Archive

Company of Heroes Headed to China as F2P Game - Exclusive ChinaJoy Interview

Updated Fri, Jul 18, 2008 by Ethec

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 Company of Heroes (CoH).

In China.

This week.

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 Age of Empires in Korea) and Relic Entertainment General Manager Tarrnie Williams (a major force behind major games franchises like EA’s Need for Speed and 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.

 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 Company of Heroes experience that most (if not all) of us know and love, sans the 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 Company of Heroes guilty of.

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!

News from around the 'Net