variables, it’s assets like the 30,000 lines of voiceover
included in the core game. But Shanda, for one, opted against changing
the voiceovers for the sake of World War II authenticity. I wondered
aloud what the Chinese government’s take was on a game with
such a profoundly Western struggle (in the core game, at least). Was
any alternate scenario considered, maybe something more politically
charged? Nationalists vs. communists? Proletariat vs. bourgeoisie? Mao
vs. Macarthur? The answer was a smile and a shake of the head;
localization won’t touch the core German v. American CoH
experience.



After making a recovery from the China syndrome that seems to be affecting game developers more and more these days, your next question is
likely to be this: How does a free to play version of what the world
knows as primarily a single player experience work?



To start, the core of the game is the same style="font-style: italic;">Company of Heroes
experience that most (if not all) of us know and love, sans the style="font-style: italic;">Opposing Fronts
expansion content. (Editor’s
Note: But, when asked about OF expansion content, Williams noted that
all good online games have a roadmap for future development.)

While new multiplayer maps and a few other ground-breaking surprises
will be added to the game, players will also get persistent online game
characteristics such as a selectable avatars with 50 levels of
development and hero characters that gain experience from battle to
battle and have consumable “charges” for their
abilities, and a newly revamped Commander Tree with 48 different
abilities.  On top of that, microtransaction purchases will go
beyond simple cosmetic options



So why free-to-play? Williams firmly believes that the microtransaction
model’s “got big legs”. James added that
market hesitation (especially in the West) is primarily due to the low
graphical and gameplay quality of games available in the free-to-play
online space, two counts of which no reasonable players’ or
critics’ jury could ever find style="font-style: italic;">Company of Heroes
guilty of.


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THQ Logo

Nonetheless, with an estimated 60-65% of gaming computers meeting
minimum performance requirements for this next iteration of Company of
Heroes (according to a Shanda study) and a corresponding 35-40% out of
luck, it’s a gamble to be sure, but even short-term losses
could mean long-term gains in brand awareness in China. Another bright
spot: China is potentially the world’s largest testing ground
of enthusiastic gamers on min-spec machines. If it performs well and
balances well in China, it’ll likely perform well and balance
in any part of the world, localization aside. How’s that for
a turn of events?



Ten Ton Hammer was also able to confirm that a playable English
language version of the free to play game exists, and the US version will follow sometime after the Chinese and Korean games have been released.



And this is just the tip of the iceberg folks. Even with E3 running in
the foreground, ChinaJoy is full of its fair share of surprises and
upcoming gaming events. Thanks to the fine folks at BigWorld, the staff
at Ten Ton Hammer will continue to bring you every breaking story that
emerges from the epic convention that is ChinaJoy. Keep your browsers
firmly pointed at Ten Ton Hammer for more of your massively multiplayer
gaming needs as we bring you a week’s worth of content from
Shanghai!

Last Updated: Mar 13, 2016

About The Author

Jeff
Jeff's interest in online games stretches back to organizing neighborhood Unreal tournaments as a teenager, but when a college roommate introduced him to EverQuest, an interest became an obsession. Jeff joined the Ten Ton Hammer team in 2004 covering EverQuest II, and he's had his hands on just about every PC online and multiplayer game since.

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