Updated Fri, Oct 02, 2009 by Ralsu
As a member of the media, it's very rewarding when my ideas see the light of day, and it's doubly rewarding when they see success. Of course, Fogster Interactive didn't release retail boxes of Runes of Magic (RoM) because I suggested F2P publishers should look into it as a way to build support, but the fact that RoM just topped World of Warcraft in the European under 30 Euros sales chart certainly validates the potential of the idea.
In just under two weeks since the official launch of RoM, Frogster's F2P title is shaking the industry. Even if you normally dismiss F2P games, you have to take notice of RoM because it does so many things right. I won't rehash it all here because my review will be along soon enough. The major points to note are that the title offers a dual class system, raid content, crafting, and all the other extras of a standard MMOG. The big deal is that RoM delivers all of the features well. The game doesn't try to add in features to check off items on a list; each component is carefully designed to add value to the entire product.
Frogster also handled beta and launch well to properly market its game. The closed beta was an exclusive affair aimed at getting dedicated testers who cared about making the game better. Open beta served as the more traditional F2P marketing event. Then Frogster displayed even greater savvy, revealing that the launch would come with the release of new content that had been held back and refined during Open beta. In this way, Frogster avoided the flaccid launches that embarrass other games.
The retail box, which Frogster's Axel Schmidt had told me about some time ago, continues to fly off the shelf in Europe because the publisher did it right. Even though everyone can download the client for free, the box sitting in the stores ads extra marketing punch for the game. Its bargain price means people are more likely to take it to the checkout as an impulse buy. Finally, the in-game items packaged with the box provide incentive for current players to go buy a copy and support continued development of RoM.
The full impact of Frogster's choices will be difficult to measure for a while yet, but the sales charts don't lie: there is room for success in the West if a F2P game is built well, handled properly, and marketed wisely. In the short term, the first dent into the armor of F2P skeptics is here. In the long term, I expect to see more hybridization of revenue models from MMOG. Gamers can expect to see more companies use the plans like Dungeon Runners that allow people to play for free forever but also offer a subscription and/or a box sale. SOE's Free Realms is the perfect example of a future title that will likely have all the polish and shine of RoM and use a mixed method of generating future development dollars.
In the meantime, Frogster will need to continue building on its early success. The next steps will be to convince the group I call the "P2P snobs" that RoM is selling hats rather than lemons in its item mall (convenience items only, in other words), to rediscover the lost art of developing raid content that will appeal to the hardcore gamers with a lot of play time, and to find the right balance of content updates to keep the game feeling fresh. All the while, the team has to answer the masses about why bigger is not always better in gaming worlds and resist the urge to zerg the market with the next title.
Admittedly, I wasn't taking any more of a risk when I predicted Runes of Magic would "be a huge success...and...grease the wheels for microtransactions in the West" than I was when I said BioWare would win the New Space Race. So far, Frogster is proving almost all of my hypotheses correct. Hopefully others will follow their example and start making better quality and lower quantity F2P games.