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Flaccid Launches Hurt F2P Performance

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Last week, Ten Ton Hammer’s Eric “Dalmarus” Campbell suggested that free expansions for P2P games might actually reduce overhead expenses for publishers and headaches for developers. I agree with Dalmarus in his assessment of the feeling of entitlement (albeit justified) consumers develop when they pay for a product. The line of reasoning posed by Dalmarus makes sense for a P2P, but I have been arguing the other side of the debate when it comes to F2P games. It still firmly believe that F2P games would do well to explore the benefits of retail boxes. My idea calls for retail prices sufficient to cover production and distribution of boxes, which would provide invaluable marketing, but it obliterates the developer’s ability to call a game F2P. More importantly, most F2P games simply aren’t good enough to warrant the expense and logistics of retail. So does that mean we F2P gamers are stuck with soft launches?


Dungeon Runners has a retail box, but is it helping the game?

The primary deficit I observe in digital distribution of F2P games is that the lack of retail presence results in diminished marketing, which causes beta phases of development to be little more than marketing ploys. It makes no sense. F2P developers typically expose gamers to a product already beneath industry P2P standards but with dozens of bugs or incomplete translations to boot. It’s a bit like asking the three little pigs to invest in an unfinished straw hut that sits across the street from a nice sturdy stone house that just needs a paint job. We already know the outcome of this mindset: F2P games have a short window of opportunity to entice players, a poor retention rate, and a horrible reputation.

As awesome as I like to think all of my ideas are, F2P games aren’t ready for retail boxes yet. Dungeon Runners is available in stores near you, but I have no data about how that has helped or hindered the game (and I welcome anyone from NCsoft to drop into our forums to comment). Dungeon Runners is very polished as F2P games go, and it would be one of three or four games I’d think could get my retail distribution plan to work. Most of the rest of F2P titles would not live up to the demands of consumers or would not be able to generate impulse buys. For instance, I never would have tried Nostale even if it were available in a box that only costs $5. The style of the title was too cute and screamed “for kids.” Given how Nostale turned out, it’s a good thing I didn’t pay for it, too, because I would never try another game from that publisher again. Since I didn’t feel like I wasted any money trying it, I would be willing to give something else they make a go.

If Mike Tinney, North American President for CCP, is right when he says retention is a bigger factor than big numbers in the success of MMOGs, then F2P games have got to change their focus from cycling players through a network full of games to a focus on keeping players in a single game. As I have noted before, this means making betas be about fixing bugs, finding different ways to market, and making launch day noticeably different from beta. If retail boxes aren’t the answer, then television commercials and print ads will have to fill in the gaps.

I’ve covered my opinions before about betas needing to be demo-like sections of the full version of a game designed to promote reporting and fixing bugs, so I won’t repeat myself. I also have outlined that I think constructing a F2P game that promotes community and that is good enough to warrant item mall purchases keeps a F2P gamer playing the same title. I see some companies already working to these ends. Frogster successfully used an exclusive closed beta to refine Runes of Magic before moving into open beta. Altantica Online does a number of things to promote community interaction. Both titles are mostly solid, too, which lends credibility to the F2P initiative.


The launch version of Runes of Magic will contain content beta testers did not get to see.

In addition to the careful management and proper use of a beta test and the quality exhibited by the staff behind Runes of Magic, the team also knows a thing or two about launches. It may sound like a silly concept to P2P gamers, but F2P titles frequently transition to “live” status with little more than a news blurb on their homepage. Runes of Magic is set to launch March 19 with the inclusion of new dungeons, skills, and quests. That is to say, players will be able to tell the difference between the beta version they play on March 18 and the release version they play on March 19.

By contrast, I was worried about Atlantica at a couple of points in the beta process. The website would promise the beginning of the next phase of beta or a launch pending a certain number of registered users. Stipulations like that led me to believe that NDOORS was relying more on speculations about potential revenue than the readiness of the game to reach the next phase. I imagined some sharp-witted business person telling the board, “A% of F2P gamers make item mall purchases. The average revenue per month per customer is $X. To reach our target of $Y per month, we need B total registered users.” Then B became the new benchmark for progressing to the next phase of development.

Parting Thoughts

My concerns over Atlantica, which were private until now, turned out to be unfounded. NDOORS continues to blow me away with their game and their handling of it since launch. In fact, Atlantica released a free content update in February that did a good job of increasing the title’s depth. Included are new main classes, new mercenaries, new dungeons, and new items. This follows the first live update that grew the game up with an increase in the level cap.

