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Global Agenda Column: Free To Play Steams Forward

By Richard Aihoshi on June 21, 2011

As sharp-eyed readers may have noticed, the column published last Monday was intended to go live on June 6.  Since it was delayed a week, I've actually had the past two to watch for and choose my topics for this time.  The one that most piqued my interest happened last Tuesday when digital retailer Steam announced support for five F2P titles on its popular service, which is said to have over 30 million active accounts worldwide.

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The selection in question is small in number, but still manages to encompass quite a range of themes and gameplay styles.  Probably the least hardcore of the lot, but not completely casual by any means, Three Rings' Spiral Knights is a cooperative adventure set on a hostile alien planet.  Cryptic's Champions Online: Free for All and Hi-Rez' Global Agenda: Free Agent are former subscription offerings with superhero and special ops premises respectively.  From Perfect World, there's the fantasy MMORPG Forsaken World, while Red Duck's Alliance of Valiant Arms, often called AVA, is a team-based tactical MMOFPS. 

Upon seeing this assortment, my immediate reaction was to wonder if the games represent an experiment.  It seems like a reasonable scenario - offer a limited quantity of titles covering as wide a spectrum as possible, leaning toward the serious portion of the scale in deference to Steam's presumed user base, and see if the result is profitable enough to justify any repercussions that might arise from either customers or suppliers.  As a potential bonus, there might even be some degree of first-mover advantage relative to the other major digital distributors.  Although I don't know that any such benefit would be especially meaningful, how much down side can there be? 

If it is indeed a test, what are the odds that it will fare well, and how successful is it likely to be?  While my natural tendency toward optimism may color my feelings, I think there's a quite a reasonable chance it will work out.  The five games comprise pretty much as good a selection as could be hoped for; although I'm not fond of comparing quality, particularly across genres, Steam sells lots of titles that are comparable or worse.  So, despite the inevitable objections that the naysayers out there have popped up to voice yet again, it's not like users who opt to try out any or all of them are automatically dooming themselves to inferior experiences.  Plus, there's no up front cost to put at risk like there would be with a regular purchase.

That said, is there much reason to try a game through Steam instead of just going to its website?  It might not seem so, but that's from the perspective of someone who has a decent degree of familiarity with the F2P landscape.  For those who don't, and who aren't eager enough to go and do their own research, there might be a niche where retailers would fit by offering titles on a selective basis, effectively cherry-picking the better releases from various publishers, thereby making the process of deciding what to try easier, and also adding some level of implied assurance of quality.

I did say I tend to see the glass as half-full, but with this caveat, I still won't be shocked if Steam expands its range. and also if other digital distributors get into the act, both in the not too distant future.

Interesting Infobits

First Korean game addiction center: A couple of weeks ago, the Game Culture Foundation opened what is, to the best of my knowledge, the first facility of its kind.  Details are quite sketchy, but it seems that the funding came from the game industry, and that two other centers are planned to follow by the end of the year.  I find it rather interesting that in this hemisphere, describing a title as "addictive" is viewed as positive more often than not.  Obviously, at least part of Korean society feels otherwise, and to a significant enough extent to take action.  

Prime World.  Described as a cross-platform, social strategy game combining multiplayer online battle arena-like combat with social aspects such as castle building and hero recruiting, this title has started to attract attention with showings that started last month.  It's from the Nival group of companies that formerly included the studio, now part of Mail.Ru, responsible for developing Allods Online.  Aside from head honcho Sergey Orlovskiy, I don't how many members of that team are involved in the new project.  Nonetheless, I've been waiting for some time now to see what he has been working on, and I'll have my eyes and ears open to learn more as further information comes out.

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The Free Zone
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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