The Rise of Free-to-Play

Updated Mon, Jan 25, 2010 by Ethec

First impressions count for a lot, and free-to-play is still synonymous with shabby gameplay, slipshod graphics, and wonky translations for many Western gamers. Judged on the whole, that opinion is still well deserved, as seldom a day goes by that yet another poorly localized import tries to make up for in spammed press releases what it lacks in true appeal.

That said, a number of free-to-play MMOGs have started to close the quality gap between subscription- and microtransaction-driven games in the past few years, however, among which are solid efforts like Atlantica Online and Runes of Magic. The free-to-play market has experienced something of a sea-change over the past six months since Dungeons and Dragons: Eberron Unlimited was released.

Something was lost in translation with the first wave of free-to-play MMOGs

With the help of two industry insiders that have given a lot of thought to the free-to-play market in North America - Fernando Paiz, Executive Producer of DDO Unlimited, and Bjorn Book-Larsson, CTO & COO of publisher GamersFirst (Sword of the New World, War Rock) - Ten Ton Hammer investigates what's stifled the evolution of free-to-play MMO gaming in North America long after the concept had taken hold around the world. We'll also examine why many hail DDO Unlimited as a turning point, and trace the increasing quality of free-to-play MMOGs even as subscription MMOGs turn in disappointing numbers. Could free-to-play may ultimately make the subscription-driven MMORPG obsolete, or is this just another increasingly popular way to game? Find out in next week's feature article: The Rise of Free-to-Play.

Coming to America

Speaking as an American (and perhaps channeling George C. Scott's Patton), if there's one thing Americans hate, it's falling behind. But, speaking with regards to the free-to-play market segment, that's exactly what Bjorn was telling me. “I think North America’s kind of far behind," he lamented.  "If you look at the world map and where people play our games, we’ve got more players in Europe than we do in America. “  

Bjorn noted that the unfinished nature of most MMORPGs at launch, typically viewed in the West as a irreconcilable weakness, is viewed elsewhere as fundamental part of the experience. In other words, for gamers and developers of a certain mindset, polish may limit potential.  “Putting the gamers first, and letting them dictate their experience – that feedback loop is really important to us… You can’t shove your ideas down the throat of the user.”  GamersFirst, Bjorn explains, spends an enormous amount of money monitoring and adapting to player behavior, sometimes in a radical manner. “One of the biggest assets of the company is probably our data warehouse, which analyzes the behavior of players throughout our games."

To be fair, North America didn't get off to the best start with free-to-play. Asia had Kartrider, Habbo Hotel, and MapleStory, Europe had Runescape, and North America had... Guild Wars? Perhaps, but Guild Wars, while subscription-free, required players to buy the box and expansions and had no comparable microtransaction model.  And some of Guild Wars' pioneering thunder was undoubtedly stolen by a certain other subscription MMORPG that had taken the market by storm five months before.

Sword of the New World proved free-to-play didn't have to mean lackluster graphics

As a result, the first wave of free-to-play games in North America had a huge trust barrier to overcome and were typically published by companies with little to lose.  Bjorn continued: “There are a lot of crappy games that never really made money in Korea or elsewhere, and those guys decided to bring the games to the rest of the world." These games met with predictable results, and unfortunately, free-to-play came to mean bad localization, wacky translations, poor graphics, and backward gameplay.

Publishers like GamersFirst, Frogster (Runes of Magic), Nexon (Maple Story and Mabinogi), nDoors (Atlantica Online), and Perfect World (PWI,  Jade Dynasty, Kung Foo!) eventually rode to the rescue, hoping to salvage free-to-play's reputation with higher quality localization efforts, but it took Dungeons and Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited to turn the corner and open up North America the idea of gaming a la carte.

Out of the Dungeons

After three and a half years of soul searching, Dungeons and Dragons Online seems to have come into its own.  What brought revival to Eberron? It wasn't any of the usual suspects; no major updates or a well-hyped retail expansion.  Instead, last August brought perhaps the most comprehensive, most successful revision of an MMORPG to-date when DDO became DDO Unlimited, the first top-tier title to make the switch to free-to-play.

Fernando Paiz, a five-year veteran of Turbine and Executive Producer of Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited, intimated that DDO Unlimited was the result of a careful study by Turbine as to how they wanted to enter the free-to-play market. "It wasn't necessarily going to be taking one of our existing games to free-to-play. We considered importing games, or making a new 'lite' MMO and doing it from scratch. But we were very attracted to the opportunity of taking a game like DDO, that was a subscription game developed with a triple-A budget, and converting it to free-to-play and bringing that premium quality to the free-to-play space."

Turbine's foray into microtransaction-friendly Eastern markets with Lord of the Rings Online influenced the DDO Unlimited decision not a little. "As we've worked with partners in Korea, China, and Japan, we've gotten to know a lot about their games - what they've done, what's worked well.  At the same time, when I joined the company five years ago, there was a lot of trepidation about how a Western audience would receive a game with a microtransaction model. And at the same time, the prevailing wisdom was, they wouldn't. Everyone would assume that you could buy the endgame and the game was unfair and everyone would leave... So we very much wanted to do our take on free-to-play, always with an eye toward the Western audience and what they would like or dislike."

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