Sadly, Atlantica is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to quality and development of a F2P game. As much as I’d love to see retail boxes for Atlantica in my local stores, the bulk of the F2P industry has a long way to go to be ready for the kind of expectations the average gamer has when paying for a product. I make it sound simple: make beta an exclusive affair to fix bugs, make launch open up a lot of new content and features, and then reinvest in the game with your item mall revenue. For now, I’d just be happy to see more companies start by putting an end to the wimpy “launch” days that have no meaning for players. Pay attention to Runes of Magic, developers. I think they’re on to something.

Do you agree with Ralsu? Email your thoughts or post them in our forums!

The Top Ten

Continue to page two to see Ralsu's latest Top Ten list. 

Atlantica Online is not the only F2P title adding new content. Mabinogi players are enjoying the Pioneers of Iria content update. This expansion of the original game adds new races, quests, and plot. The new land mass is bigger than the old one by a long shot, too. From beast-transforming elves to refined character development, Pioneers of Moria is a significant update that propels Mabinogi up to my #2 slot this week. View our Pioneers of Iria gallery right here.

My final note this week is that I have heard some rumblings out of the Runes of Magic community about a patch that changed TP costs for skills. The patch sounds good as the cost of the skills went down, but I know of at least one RoM player who has gotten shorted as a result. His skills were all reset and he was missing some TP; that is, he had been refunded the new reduced price for the skills and lost some TP. His support ticket came back with a reply that the new cost was lower and that the loss of TP was permanent. Has anyone else experienced this? Please let me know. I haven’t played RoM in almost three weeks, so I wouldn’t have the first clue about how many TP I should have.


Top Ten Free-to-Play Games
March 9, 2009
Rank Game

1


Last week: 1
Atlantica Online - (http://atlantica.ndoorsgames.com/)
NDOORS

Atlantica is a squad-based fantasy strategy game that breaks the mold. Players can control up to nine characters at once in fast-paced turn-based combat. A lot of the systems in Atlantica are different from the standard fare on the market.

2


Last week: 4
Mabinogi - (http://mabinogi.nexon.net)
NEXON

Mabinogi provides so many things to do that it earns its self-appointed moniker of “A Fantasy Life.” Players can farm, play music, hunt, craft, go to school and more in this fantasy land. In Mabinogi, combat is not the only way to advance.

3


Last week: 2
Runes of Magic - (www.runesofmagic.com)
Frogster


Runes of Magic is a traditional fantasy game that uses a Dual Class system to inject a little strategy into character planning and a lot of flexibility into grouping. RoM has all of the features gamers want in a subscription-based game, but they’ll enjoy them for free here.

4


Last week: 3
Dungeon Runners - (http://www.dungeonrunners.com) NCSoft

Dungeon Runners is a hack and slash fantasy game that infuses every aspect of gameplay with humor. DR makes fun of other games, the genre, and even itself. This is the perfect game for a player looking to blow off steam after a rough day at work.

5


Last week: 5
Requiem: Bloodymare - (www.playrequiem.com)
Gravity Interactive

Requiem: Bloodymare is a horror-themed game that blends the traditional elements of MMOGs with the visceral feel of a gore film. Requiem is worth a look because of its fresh take on setting in MMOGs.

6


Last week: 6
Neo Steam - (http://neosteam.atlusonline.com) Atlus Online

Neo Steam is a steampunk game set in a world where warring factions compete for a limited supply of the resource Neo Steam. It was above average in most categories during closed beta for the US, but it had multiple translation problems. Atlus Online should iron out the kinks.

7


Last week: 7
Warrior Epic - (http://warriorepic.com) Possibility Space

Warrior Epic is ready to begin the next round of closed beta soon. It provides a fantasy hack and slash dungeon crawler experience with some very innovative features, including the ability to choose different character classes for each dungeon and a Warrior Hall that grows with the player.

8


Last week: 8
Dream of Mirror Online - (http://domo.aeriagames.com)
Aeria Games & Entertainment


Dream of Mirror Online puts the player in the starring role of a classic Chinese myth. The eastern-based lore provides a refreshing twist on MMOGs, and the multi-class system makes character development in this fantasy game fun.

9


Last week: 9
Free Realms - (www.freerealms.com) Sony Online Entertainment

Free Realms is a a 3D fantasy world designed to encourage exploration and support casual play. With graphics similar to WoW and all the gameplay of a standard MMOG, Free Realms could appeal to adults. Its many minigames and events are designed to please teens.

10


Last week: 10
Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine - (http://megaten.aeriagames.com)
Aeria Games & Entertainment

Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online brings the popular RPG to life in the MMOG sphere. Players can use friendly persuasion or aggressive coercion to get demons to fight by their side. The dark subject matter and modern setting of the game is a welcome contrast to the enchanted glens filled with pixies we often find in MMOGs.


About This List
Please refer to the Top Ten Free-to-Play Games Portal to find out how to get a game you make or like on this list.


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